Tuesday's presidential election results showed the American voting public has not only become more permanently diverse in its makeup, but also in its mindset.
Obama bet, and won, on the assumption that the electorate would retain much of the age, ethnic and racial diversity he brought out in 2008. But across the country, voters affirmed changes in social policy that show a culture changing along with it.
The trend is troublesome for Republicans, who nominated in Mitt Romney a candidate who was more socially moderate than his rivals for the GOP nod and who tried in the campaign's closing days to reach out to the broader electorate.
"The country is changing and the people our party appeals to is a static group," GOP strategist Mike Murphy said.
Younger voters and minorities came to the polls at levels not far off from the historic coalition Obama assembled in 2008.
Voters also altered the course of U.S. social policy, voting in Maine and Maryland to approve same-sex marriage, while Washington state and Colorado voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
In the heartland, where the conservative Christian tradition still runs deep, Minnesota voters defeated a proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In Iowa, where opponents of gay marriage ousted three state Supreme Court justices two years ago, a fourth judge beat back a similar attempt Tuesday and Republicans intent on pursuing a constitutional ban failed to gain the single seat they needed.
The reality caught off guard Republicans, who banked on an electorate more monolithic and more conservative than four years ago. And it foreshadowed changes over the next generation that could put long-held Republican states onto the political battleground maps of the future.
"Clearly, when you look at African-American and Latino voters, they went overwhelmingly for the president," said John Stineman, a Republican strategist from Iowa. "And that's certainly a gap that's going to require a lot of attention from Republicans."
In exit polling Tuesday, voters mirrored the makeup of the electorate four years ago, when Obama shattered minority voting barriers and drove young voters to the polls unlike any candidate in generations.
White voters made up 72 percent of the electorate - less than four years ago - while black voters remained at 13 percent and Hispanics increased from 9 percent to 10 percent.
That flew in the face of GOP assumptions that the fierce economic headwinds of the past three years and the passing of the novelty of the first African-American president would trim Obama's support from black voters, perhaps enough to make the difference in a close election.
However, Obama carried Virginia, the heart of the Old South, in part by having increased his record support from black voters there in 2008, which reached 18 percent, to more than 20 percent, according to Obama campaign internal tracking polls.
It was also reflected in turnout that matched his 2008 totals in places like Cleveland, which helped Obama carry Ohio solidly despite Romney's all-out effort there in the campaign's final weeks.
"Republicans have been saying for months" that Obama's black support would slip, Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said. "And what happens? When African-Americans had the chance to affirm him, they came out in droves."
Obama won in 2008 by carrying several long-held Republican states, including North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana. And while Romney easily carried Indiana and narrowly peeled back North Carolina, the fact that Obama held Virginia points to a long-term demographic shift that survived the pressures of the poor economy.
Obama carried every contested state except North Carolina by aggressively registering first-time voters. He matched his share of the youth vote from 2008, and nearly matched his support from seniors.
In a sign these changes are more glacial than seismic, Obama, who announced his support for gay marriage in May, lost North Carolina, where voters there overwhelmingly voted against allowing gay marriage the same month.
There also were signs divisions between opponents had deepened.
Voters were more ideologically polarized than in 2008 or 2004. The share of moderates dipped slightly to 41 percent, while 25 percent called themselves liberal, the highest share saying so in recent surveys of voters as they leave their polling places. Thirty-five percent called themselves conservative, about the same as the previous two presidential contests.
The 2012 electorate mirrored 2008 in terms of party identification and racial makeup, with self-identified Democrats topping Republicans and independents.
During his victory speech, Obama nodded to the Democratic coalition he had held together.
"It doesn't matter if you're black or white, or Hispanic or Asian, or Native American, or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight," Obama told his crowd of supporters gathered in Chicago. "You can make it here in America if you're willing to try."
Assumptions by Romney about the minority and youth turnout weren't the only ones that turned out to be wrong.
While voters considered the economy the driving issue in the election, they did not hold Obama wholly responsible, as Romney long had assumed they would.
That realization forced Romney to pivot late in the campaign and attempt to turn the election into a choice of competing visions. Republicans argued late in the campaign that Romney's performance during the first of three debates had energized a groundswell of enthusiasm seen in their polling.
But it seemed Obama's support was quietly amassing with more vigor, GOP strategists said.
"There really wasn't an enthusiasm gap," said Republican strategist Charlie Black, an informal Romney adviser. "And independents didn't break our way."
