How Obama won

The stakes were never so high, the battle never so bitter. With America’s future in the balance, Barack Obama overcame a surprising surge from Mitt Romney to re-capture the presidency. The inside story, by Luiza Ch. Savage
President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden acknowledge the crowd at his election night party Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Chicago. President Obama defeated Republican challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

As he stood in Chicago, claiming his second victory, Barack Obama had made history yet again.

He was the first president to be re-elected since Franklin Delano Roosevelt with an unemployment rate higher than 7.4 per cent. The jobless rate on Election Day, 7.9 per cent, was actually a notch higher than when he took office amidst the financial crisis and unfolding recession.

But as achievements go, it lacked the magic of 2008. And the man was different too: not the inspiring and redemptive figure—America’s first black president—he then was, but a toughened, hard-knuckled politician who had to scramble to preserve victory. In 2008, ecstatic throngs of Americans had swept him into the White House believing he was the one who would take them to a better place. In 2012, a slimmer majority kept him in office because he had convinced them his Republican rival would take them somewhere worse.

In 2008, Obama offered a broad vision of national unity and a promise of post-partisan healing that appealed to a cross-section of Americans. In 2012, his strategists cobbled together a narrow victory out of pockets of scientifically micro-targeted subgroups of voters across the swing states—women in Virginia, Latinos in Nevada and working-class whites in Ohio who liked the auto bailout.

In 2008, Obama spoke grandly about ending wars, reforming health care, restoring America’s moral standing and even stopping the rise of the oceans. In 2012, he spent most of the campaign warning ominously about what Mitt Romney wanted to do. Fully 86 per cent of Obama’s television advertising was negative, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, more than Romney’s 79 per cent.

And when he finally got around to laying out his agenda of mostly recycled promises, it was hastily printed in a glossy booklet with just two weeks left in the race. Called “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan for Jobs & Middle-Class Security,” it focused mostly on preserving what he’d already done—health care reform, tax cuts, clean-energy tax credits. The new ideas—hire more math teachers and build more roads, “partnering with hospitals to reduce infections”—sounded small for a man who’d once talked about hope and change and healing the planet. Many of the bullet points on Obama’s policy to-do list were really warnings about Romney: “Oppose efforts to gamble Social Security on the stock market.” “Stop proposals to turn Medicare into a voucher system.”

But even with much of the magic gone, fear was enough. Romney tried hard to please, but Republicans never loved him the way Democrats had once loved Obama. His supporters were united instead by a deep desire to oust the incumbent. It was a bitter and often petty campaign—in one debate, the candidates looked as if they might come to physical blows in a statistical dispute over drilling licences—that unfolded against a backdrop of dysfunctional gridlock and near hysterical partisanship. (The Democratic Senate had failed to pass a budget for three years, and House Republicans nearly threw the American economy overboard in a dispute over authorizing a higher level of government debt.)

And this election, just like the last, was one for the history books. The incumbent was a historic figure who struggled with a brutal economy, a sense of failed promise, and a world that has changed so much. The challenger was a business mogul, haunted by a father’s legacy, who found his voice even as his party was fighting over its soul. The campaign was both comic and dramatic. And just when it seemed a foregone conclusion, it was a horse race again. All the while, America teetered, its place in the world very much in doubt, its own confidence under siege like never before. The stakes were so high, the battle never so bitter.

In the end, Obama won 50 per cent of the popular vote, compared to 49 per cent for Romney; 303 of the Electoral College votes on election night to Romney’s 206.

President Obama, speaking to a far smaller crowd on Tuesday night than the almost quarter-million who had amassed to witness history four years earlier, accepted his victory—and with it the right to stay on until 2017 as President of a country exhausted by its divisions, and hoping once again to transcend them.

“Tonight in this election, you the American people reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come,” he told the crowd.

He acknowledged the divisions too in his speech, promising to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans on reducing the deficit, reforming the tax code, fixing the immigration system and weaning the country from foreign oil.

“Our economy is recovering. A decade of war is ending. A long campaign is now over,” he said. “And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you. I have learned from you. And you’ve made me a better President.”

Chapter 1: The battle begins

The story of this election really began on June 2, 2011, when Willard Mitt Romney, the multi-millionaire son of an auto executive turned governor, followed in the steps of his father, George, and, for the second time, announced his run for president. The younger Romney had gone after the Republican nomination in 2007, and learned a few lessons. Back then, he’d focused heavily on winning the early caucus in Iowa, where Christian evangelicals are strong, to put to rest concerns that the conservative Christian base of the Republican party would never vote for a Mormon. The strategy meant dispensing with the views he had held as governor of liberal Massachusetts, and defining himself as a social conservative. Despite the time and money he spent in Iowa, the Christian right didn’t buy it. Romney lost to a Baptist pastor, and war hero John McCain wound up ultimately winning the nomination.

By 2011, the playing field seemed tilted in Romney’s favour: a struggling economy was a fallow field for planting his message, that it was time to put a businessman in the White House. And so on that June day, Romney stood in front of about 1,000 people on a farm in New Hampshire, another key early voting state. Behind him, bales of hay were arranged in neat rows, and in the distance, a 200-year-old white clapboard farmhouse conveyed a sense of American tradition. Despite his checked shirt, and the breeze blowing through his perfectly coiffed hair, Romney didn’t look much like a farmer. And this was no ordinary farm. It belonged to local Republican royalty—a husband and wife team who’d served decades in the state legislature, including 13 terms by the husband as Speaker. But to the national cameras, it was a down-home cookout, with Romney’s wife, Ann, gamely ladling out chili made to her personal recipe by members of the American Legion. Proceeds were to benefit the Global War on Terror Memorial Fund. Romney campaign T-shirts had been printed up with the words “Believe in America.”

He began in his trademark Leave it to Beaver manner. “Oh, gosh, Doug and Stella, thanks for opening your farm,” exclaimed the former private equity CEO, with law and business degrees from Harvard, and then he caught himself, “How do you open up a farm? . . . Opening to us to be able to come and spend this time with you,” he stammered. For a man who’d spent four years as a governor, he still sounded like a finance guy doing an impression of a politician: “I spoke to a single mom who is taking some time off from work today,” he bantered. “Don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone.” It was an awkward joke from a man who would soon have trouble shaking his image as a guy who might fire you— and enjoy it. (Indeed, the day before New Hampshire would go to vote, Romney would declare at a campaign breakfast, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” He was speaking about choice in health care services, but it betrayed a tone-deafness.)

