US election: As Barack Obama snared victories in critical state races, the arithmetic for victory turned decisively against Mitt Romney. Omar Karmi and Taimur Khan report from the US
Barack Obama re-elected for second term as US president
WASHINGTON & CINCINNATI // "Four more years."
The campaign's jubilant tweet, accompanied by a photograph of the 51-year-old Mr Obama embracing his wife Michelle, came moments after the US news media reported that the incumbent had won the balloting in Iowa, Ohio, Colorado and Wisconsin.
With victories in these crucial state races, the arithmetic for victory turned decisively against Mr Romney, the 65-year-old businessman and former governor of Massachusetts. Mr Obama surpassed the 270 electoral votes needed for re-election, prevailing in the face of a weak economy and high unemployment that hobbled his first term and crimped the middle class dreams of millions.
With returns from 79 per cent of the nation's precincts counted, Mr Obama had 52.2 million votes, or 49.5 per cent, to Mr Romney's 51.7 million votes, or 49 per cent. The narrowness of Mr Obama's lead in the popular vote was deceiving, for the president's success in key battleground states allowed him to run up a 303-203 margin in the competition for electoral votes. Under the US system of indirect elections, that is where the White House is won or lost.
Mr Romney plainly understood the harshness of the numbers, appearing with his wife and family before his supporters in Boston to concede defeat. "I so wish that I had been able to fulfil your hopes to lead the country in a different direction," he told the crowd. "But the nation chose another leader and so Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation."
The mood was decidedly different in Chicago, where Mr Obama travelled after his final campaign stop in Iowa. Thousands of his supporters gathered at McCormick Place erupted in a gale of cheers, flag-waving and tears when he entered the hall with his family to claim victory.
In a 20-minute speech aimed at setting an aggressive tone for his second term in office, Mr Obama set the bar high.
"For the United States of America, the best is yet to come," said the 44th president, his hair far greyer than it was four years ago when he became the first African-American president in US history. "I return to the White House more determined."
Mr Obama will need all the resolve he can muster to address an unemployment rate that stood at 7.9 per cent on Election Day, higher than when he took office – one sign of an economy still struggling to recover from the worst US recession in history outside of the Great Depression.
He again oversees a divided government, with the Republicans retaining their majority in the House of Representatives and Democrats maintaining their slim majority in the Senate. He also faces daunting challenges abroad, particularly in the Middle East, where civil war in Syria and a possible nuclear arsenal in Iran will require immediate attention.
Mr Obama's evening began auspiciously. Exit polls pointed to victories for the president in Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maryland, where Mr Romney had hoped to score some success. In the end, the Republican lost both his home state – Michigan – and Massachusetts, where he served one term as governor. He ended up winning of the South, as well as much of the Rocky Mountain West and Farm Belt.
Both candidates spent Election Day making their final pitches to the American public.
In Chicago, in his home state of Illinois, Mr Obama encouraged people to go and vote. He found time to congratulate his Republican rival on a "spirited campaign", as well as for a quick game of basketball with, among others, former Chicago Bulls player, Scottie Pippen.
Mr Romney, meanwhile, made quick stops in Ohio and Pennsylvania to push his message to the last moment, before heading to Boston and his campaign headquarters. He congratulated Mr Obama on running a "strong campaign".
Their last-day pleasantries stood in marked contrast to a campaign fought largely over the US economy, during which they took angry potshots at each other.
The long campaign's cost soared into the billions, much of it spent on negative ads.
In a months-long general election ad war that cost nearly US$1 billion, Mr Romney and Republican groups spent more than US$550 million and Obama and his allies $381 million, according to organisations that track advertising.
According to the exit poll, 53 per cent of voters said Mr Obama was more in touch with people like them, compared to 43 per cent for Mr Romney.
About 60 per cent said taxes should be increased, taking sides on an issue that divided the president and Mr Romney. Mr Obama wants to let taxes rise on upper incomes, while Mr Romney does not.
The election emerged as a choice between two very different visions of government – whether it occupies a major, front-row place in American lives or is in the background as a less-obtrusive facilitator for private enterprise and entrepreneurship.
The economy was rated the top issue by about 60 per cent of voters surveyed as they left their polling places. But more said former President George W Bush bore responsibility for current circumstances than Mr Obama did after nearly four years in office.
Four-in-10, in fact, said they felt the economy was improving, an important statistic as Mr Obama looked to hold on to states like Ohio, where his efforts to save the car industry – and Mr Romney's opposition to the government bailout plan that did so – has played an important role.
With its 18 electoral votes and history as a bellwether for the eventual result, Ohio was a key state for both candidates. And crucial to winning Ohio was Hamilton County, where Mr Obama and Mr Romney both made appearances and poured in advertising dollars in recent days.
Hamilton typically leans Republican but Mr Obama narrowly won there in 2008. The incumbent relied on African-American voters in Cincinnati, Hamilton's largest city, to turn out in large numbers.
On Tuesday morning in Over the Rhine, a historically black neighbourhood, voters from two precincts queued at a polling station in the gymnasium of a Salvation Army to cast their votes.
Volunteer poll observers said that there had been a steady flow of voters but no long lines, perhaps because many had voted early.
Voters exiting the polling station into the chilly, clear morning were well aware of the outsize role their votes would play in determining the White House race.
"It's so close that our importance gets inflated," said Bianca Clay, 21, a Obama supporter. "I did my part. Now we have to wait and see."
But there was also confusion. The official Democratic observer called Hamilton county Democratic party lawyers to the voting location after he claimed a Republican election official there had mistakenly told voters their names were not on the precinct rolls.
One African-American woman, as she was leaving, told independent observers that the Republican official "told me I couldn't vote here, he said go somewhere else". They instructed her to ask him to check the voter rolls again, which she did, and was then allowed to vote.
There were problems across the country, with turnout exceeding capacity in some locations and new voting registration laws causing confusion elsewhere.
In Ohio, many voters also said they had been given provisional ballots as they apparently did not have sufficient identification to fill out the official ballot. Provisional ballots are more often used by poor and minority voters, blocs that are expected to heavily favour Mr Obama.
As the votes were being counted in the Ohio race, other portents pointed to an Obama victory.
Mr Obama held on to Indiana's tiny Vigo County by a mere 162 votes out of 37,000.
Indiana is a traditionally Republican state that also plumbed for Mr Romney this time, but Vigo County has accurately picked the winner in every election since 1956 and all but two since 1892. Democrats will take heart from Mr Obama's victory here.
Omar Karmi reported from Washington, Taimur Khan from Cincinnati, Ohio
* With additional reporting from the Associated Press