President Barack Obama says the American people have "picked ourselves up" and fought back during tough economic times, declaring after winning re-election that the "best is yet to come."
Obama says he wants to meet with Republican rival Mitt Romney to discuss how they can work together. He says they may have "battled fiercely, but it's only because we love this country deeply."
The president rolled to a second term over Romney, winning more than 300 electoral votes.
Obama was welcomed by thunderous applause as he arrived on stage in his hometown, joined by first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia.
Romney said earlier he called Obama to congratulate him on his victory, adding that he prays "the president will be successful in guiding our nation."
President Barack Obama rolled to re-election Tuesday night, vanquishing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and winning four more years in office despite a weak economy that plagued his first term and put a crimp in the middle class dreams of millions.
"This happened because of you. Thank you" Obama tweeted to supporters as he celebrated four more years in the White House.
Romney telephoned the president, then spoke to disappointed supporters in Boston. In a graceful concession, he summoned all Americans to pray for the president and urged the night's winners to put partisan bickering aside and "reach across the aisle" to tackle the nation's problems.
After the costliest - and arguably the nastiest - campaign in history, divided government seemed alive and well.
Democrats retained control of the Senate with surprising ease. Republicans were on course for the same in the House, making it likely that Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Obama's partner in unsuccessful deficit talks, would reclaim his seat at the bargaining table.
At Obama headquarters in Chicago, a huge crowd gathered waving small American flags and cheering. Supporters hugged each other, danced and pumped their fists in the air. Excited crowds also gathered in New York's Times Square, at Faneuil Hall in Boston and near the White House in Washington, drivers joyfully honking as they passed by.
With votes counted in 75 percent of the nation's precincts, Obama held a narrow advantage in the popular vote, leading by about 25,000 out of more than 99 million cast.
But the president's laserlike focus on the battleground states allowed him to run up a 303-203 margin in the competition for electoral votes, where the White House is won or lost. It took 270 to win.
Obama captured Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and Nevada, seven of the nine states where the rivals and their allies poured nearly $1 billion into dueling television commercials.
Romney was in Massachusetts, his long and grueling bid for the presidency at an unsuccessful end.
He won North Carolina among the battleground states.
Florida remained too close to call, a state where there were long lines of voters kept the polls open in some areas well past the appointed poll close time..
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 percent of voters surveyed as they left their polling places. But more said former President George W. Bush bore responsibility for current circumstances than Obama did after nearly four years in office.
That bode well for the president, who had worked to turn the election into a choice between his proposals and Romney's, rather than the simple referendum on the economy during his time in the White House.
Unemployment stood at 7.9 percent on election day, higher than when he took office. And despite signs of progress, the economy is still struggling after the worst recession in history.
There was no doubt about what drove voters to one candidate or the other.
About 4 in 10 said the economy is on the mend, but more than that said it was stagnant or getting worse more than four years after the near-collapse of 2008. The survey was conducted for The Associated Press and a group of television networks.
In the battle for the Senate, Democrats won seats currently held by Republicans in Indiana and Massachusetts.
In Maine, independent former Gov. Angus King was elected to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe. He has not yet said which party he will side with, but Republicans attacked him in television advertising during the race, and Democrats rushed to his cause.
Polls were still open in much of the country as the two rivals began claiming the spoils of a brawl of an election in a year in which the struggling economy put a crimp in the middle class dreams of millions.
The president was in Chicago as he awaited the voters' verdict on his four years in office. He told reporters he had a concession speech as well as victory remarks prepared. He congratulated Romney on a spirited campaign. "I know his supporters are just as engaged, just as enthusiastic and working just as hard today" as Obama's own, he added.
Romney reciprocated, congratulating the man who he had campaigned against for more than a year.
Earlier, he raced to Ohio and Pennsylvania for Election Day campaigning and projected confidence as he flew home to Massachusetts. "We fought to the very end, and I think that's why we'll be successful," he said, adding that he had finished writing a speech anticipating victory but nothing if the election went to his rival.
But the mood soured among the Republican high command as the votes came in and Obama ground out a lead in critical states.
Like Obama, Vice President Joe Biden was in Chicago as he waited to find out if he was in line for a second term. Republican running mate Paul Ryan was with Romney in Boston, although he kept one eye on his re-election campaign for a House seat in Wisconsin, just in case.
The long campaign's cost soared into the billions, much of it spent on negative ads, some harshly so.
In the presidential race, an estimated one million commercials aired in nine battleground states where the rival camps agreed the election was most likely to be settled - Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada.