Romney went on in that speech on the farm to give a kind of paean to American greatness, then pivoted to the fear. “This country we love is in peril,” he declared. “Barack Obama has failed America.” He blamed Obama for making the recession worse and longer. He put himself forward as the Mr. Fix It, who had rescued the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City and balanced the budget in Massachusetts. Of his time as governor, Romney said: “I went at it like I ran businesses and the Olympics: ask tough questions and take on the toughest problems first, because they’ll only get worse. “Turning around a crisis takes experience and bold action. We know we can bring this country back,” he said. “I’m Mitt Romney. I believe in America. And I’m running for president of the United States.”

As he spoke, Romney led in the polls against a wide field of candidates—though it would be late in the race before he broke above 30 per cent. He would go on to win New Hampshire, but he lost Iowa to a former senator, Rick Santorum, by 34 votes in a recount.

As much as Romney would have liked to keep the conversation on the economy, the Republican primary process would not allow it. The former governor who had once supported abortion rights, and who told a newspaper in the midst of a failed 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy that he’d be “better than Ted for gay rights,” would now run for president declaring he was against Roe v. Wade, would ban federal funding of abortion and Planned Parenthood and would champion a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage. The governor who had worked with a Democratic majority in the Massachusetts legislature to pass health care reform would now promise to repeal the similar national program passed by Obama. Romney would move ever more right over the coming months, and by February he’d be describing himself as “severely conservative.” And the reason why was less than 10 km away.

That very day, June 2, 2011, Sarah Palin was attending a clambake in the nearby town of Seabrook, N.H., a stop on her tour of American landmarks in a bus wrapped in a kaleidoscope of patriotic imagery: the Liberty Bell, snow-topped mountains, the Declaration of Independence, words from the Pledge of Allegiance, and the loopy signature of the former vice-presidential nominee herself. Palin’s refusal to say where she was going and mixed signals about the purpose of the trip had political reporters trailing her like paparazzi. Was she running for president? Wasn’t she? For the time being, it didn’t matter. The speculation kept her ratings up on Fox News, sold her books, and turned her extended family into reality stars.

But on that June day, she threatened to upstage Romney’s announcement. More importantly, she was a reminder of the transformation of the Republican party. Palin called herself a “Tea Party patriot” and tapped into the populist rage aimed at moderate Republicans like Romney. The Tea Party had arisen in the wake of the Bush bailouts of Wall Street banks and out of the conservative backlash against the Obama health care reforms. The previous year, the movement had fuelled the dramatic 2010 mid-term elections in which Republicans took back the House of Representatives, and were able to block Obama’s legislative agenda.

But while the visible face of the Tea Party was the massive rallies with activists in Revolutionary garb and flags declaring “Don’t tread on me,” there was something more consequential going on behind the scenes. The Tea Party movement organized primary challenges to established Republican congressional candidates who were seen as too moderate. It was a warning to Republican lawmakers: get on board or lose your job. One by one, they took down some heavyweights, including a giant of the U.S. Senate, the six-term Indiana senator Richard Lugar.

Whatever the long-term pitfalls of the Republican party’s ideological self-purification, it represented the most immediate hurdle to Romney’s ambitions. He had to figure out how to handle the hard-right turn of his party. And he had a case study near at hand in how not to. Also running for the Republican nomination was the former centrist governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman Jr., another well-born Mormon with great hair, a pile of kids and a bipartisan approach to politics. Huntsman had even agreed to serve as Obama’s ambassador to China. But unlike Romney, Huntsman did not renounce his moderate views. His ideological heresies would be a hard sell to the party base who, in one debate, booed a gay soldier who asked a question in support of gays in the military. It was Huntsman who in the midst of the campaign found himself tweeting, “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” He finished third in the New Hampshire primary and dropped out in January 2012, endorsing Romney.

Tea Party pandering would define much of the Republican primary race, as an array of colourful characters on the ballot kept shooting into first place as they each competed to be the “anti-Romney.”

First came Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota, who won the Ames straw poll in August 2011, an early gauge of conservative favour and candidate organizing ability in Iowa. Bachmann campaigned on repealing “Obamacare,” eventually fading after memorably blaming an HPV vaccine for a young girl’s “mental retardation.” But the clout of the party’s right wing was established, and the primary race had become a political carnival, with the biggest personalities and loudest voices getting the most attention. Even Donald Trump led at one point in the Republican polls, though he ultimately decided not to run.

Next came Rick Perry, the cowboyish governor of Texas who surged to the top of the polls, with his love of huntin’ and good job numbers in his energy-rich state. But his softer line on immigration, and his state’s mandated HPV vaccines for girls, rubbed many Republican voters the wrong way. By the time he was on the debate stage forgetting which government departments he’d pledged to eliminate (“Commerce, education and, uh, uh, what’s the third one there, let’s see . . . Oops!”) he had eliminated himself.

As Perry faded, Herman Cain enjoyed a rise to the top of the polls in the fall of 2011. Cain had a life story as inspiring as Obama’s: the African-American son of a Tennessee cleaning lady and a chauffeur, he rose to become a corporate executive by dint of determination and education, and later survived a bout with cancer. His “9-9-9” flat tax plan appealed to many conservatives, as did his sense of humour. But sometimes his straight talk backfired, like when he said he wasn’t interested in learning the name of the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” because it would not create jobs. His candidacy eventually folded after accusations of sexual harassment from several women.

At every step, Romney moved further right. He promised to “abolish Obamacare” and hammered his opponents with negative attack ads. But rather than settle on Romney, who won the New Hampshire primary, and narrowly lost Iowa, Republicans next turned to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who pulled out a win in South Carolina in late January. Romney’s political director, Rich Beeson, tried to reassure supporters, telling them in a strategy memo that neither Gingrich, nor Rick Santorum, had the money to win more than a few states: “It has become apparent that Mitt Romney is the only candidate with the organizational strength and broad-based appeal to secure delegates in all remaining primaries and caucuses.”

The battle with Gingrich was perhaps the most bruising for Romney. Gingrich attacked the business practices of the private equity firm Romney had founded and led, Bain Capital, for buying companies, loading them with debt, and profiting when they went bankrupt and ordinary people lost their jobs. He branded Romney a “predatory corporate raider” and his business practices “exploitative” and “indefensible.” In essence, Gingrich opened the line of attack that would be the centrepiece of the Obama campaign.

In the end, however, the race came down to Romney against Rick Santorum. A staunch Catholic who fathered eight children, Santorum was a rock-ribbed conservative on social policy and economics, and a foreign policy hawk. The former Pennsylvania senator was little-known nationally, but he leapt from single-digit support to win in several states and he kept Romney on the defensive until April.

