President Barack Obama has won a second term, narrowly defeating Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the most expensive presidential race in U.S. history.
With polls showing the candidates in a statistical dead heat in the last hours of the campaign, NBC called the election for Obama just past 11 p.m. EST, and CNN followed a few minutes later.
The president surpassed the Electoral College threshold of 270 votes by winning in the battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Obama also won expected victories in California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Washington. He was expansive in his victory speech, which took place in Chicago after 1:30 a.m. EST.
"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 said.
The campaign focused largely on which candidate was better suited to speed the country's recovery from the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the recession that followed. Obama argued that he inherited an economy in shambles that would have grown far worse without his efforts to shore it up – pointing to the federal stimulus package, to a bailout of the auto industry that he said saved a million jobs, and to a steady, if slow, decline in the unemployment rate, which now stands at 7.9 percent.
The president also highlighted signature achievements including passage of the Affordable Care Act reforming health care, the end of the war in Iraq, signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, ordering the death of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and ending the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy restricting gays in the military.
"Our economy is recovering. A decade of war is ending. A long campaign is now over," Obama said in his victory speech. "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. And with your stories and your struggles, I return to the White House more determined and more inspired than ever about the work there is to do and the future that lies ahead.
Charging that Obama had failed to lead America back to prosperity, former Massachusetts governor Romney unsuccessfully tried to persuade voters that his experience in the private sector as head of the private-equity firm Bain Capital made him better suited for the job.
The candidates spent the last days of the campaign criss-crossing a handful of swing states, each trying to tip the vote in his favor with last-ditch appeals to undecided voters, particularly those in Ohio. Obama brought along star power, holding rallies with Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Dave Matthews and John Mellencamp in recent days, while Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton helped make the case for Obama's re-election.
Meanwhile, Romney tacked to the center, backing away from the extreme right-wing positions he had taken during the Republican primary on issues including abortion, foreign policy and funding cuts for government agencies like FEMA, which is aiding storm victims in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane helped slow momentum the Republican challenger had built since the first presidential debate in October, where he had a lively showing against Obama. Romney's campaign was also plagued by numerous gaffes, including his assertion at a fundraiser in May that 47 percent of Americans view themselves as "victims" who are "dependent upon government."
By the end of a race that cost nearly $2.6 billion, though, the candidates were essentially where they started: locked in a close race in a divided country that tipped slightly toward the incumbent.
"We're going to have a full agenda in the second four years, but people shouldn't underestimate how much we can get done," Obama told Rolling Stone last month. "Obviously, I'd love to see a shift in Congress where we are electing people who are less interested in the next election and obstruction and are more interested in getting stuff done. And that's true whether it's Republicans or Democrats. I just want to make sure that there are people who have some sense of service toward their constituencies."