In a months-long general election ad war that cost nearly $1 billion, Romney and Republican groups spent more than $550 million and Obama and his allies $381 million, according to organizations that track advertising.
In Virginia, the polls had been closed for several minutes when Obama's campaign texted a call for volunteers "to make sure everyone who's still in line gets to vote."
In Florida, there were long lines at the hour set for polls to close. Under state law, everyone waiting was entitled to cast a ballot.
According to the exit poll, 53 percent of voters said Obama is more in touch with people like them, compared to 43 percent for Romney.
About 60 percent said taxes should be increased, taking sides on an issue that divided the president and Romney. Obama wants to let taxes rise on upper incomes, while Romney does not.
Other than the battlegrounds, big states were virtually ignored in the final months of the campaign. Romney wrote off New York, Illinois and California, while Obama made no attempt to carry Texas, much of the South or the Rocky Mountain region other than Colorado.
There were 33 Senate seats on the ballot, 23 of them defended by Democrats and the rest by Republicans.
Democratic Rep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, won a Connecticut seat long held by Sen. Joe Lieberman, retiring after a career that included a vice presidential spot on Al Gore's ticket in 2000. It was Republican Linda McMahon's second defeat in two tries, at a personal cost of $92 million.
The GOP needed a gain of three for a majority if Romney won, and four if Obama was re-elected. Neither Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada nor GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was on the ballot, but each had high stakes in the outcome.
All 435 House seats were on the ballot, including five where one lawmaker ran against another as a result of once-a-decade redistricting to take population shifts into account. Democrats needed to pick up 25 seats to gain the majority they lost two years ago.
Depending on the outcome of a few races, it was possible that white men would wind up in a minority in the Democratic caucus for the first time.
Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, raised millions to finance get-out-the-vote operations in states without a robust presidential campaign, New York, Illinois and California among them. His goal was to minimize any losses, or possibly even gain ground, no matter Romney's fate. House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California campaigned aggressively, as well, and faced an uncertain political future if her party failed to win control.
In gubernatorial races, Republicans picked up North Carolina, where Pat McCrory won easily. The incumbent, Democratic Gov. Bev Purdue, did not seek re-election.
In a campaign that traversed contested Republican primaries last winter and spring, a pair of political conventions this summer and three presidential debates, Obama, Romney, Biden and Ryan spoke at hundreds of rallies, were serenaded by Bruce Springstein and Meat Loaf and washed down hamburgers, pizza, barbecue and burrito bowls.
Obama was elected the first black president in 2008, and four years later, Romney became the first Mormon to appear on a general election ballot. Yet one man's race and the other's religion were never major factors in this year's campaign for the White House, a race dominated from the outset by the economy.
Over and over, Obama said that during his term the nation has begun to recover from the worst recession since the Great Depression. While he conceded progress has been slow, he accused Romney of offering recycled Republican policies that have helped the wealthy and harmed the middle class in the past and would do so again.
Romney countered that a second Obama term could mean a repeat recession in a country where economic growth has been weak and unemployment is worse now than when the president was inaugurated. A wealthy former businessman, he claimed the knowledge and the skills to put in place policies that would make the economy healthy again.
In a race where the two men disagreed often, one of the principal fault lines was over taxes. Obama campaigned for the renewal of income tax cuts set to expire on Dec. 31 at all income levels except above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Romney said no one's taxes should go up in uncertain economic times. In addition, he proposed a 20 percent cut across the board in income tax rates but said he would end or curtail a variety of tax breaks to make sure federal deficits didn't rise.
The differences over taxes, the economy, Medicare, abortion and more were expressed in intensely negative advertising.
Obama launched first, shortly after Romney dispatched his Republican foes in his quest for the party nomination.
One memorable commercial showed Romney singing an off-key rendition of "America The Beautiful." Pictures and signs scrolled by saying that his companies had shipped jobs to Mexico and China, that Massachusetts state jobs had gone to India while he was governor and that he has personal investments in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
Romney spent less on advertising than Obama. A collection of outside groups made up the difference, some of them operating under rules that allowed donors to remain anonymous. Most of the ads were of the attack variety. But the Republican National Committee relied on one that had a far softer touch, and seemed aimed at voters who had been drawn to the excitement caused by Obama's first campaign. It referred to a growing national debt and unemployment, then said, "He tried. You tried. It's OK to make a change."
More than 30 million voters cast early ballots in nearly three dozen states, a reflection of the growing appeal of getting a jump on the traditional Election Day.