The prolonged primary contest had two main effects, both important to the race ahead: Romney was pushed ever-more to the political right, and he was painted ever more as the wealthy out-of-touch financier who built an elevator for his cars and whose wife owned a horse competing in Olympic dressage (for which they got a tax break). Following a victory in the Florida primary in February, Romney tried to emphasize his care for the middle class in a CNN interview by blurting out, “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” The plutocratic image was complete.

The self-inflicted damage got so bad that in March, Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Republican-friendly network Fox News, put the candidate on edge by asking: “You’ve been making some gaffes, governor. People ask about football, you talk about how you know the NFL owners, they ask about NASCAR, you talk about how you know some racing owners. You talk about Ann’s two Cadillacs, and people say, ‘He can’t relate—he’s so rich, he can’t relate to the rest of us.’ Why do you keep doing that?”

Romney tensed at the question, but remained unapologetic: “Megyn, guess what: I made a lot of money. I’ve been very successful, I’m not going to apologize for that.” He added, “In this country, we want someone who can help other people become successful. This is a nation that is not going to choose our president based on these little innuendos and personal attacks.”

Or so he hoped.

Romney finally accumulated the necessary 1,144 of delegates to clinch the Republican nomination on May 29. That night, he was busy raising an estimated $2 million at a fundraiser in Las Vegas with Donald Trump. He did not embrace—but neither did he criticize—Trump’s baseless suggestions that Obama’s Hawaii birth certificate might be fake. “I don’t agree with all the people who support me. And my guess is they don’t all agree with everything I believe in,” Romney said. “But I need to get 50.1 per cent or more. And I’m appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people.” That would be Romney’s preoccupation—bit by bit he’d chisel off some of those hard conservative edges, as much as he figured it would take to get to 50.1.

And so in victory, he focused on the one message that his advisers had decided Americans could unite behind: the economy. It was Obama himself who had said on the Today show just two weeks after his inauguration, “If I don’t have this done in three years, then there’s going to be a one-term proposition.” So Romney said in his victory statement: “I have no illusions about the difficulties of the task before us. But whatever challenges lie ahead, we will settle for nothing less than getting America back on the path to full employment and prosperity.”

Still, the bitter primary had left him damaged. A poll in January showed that only 33 per cent of Americans had a favourable impression of the former governor—compared to 47 whose impression was negative. Once he clinched the nomination, his favourable ratings finally reached 50 per cent. Yet John McCain became his party’s presumptive nominee with 67 per cent approval, and Obama, George W. Bush, and the 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry, all had approvals of at least 60 per cent. Only one president in recent years had started out so low—only 38 per cent—when he won his primaries. His name was Bill Clinton.

Asked whether the primary battle had pushed him “so far to the right that it might hurt him with moderate voters in the general election,” Romney’s top campaign strategist, Eric Fehrnstrom, suggested Romney could transform himself yet again. “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

Chapter 2: It’s the economy

Mitt Romney wasn’t the only one struggling with low approval ratings. After a disappointing jobs report in June, that showed the unemployment rate back up to 8.2 per cent, and the number of people out of work for six months or more rising, Obama’s rating stood at 43 per cent. A few months earlier it had been more than 50.

With the economy sputtering, Europe in turmoil and China slowing down, about all Obama could boast of was that America had avoided a second Great Depression. Even the international stage was proving a complicated place. The promise of the Arab Spring had turned into the confusion of the Arab uprisings, and it was unclear whether the U.S. would gain new friends or foes. Syria was turning into a bloodbath as the regime of Bashar al-Assad struggled to hold on to power. Republicans accused Obama of “leading from behind,” even though they couldn’t agree on whether he should have gone into Libya sooner, or not at all; whether he should have armed the Syrian opposition, or instead helped Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak stay in power. Somehow it all could have been better, critics suggested, if Obama hadn’t projected “weakness.”

Obama’s campaign immediately went on the offence, with an ad attacking Romney over Bain Capital and Obama referring to Romney’s rhetoric as “a cowpie of distortion.” CBS’s Bob Schieffer challenged campaign strategist David Axelrod on Obama’s transformation: “He talked about hope, he talked about change. But this time he just comes right out of the gate with a very negative ad, an attack on Mitt Romney. I wonder, doesn’t he have to talk about what he’s accomplished and what he hopes to do before he talks about what the other guy is trying to tear down?” Axelrod made no apologies: “When you hold yourself out as an economical oracle and say to people, trust me, I know how to move the country forward, and your record says something else, of course, you’re going to be challenged for that.” Meanwhile, Romney’s campaign was trying to define Obama as clueless about the economy. Campaign adviser Ed Gillespie told Schieffer: “The President’s hostile rhetoric to private investment and job creators is highlighting the fact that his policies are hostile to private investment and job creators.” The core narrative of the campaign was set.

One of the campaign’s other touchstone issues crystallized on June 28. Axelrod was sitting nervously at headquarters in Chicago with campaign manager Jim Messina, while young staffers were in a big bullpen watching TV coverage of a Supreme Court decision on the fate of health care reform. For Axelrod, this was a particularly personal issue. When his daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy at seven months, the medication costs nearly bankrupted his family. He had sat with the President in the Roosevelt Room of the White House to watch Congress vote to pass the law, dubbed “Obamacare” by critics, and later said he had had to step out “to have a big cry.”

Now he was watching his phone and his Twitter account, and the first thing he saw was an incorrect CNN alert that said “Mandate struck down.” “We’re like, trying to absorb this and all of a sudden there’s a big cheer outside. We’re saying, what the heck is this?” he later told MSNBC. In the initial confusion, CNN had been wrong: the Supreme Court had instead upheld the law, in a divided 5-4 ruling. The surprise swing vote belonged to Chief Justice John Roberts, whose confirmation to the court Barack Obama had voted against while he was a senator in 2005. “Messina and I both kind of got overcome. And it was really an emotional moment. And then we went outside and all these kids were cheering and crying and hugging, and it really was a reminder of why you do the work.”

But Obama’s legal victory came with a political asterisk—the ruling ensured that Romney’s promise to “repeal Obamacare” remained a potent issue for driving Republicans to the polls. Romney now had a clear common cause with the Tea Party. “If we want to replace Obamacare, we have to replace Obama,” Romney said in a press conference the day the decision came down. Within hours, Romney’s spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said the campaign had raised $3.2 million in donations.

On July 16, Romney’s pollster, Neil Newhouse, wrote a campaign memo noting that, despite Obama vastly outspending his candidate on advertising, the President’s lead had narrowed. On that date in 2008, Obama had led McCain by 4.5 percentage points; he now led Romney by only by 2.4. Voters were giving Romney the edge on who could best deal with the economy, which continued to rank as their No. 1 issue. “Voters are frustrated with President Obama’s failure to keep his promises from the 2008 campaign and don’t truly believe the next four years will be any different from the last 3½,” Newhouse wrote.

And Romney’s supporters were more motivated to actually vote. By July, only 39 per cent of Democrats said they were enthusiastic about voting, compared to 51 per cent of Republicans, according to Gallup. Four years earlier, 61 per cent of Democrats had been excited. Obama’s challenge was in some ways the precise opposite of Romney’s: while the Republican had to convince ordinary Americans that he was a mainstream politician without an extremist agenda on taxes or war, Obama had to persuade the leftish base of his own party that he was more than a rudderless compromiser who had capitulated one time too many to congressional Republicans.

With partisan gridlock grinding the legislative process to a halt, Obama looked for unilateral ways to deliver for his core coalition: women, gays and lesbians, Latinos, African Americans and environmentalists. The push for comprehensive climate change legislation had died in Congress, but acting through unilateral regulations, Obama was able to deliver on higher emissions standards for cars and power plants. And his State Department rejected the first proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands, though routing over an aquifer in Nebraska was the issue, not the carbon emissions.

For gays and lesbians, he ended the ban on gays serving openly in the military, and in May, he personally came out in favour of gay marriage, the first sitting president to do so.

More important, though, was the Latino and Hispanic vote, because they made up a growing share of the population in swing states that Obama would need to win the presidency. Obama had promised in 2008 that he would pass comprehensive immigration reform, opening a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living without legal status in the U.S. But he had failed to push for the legislation, using his political capital on his health care reform instead. Not just that, he had increased immigration enforcement, sending deportations to record levels. So in June, Obama announced the government would now suspend deportations of young people who were brought into the U.S. as children without authorization. Congress had failed to pass a similar law, known as the DREAM Act. Now with Obama’s unilateral move, as many as 1.7 million young people would be able to apply for work legally and qualify for tuition subsidies. It was highly controversial: a group of federal immigration agents even sued the government, arguing they were being forced to break the law.

The move boxed Romney in. During the Republican primary debates, he had said he’d veto the DREAM Act. The young people who may have known no home other than America, he said, should “return home, apply and get in line with everyone else.” Back when he was still trying to appeal to conservatives, Romney had outlined his solution for illegal immigration: “The answer is self-deportation,” Romney said. “People decide that they do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.” This time, in the wake of Obama’s announcement, Romney was silent.

The impact of Obama’s unilateral move was exactly what he’d hoped. A CNN poll found that 80 per cent of Americans supported the policy, and almost nine in 10 Latinos supported it, according to polls by the Pew Hispanic Center. Obama’s support among Latino voters reached 70 per cent support and stayed in that neighbourhood as Election Day approached. Romney was drawing only 21 per cent of Latino support—10 points less than McCain in 2008.

African-Americans, too, were holding solidly for Obama, and their enthusiasm for voting for the first black president was not waning as some had predicted. There was quiet complaint that Obama was taking their vote for granted: the black unemployment rate was double the national average and many black churches did not support the President’s position on gay marriage. But polls showed black voters still overwhelmingly supported Obama and that black churches were organizing early voting drives, an effort they called “Souls to the Polls.”

The bad news for Obama was that another key element of his 2008 coalition—young voters—had lost interest. The recession had hit young people hard. Unemployment among 18-24 year olds had peaked around 19 per cent in 2009, and was still 17 per cent in 2012. In one of the most stinging lines of the Republican convention speeches, Paul Ryan would capture a mood of frustration: “College graduates should not have to live out their 20s in their childhood bedrooms, staring up at fading Obama posters and wondering when they can move out and get going with life.” In September, the Pew Research Center reported that just 63 per cent of young registered voters said they definitely planned to vote this year, down from 72 per cent four years ago. It was potentially disastrous news for Obama, who held a 59 per cent to 33 per cent advantage among young voters.

For Obama, the other target group was women. Democrats had traditionally done well with women voters, and in 2008 Obama won 56 per cent of the women’s vote compared to McCain’s 43. (Men had split their vote almost evenly, 49 to 48.) Now polls showed that women preferred Obama over Romney by nine percentage points. Keeping that gender gap was crucial for Obama because Romney had opened up his own: men preferred the Republican by an average of nine points as well.

Early in his administration, Obama had signed a law that made it easier for workers to bring lawsuits over gender discrimination. The law’s namesake was Lilly Ledbetter, a manager at a Goodyear Tire plant who was barred from suing over pay discrimination because she didn’t act quickly enough—for years she didn’t know she earned less than men in the same job. Ledbetter was given a speaking role at the Democratic convention.

Romney, though he considered himself a woman-friendly governor and boss, had problems with his Republican colleagues. Early in the year, Republicans in the swing state of Virginia had passed a law that required women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound; after much uproar, they replaced a provision that would have mandated a more intrusive vaginal probe ultrasound. Critics called the mandate state-sanctioned rape. Later in an October debate, a Republican senate candidate in Indiana, Richard Mourdock (who had defeated Richard Lugar with the help of Tea Party activists) also said he opposed abortion for rape victims, explaining that, “I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” (While Romney ran as a pro-life candidate, his campaign said he favoured an exception for rape.) Republicans had also battled Obamacare’s requirements that all private insurance plans—including those offered by religiously affiliated employers, like Catholic universities—cover birth control. Each time a new controversy arose, Democrats said Republicans were waging a “war on women.”

But Obama’s overtures to women sometimes seemed to go too far. Diana Nodland, a mother from Fairfax, Va., had come to see Obama speak at a rally in early October, and brought her school-age son. She was one of those coveted undecided voters. She had voted for George W. Bush and McCain, but also for Bill Clinton and would have loved to have voted for Hillary, whom she said had more experience than Obama. Nudland was taking care of elderly parents and had no health insurance, paying hundreds of dollars each month for her son’s asthma treatments. But she was not particularly excited about the president’s health reforms. “It’s like social medicine over in Europe,” she said. “I don’t think it will work.” Obama was introduced by a woman who said she used to call herself “passionately Republican and passionately pro-choice,” but added that “there is no room for me” in the Republican party. As for Romney, she said, “I won’t let him take my daughters and granddaughters back in time.” When he took the stage, Obama echoed the theme and devoted the bulk of his speech to reproductive rights and women’s health care: “When it comes to a woman’s right to make her own health care choices, they want to take us back to the policies of the 1950s.” After the speech, Nudland was disappointed, “I wanted to hear how he’d reduce the deficit and this debt that will be passed on to my son.”

She wasn’t alone. At Romney rallies, young women could be seen sporting T-shirts that said, “I care about the economy.”

The gender war was perhaps the campaign’s most vicious. When Romney said he turned to his wife, Ann, for insight into women’s issues, a Democratic strategist snarked that the affluent homemaker, a mother of five, couldn’t understand the economic pressures facing working moms because “she’d never worked a day in her life.” She had to apologize, and even Michelle Obama weighed in—tweeting that, “Every mother works hard.” So frustrated was Romney’s campaign with the notion that he was anti-woman that they assembled a dozen of his former associates to go around telling their stories, noting that half his cabinet in Massachusetts was female. His top aide was Beth Myers, who ran his first campaign for president, and was now in charge of the search for his vice-president. Cindy Gillespie, who had been his top adviser on health care in Massachusetts and worked with him on the Salt Lake City Olympics, said she’d organized the road show because she was “completely, totally, absolutely fed up” with Romney’s anti-woman image.

(It was perhaps inevitable that the crusade would find its way into Romney’s second debate against Obama. He complained that, when looking for cabinet members for Massachusetts, “all the applicants seemed to be men. I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Twitter lit up, and the oddly phrased remark drew a backlash from women who said he was “tone deaf” or “out of touch.” Some polls suggested that Romney was narrowing the gap, others showed it was large as 20 points. Pollsters declared that the most volatile slice of the electorate were “waitress moms”—women without college educations who were struggling to raise kids in the sour economy.)

While Obama was assembling his rainbow coalition of demographic groups, Romney was hitting a single big message: it’s the economy, stupid. And one hot day in July, Obama played right into his hand.

It came toward the end of a long campaign day in Virginia that took Obama from Norfolk and Virginia Beach to Hampton and Roanoke. He was back in an open-collar shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, jogging up to each podium, as if always in a hurry. He fed off the energy of the crowd, largely African-American that day. There were women in elaborate hats, invocations by charismatic preachers (“We’ve made a lot of headway in a short amount of time but, God, we can’t stop now!”) and shouts of “amen.” Kenneth Cornick, a 54-year-old high school custodian from Virginia Beach, said the people he knew were as enthusiastic as in 2008. “We have meetings at the church every third Sunday about getting people to vote.”

Throughout the long day, Obama had repeatedly cast himself as a middle-class everyman, protecting the masses from the oligarchs who would dismember the “basic bargain” of American society by slashing taxes for the rich and eliminating services and benefits for everyone else. “I’m not going to see us gut the investments that grow our economy to give tax breaks to me or Mr. Romney or folks who don’t need them,” he’d say. In Virginia Beach, he said, “When previous generations funded the GI Bill, or built the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge, or sent a man to the moon, or invested in the basic research that created the Internet, they didn’t do that because it was going to benefit one person or a handful of people or one group. They did it because they understood we rise or fall together, as one people.”

He talked about the middle class as if it were a state of mind: they knew that being middle class wasn’t about how much was in your bank account; it was about an attitude that said if we work hard we can have enough. He would draw on his own complicated biography, and Michelle’s more relatable one, to connect his story to that of everyone else at the rally—and to underscore the role of government in their lives. “My mother—she was a single mom—my dad left before I even remembered him. But she was still able to give me and my sister this unbelievable education because of scholarships and grants,” he’d say, before launching into the story of Michelle’s blue-collar dad, who worked every day with two canes due to MS.

The last stop was Roanoke. The venue was packed—3,000 or more people squeezed into a four-block area in front of a historic firehouse. It was hot. Local bluegrass musicians performed, and 21 people fainted—one was hospitalized—in the course of Obama’s speech. It was on the same theme he’d hammered on all day, but this time he phrased it differently: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”

Republican alarm bells went off. The words “you didn’t build that” had hit a nerve. The President’s critics heard a vilification of business, a resentment of individual success, a glorification of government—all delivered in the hectoring and lecturing tone of a privileged leftist who’d never risked all he had for a business, nor stayed awake worrying about how to keep it afloat.

Obama made his comment on Friday evening. By Monday, Romney’s communications gurus, Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, had cut a dramatic web video entitled “These Hands.” It replayed Obama’s “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that” comment, snipped of its context about social infrastructure, while the owner of a metal manufacturing company in New Hampshire, Jack Gilchrist, commented: “My father’s hands didn’t build this company? My hands didn’t build this company? My son’s hands aren’t building this company? Did somebody else take out the loan on my father’s house to finance the equipment? Did somebody else make payroll every week or figure out where it’s coming from? President Obama, you’re killing us out here.” By the end of the video, Romney chimed in: “The idea, to say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motor . . . to say something like that is not just foolishness—it’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator in America, and it’s wrong.” There were more videos to come, and a series of “We Did Build This” rallies and bus tours across the swing states.

Obama’s words morphed into a Republican battle cry for capitalism. By the time Republicans gathered for their convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August, the stadium gift shops did a brisk business in T-shirts that said, “Government didn’t build my business. I did.”

Chapter 3: Storm season

Traditionally, presidential candidates get a lift in the polls, however short-lived, from the excitement surrounding the pick of a vice-presidential running mate. The Palin pick gave McCain nine points in 2008. Romney needed something to move the polls, locked in a dead heat. Almost until the campaign announced their pick via iPhone app, and then introduced him aboard the Second World War-era battleship, the USS Wisconsin, the Romney team had managed to keep their vice-presidential pick a secret. Paul Ryan, the dynamic Wisconsin congressman, had even eluded the press outside his home by taking a back road through some woods to meet with Romney aides ahead of the announcement. Ryan was not the odds-on favourite. There were plenty of other options: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who appealed to both Tea Party Republicans and Latino voters; Chris Christie, the outspoken New Jersey governor who excelled at the kind of retail politics that came awkwardly to Romney; Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a former Bush budget director who could help Romney win in what analysts said could be the most crucial swing state. Some even touted former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, as a pick that could electrify the race, though she insisted she wasn’t interested.

There are two prevailing theories about why Romney settled on Ryan. First, that he felt he still needed to consolidate conservative support and to appeal to the kind of blue-collar Catholic voters that both he and Obama had trouble reaching. Ryan, an accomplished hunter who’d waited tables among other regular guy jobs, fit the bill. He might even help put his Democratic-leaning home state in play.

The other view was that Romney had pulled a reverse Palin: rather than pick a running mate with little Washington experience but high campaign rally appeal, he had picked an experienced congressional hand who could help him govern once in office. If there was one thing undisputed about this election, it was that Republicans would keep the House of Representatives, even if their majority there would be reduced. The next president would have to deal with Congress over some combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, along with entitlement program reforms, and who better to help in that task—and to seek the co-operation of the hard-line Tea Party caucus in the House—than the former budget committee chairman who had authored the austere budget passed by the Republican-dominated House.

But the choice also assured that Romney would now have to answer for the Republican budget, including a controversial proposal to transform Medicare, the government health plan for the elderly, into a system for subsidizing care in the private market. Democrats called it “vouchercare” or “coupon care” and it made a juicy target. The polls suggested the pick did little to win Romney new converts. The Ryan pick gained Romney about one point in the national polls. He was dogged by questions about how the Romney-Ryan tax plan could cut tax rates by 20 per cent across the board, increase defence spending and not blow up the deficit. (He would later explain in the debates that by 20 per cent tax cut, he meant a reduction in tax rates that would be offset by eliminating deductions, though he refused to specify which loopholes he would close.)

When the party conventions arrived at the end of the summer, Romney’s, in Tampa, was cut short a day by the first of two hurricanes to impact this campaign. The event included a passionate speech from his wife, Ann, notable for its overt pitch to women (“It’s the moms who always have to work a little harder, to make everything right”), for her refutation that they have a “storybook marriage” (“in the storybooks I read, there were never long, long rainy winter afternoons in a house with five boys screaming at once. And those storybooks never seemed to have chapters called ‘MS’ or ‘Breast Cancer’ ”)—and for her pledge that her husband would fix what ails the country (“This. Man. Will. Not. Fail.”). Alas for Romney, it will be best remembered for the strange spectacle of Clint Eastwood ranting at an empty chair. Obama’s convention, on the other hand, will be best remembered for Bill Clinton’s prime-time dismantling of Romney’s economic plan. “I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four,” Clinton said. “It’s arithmetic.” Romney’s poll numbers barely budged after his convention, but Obama’s went from a virtual tie to a four-point lead.

And things were about to get rougher for Romney. In mid-September, the liberal magazine Mother Jones released a video of Romney speaking to a closed-door, $50,000-a-plate fundraiser at the Boca Raton home of a wealthy hedge-fund manager a few months earlier. “There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the President no matter what,” Romney says in the grainy video, as some in the audience nod. “All right, there are 47 per cent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this President no matter what . . . These are people who pay no income tax.” He goes on to say that his tax cut message doesn’t connect with them. “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

To many of his supporters, this wasn’t exactly heresy. “The 47 per cent comment didn’t bother me at all,” said Marie Householder, a 66-year-old property manager, in Leesburg, Va., at a Romney rally in October. “I know how many people are living off of the government. Every time we advertise a rental unit, 98 per cent of the people are on unemployment or government assistance. You look at them, and you don’t see a problem. They just don’t want to work.” Fox News host Sean Hannity also backed Romney, calling the remarks, “one of his sharpest critiques yet of President Obama and the entitlement society that he enables.”

But Democrats pounced. Many of those people paid other kinds of taxes, and they didn’t pay income tax because they were seniors on Social Security or the working poor. They knew the remarks confirmed the stereotype of Romney as a plutocrat who attacks ordinary people while living off investment income that’s taxed at a lower rate than they must pay on their wages. At first, Romney said his comments were merely “inelegantly stated.” By early October, however, he knew better: “I said something that’s just completely wrong.”

By now, gaffes had become a defining part of the Romney caricature, much like George W. Bush’s occasionally mangled syntax, or Sarah Palin’s geography. An earlier foreign trip had supplied them in bulk—Romney offending the British by questioning their readiness to hold the Olympics, his telling wealthy donors in Israel that the Palestinian culture was holding back their economy, an aide’s decision to tell the press to “kiss my ass” at a solemn site in Poland. (In November, the Obama campaign would string others together into a radio ad: “Corporations are people, my friend . . . Let Detroit go bankrupt . . . Borrow money if you have to . . . Who let the dogs out? Who? Who?” “That’s Mitt Romney caught on tape,” says a female voice. “Why would we want someone that out of touch in the White House?”)

The real revelation in the 47 per cent video, however, was in something else he told those supporters. It concerned the most vexing problem facing his campaign: how to defeat a President who a lot of people still liked, even if they were frustrated by the state of the economy. Many voters had been pleased with themselves for helping elect the first black president, and Romney knew he had to find a way to attack the man without sounding racist. And so this is what the secret video showed Romney telling his big contributors in confidence: “Those people I told you—the five to six or seven per cent that we have to bring onto our side—they all voted for Barack Obama four years ago. So, and by the way, when you say to them, ‘Do you think Barack Obama is a failure?’ they overwhelmingly say no. They like him. But when you say, ‘Are you disappointed that his policies haven’t worked?’ they say yes. And because they voted for him, they don’t want to be told that they were wrong, that he’s a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he’s corrupt. Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn’t up to the task. They love the phrase that he’s ‘over his head.’ ”

Romney had tried out this line of thinking in his convention speech. “You know there is something wrong with the kind of job he has done as President when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him,” Romney had said. “The President has not disappointed you because he wanted to. The President has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction.” Romney needed to hone his message in a way that allowed Obama voters to still feel good about electing the first black president, but to give themselves permission, after four years, to choose someone else.

Through September, Obama held on to his lead in the polls, and in the crucial battleground states—by five points in Ohio and in Virginia, respectively. There was growing frustration in Republican ranks. A chorus of Republicans criticized Romney for opportunistically attacking the administration’s response to riots at U.S. embassies in the Muslim world, while diplomats were dealing with the death of their colleagues in an attack on the consulate in Libya. Peggy Noonan, a conservative columnist who once wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, said the Romney campaign was incompetent. Later she corrected herself: it was a “rolling calamity.” Others complained that Romney wasn’t saying enough about how he would govern. Wrote conservative commentator Rich Lowry: “The Romney campaign spent its convention answering the question: is it okay to fire Obama if he’s such a fine fellow? When the real question is: can Romney do any better?”

Stories of turmoil in the ranks began leaking out. A shift in strategy was coming. Romney’s chief political strategist and speechwriter, Stuart Stevens, who with his partner, Russ Schriefer, had been driving the message and helping create the ads, was convinced the election was a “referendum” on Obama—and that Romney needed to focus like a laser on the economy and the case for ousting Obama.

But it was also becoming apparent that as long as they didn’t define what Romney stood for, the Obama camp would continue to fill the vacuum with their merciless attack ads on him and on Bain Capital. The website Politico would later report that Ann Romney and his son Tagg staged a “family intervention” to change the course of the campaign, to round out the candidate’s message and to “let Mitt be Mitt.” They pushed for him to deliver a major foreign policy speech, when his strategists argued that the election would be decided on the economy.

Ann and Tagg won. Romney delivered the speech to the Virginia Military Institute on Oct. 8. The big, unifying theme would henceforth be: “Can we do better on every front?” Politico also reported that Stevens was under fire for allowing Obama to outspend Romney 7-to-1 on ads during the two national party conventions. Obama spent $20 million on 37,000 ads during the conventions, compared with $3.3 million on 4,500 ads for Romney, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Stevens told the website this was a deliberate decision since the convention would be dominating the television news anyway, but every decision was now being second-guessed by nervous Republicans.

Another individual would also become increasingly important to Romney: Rob Portman, a former Bush budget director, who became Romney’s trusted adviser, his lieutenant in the crucial state of Ohio, and his sparring partner in preparing for what would prove to be a turning point in the campaign: the televised presidential debates. Portman had done mock debates for many candidates. In 2008, he volleyed such harsh attacks at John McCain in debate prep that he made Cindy McCain cry. “You have to be mean,” he said. “You have to get under their skin.”

The conventional wisdom in U.S. politics is that the first presidential debate helps the challenger. A governor or senator is suddenly elevated, standing side by side as an equal with the commander-in-chief. And the President is out of his White House bubble, being attacked and questioned and forced to explain himself. Even in that context, Romney’s political resurrection at the Denver debate stands out.

The odd thing was that the Obama campaign knew it was coming. “We know Gov. Romney has been practising for months,” Axelrod told NBC’s Today ahead of the debate. “I think the invasion of Normandy took less preparation than he’s putting into these debates.”

And yet, it was as if no one had told the President. The once magical communicator seemed flat, unenergetic and even annoyed that he was forced to stand there and defend his record. His answers lacked focus. Maybe it was a front-runner’s arrogance, or merely fatigue, or a lack of preparation (he had practised against Sen. John Kerry, hardly a dynamic presence). Or, maybe, as Al Gore later suggested, he had trouble adjusting to the altitude in Denver, or as Saturday Night Live later satirized, that he was distracted by thoughts of what to buy Michelle on their 20th wedding anniversary. Whatever the reason, that night Romney seemed to save his candidacy.

While Obama rambled, Romney boiled down his economic plan to five central planks. Energy, trade, skills, balanced budget, and championing small business. Obama pressed the case that Romney could not pay for his proposed $5-trillion tax cut, but Romney said he planned no such thing. In the Republican primary, Romney’s rhetoric had stressed a tax cut for everyone. “We’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 per cent, including the top one per cent,” he said at the Republican debate in Arizona. Now he said: “I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals.” He’d cut tax rates but at the same time eliminate deductions so that “we keep getting the revenue we need.” Gone was the hardliner of the Tea Party-fuelled primary; Romney even went out of his way to voice support for economic regulations and misleadingly said his health care proposal would keep the Obamacare requirement allowing people with pre-existing conditions to obtain coverage; it didn’t. Obama was attacking a right-wing candidate, but to many voters’ eyes, the picture didn’t match the moderate views being expressed by the guy on stage.

Two days later, a chastened Obama appeared at a rally at George Mason University in the swing state of Virginia. As supporters stood in line to get into the overflowing event, vendors came by with T-shirts and tote bags emblazoned with glamorous photos of the first family (“One for $7, two for $10”). But the people in line were visibly unhappy.

“I thought he could have talked more about what Romney was lying about because he was lying about everything,” said Delores Emerson, a 75-year-old retiree and Obama supporter, from Fairfax. “He had a bad day,” she shrugged. “We all have bad days. I think he’ll be better next time.” She tried to rationalize why the President had been so passive. “He was trying to feel him out for the lies he would put out there. I think in the next debate, he’ll shut it down.”

On the stump, at least, Obama had his energy back. “My opponent has been trying to do a two-step and reposition—and got an extreme makeover,” said a feisty Obama to a crowd that roared with laughter. And he hammered away at Romney’s promise to cut funding for public television: “So for all you moms and kids out there, don’t worry—someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird,” he said to laughter. “Rounding him up. Elmo has got to watch out, too. Gov. Romney plans to let Wall Street run wild again, but he’s going to bring down the hammer on Sesame Street.”

But on this day in the wake of the debate, a small group of anti-Obama protesters had also assembled. Their signs said “Free stuff is never free,” and, “Four more years? Are you insane?” In the country beyond, Romney was rising in the polls. “He blew me away. That was everything I needed,” said Mark Yuska, a 38-year-old business owner in Leesburg, Va., few weeks later. “I was nervous. I can’t imagine the pressure he was under but he came with such confidence and sincerity and power that I was like, ‘Wow, he won’t let us down.’ ”

Despite Obama’s recovery in the second two debates, Romney had done what he needed to do. Republicans were fired up.

More importantly, Romney used the debates to undo some of the hard-right turns he had taken in the Republican primary. His low-key performance in the foreign policy debate, in which he agreed with Obama time after time, was designed to downplay differences he had with the commander-in-chief in an area where Obama received high marks. Where he had once talked about adjusting the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan based on conditions on the ground, he now said that he agreed with Obama’s 2014 deadline, full-stop. Where in the primary he had stressed the importance of threatening Iran with military action, he now emphasized the role of diplomacy in preventing a nuclear Iran. He used the word “peace” 12 times.

By late October, Republicans could taste blood. Some national tracking polls had Romney with a slight edge.

When Romney came to the podium at a rally in Leesburg, the sign behind him said “We can’t afford four more years.” As he took to the stage a recording of Kid Rock’s Born Free belted out, “If you can’t see my heart you must be blind.” He wore a tie under his black fleece jacket as the sun set over the rolling Virginia horse country. “I love these debates we’ve been having. Those have been a lot of fun. I think it’s interesting with two presidential debates gone, the President still hasn’t found an agenda for his second term. We have an agenda for our term and our agenda is going to get this country working again.” Romney went on, “He seems to spend a lot of his time in these debates talking about why my plans won’t work. I wish he’d spend more time explaining why his plans have not worked.”

Battle lines were now sharply drawn. A study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press confirmed the deep polarization of Americans that was on shrill display on cable TV: “Their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides.”

At Romney’s rally, Paula Clarke, a 48-year-old bookkeeper from Sharpsburg in the neighbouring state of Maryland, summed up her view of Obama: “I think Obama is out to deliberately destroy this country because I don’t believe he is a true American. I don’t believe he believes in our constitution. I don’t believe anything about Obama. I never have.”

Has he done anything she had agreed with in four years? “No.”

What about taking out Osama bin Laden? “That was our Marines, our SEALs.”

Clarke said she had suffered economically, was on the verge of losing her home to foreclosure, and her marriage had fallen apart under the financial strain. She worried that Romney’s tax plan could take away some tax credits she benefited from, but she didn’t care. “I’m on the low-income scale now that I’m divorced. We used to be middle class. I hope he doesn’t do away with the Child Tax Credit, but I don’t think he will. But it’s a lesser of two evils—and I do mean evil.”

The American presidential election system, as everyone remembers from the 2000 debacle, is not a battle for the popular vote. The winning candidates must assemble 270 votes in the Electoral College—essentially points for winning each state, with more points at stake in more populous states. As a result, elections often turn on a small handful of closely contested battleground states. Solidly Republican states like Utah or Democratic states like California are reduced to venues for fundraising by candidates who spend the bulk of their time and money competing for votes in the swing states.

Heading into the contest, Obama had an easier “electoral map”—more Electoral College votes were already in his column thanks to Democratic strength in vote-rich states like California, New York and New Jersey. So he could afford to win fewer swing states than Romney and still get to 270 votes. Romney had to perform almost perfectly in order to cross the threshold.

With Florida polling consistently in Romney’s favour, attention turned to Ohio. Without it, victory would be almost impossible.

So instead of talking about the Middle East, or the economic threat from the looming “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and scheduled spending cuts, the campaigns spent their final days in a wrestling match over Obama’s decision, amid the financial crisis, to bail out GM and Chrysler, which saved jobs in Ohio, where Obama enjoyed a persistent edge in the polls.

Likewise, the peculiarities of the electoral map meant that Romney, the governor who had once joined a regional agreement on capping carbon emissions, was now marrying himself to the coal industry in a bid for a pocket of votes in the southeast of the swing state of Virginia. And it was hardly coincidental that Romney’s proposal to boost military spending emphasized expanding the Navy, since the nation’s biggest naval port and shipyards lay on the Virginia coast.

In a last-ditch effort to flip the polls in Ohio, Romney went hard with ads that attacked the auto bailout, and falsely implied that the car companies were moving production from Toledo to China. The executives of Chrysler and GM attacked him. One said the ad came from a “parallel universe.”

And as if the campaign needed more drama, hurricane Sandy hit the northeast in the last days, and proved that in America, even the weather is political.

That there were no mistakes in disaster response must have been a relief to Obama. The fact that the blunt-spoken Republican governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, who had been a keynote speaker at the Republican convention, lavished praise on the President and joined him for a tour of the damage that produced what pundits dubbed “bromance” photos, was more than Obama could have hoped for. (Sandy also knocked the Benghazi attack out of the headlines just as journalists were pressing for answers on whether the Obama administration had presided over an intelligence failure leading up to it, or provided insufficient security for their diplomats in Libya, and had tried to play down terrorist involvement.)

The big storm also underscored the role of big government—specifically the resources the federal government could bring to bear. And Romney was being haunted by his answer in a primary debate to the question of whether the Federal Emergency Response Agency (FEMA) should be abolished and its responsibilities handed off to the states and private groups, a Tea Party notion that played poorly to the general electorate in the midst of a disaster: “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” he had said. “And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, ‘In the federal budget, what we should cut?’ we should ask the opposite question: ‘What should we keep?’ ” A campaign spokesman said Romney had no plans to abolish FEMA.

Then came an unexpected bonus for Obama: an endorsement from Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York City and former Republican. Hurricane Sandy “brought the stakes of Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief,” wrote Bloomberg, who criticized Romney for turning his back on a cap and trade plan that he had supported while governor. Bloomberg concluded, “One [candidate] sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.”

It was unclear whether Bloomberg’s endorsement would move a single vote in Ohio, but he had created a new positive news cycle for the President, and moved the conversation off the economy and the attacks in Libya. And it gave Obama some claim on the political middle that Romney was trying to grasp. On the same day, at a Romney rally in Richmond, Va., a heckler held a sign “END CLIMATE SILENCE” and shouted out “What about climate? That’s what caused this monster storm!” He was escorted out as the crowd booed and chanted “USA! USA!”

When he returned to the campaign trail, Obama was back focused on the swing states—and on his sub-groups. Aboard Air Force One, on a flight from Richmond to Chicago, the President managed to do interviews with 15 Latino DJs from swing states.

There was just one more detail to be delivered before voting day—the September job numbers. When they came in last Friday, they showed the numbers of new jobs created had risen, a fact trumpeted by Obama. But the actual unemployment rate ticked up by one-tenth of a point because more people started looking for work and were counted in the statistic. Politically, it was a draw.

In the final days, Romney picked up Obama’s old slogan Change or, as he called it, “Real change,” and pushed it hard. In response, Obama doubled down on fear, releasing a web video on the Saturday before the election, entitled, “The 100th Day of a Romney Administration.” A Ted Koppel look-alike newscaster reads out a list of news headlines: Romney cuts taxes for the rich, and raises taxes for the middle class; China booming as Romney’s tax changes prompted offshoring of jobs, families are kicked off their health insurance as Obamacare is repealed, the Supreme Court is poised to reverse Roe v. Wade as Romney appoints a Robert Bork-style conservative justice, the Senate is poised to pass a bill transforming Medicare into a voucher system, and just ahead, an interview with “one Obama supporter who wishes she had done more . . . ”

The candidates had said the election was a battle over two starkly different visions for the future. Yet, ironically, they had much in common. Each was a Harvard-educated striver who saw shades of grey where his party saw black and white. Each had been attacked by his own party for not being ideologically pure enough. They each had a record of looking for pragmatic solutions to long-standing problems, and of hoping their supporters would stick with them. Each had broken new ground in achieving universal health care, and each said he would work across the aisle to solve the nation’s budget woes. But in the bitter partisan battlefield of today’s divided America, each became the standard-bearer for parties with sharply opposing world views. So perhaps it was fitting that in the end, after a record $6 billion in campaign spending—$2.6 billion on the presidential race alone—Americans found themselves back where they had begun: with Barack Obama in the White House, a Republican-controlled House, and a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate—not enough to break Republican filibusters. The challenges ahead had not changed: a lack of jobs and a long-term budget mess that would require bipartisan co-operation to resolve. Nor had the gridlocked state of the United States government. Republicans claimed Obama had not won a “clear mandate.” But he had won.