What the Election Says About America

Anchored by a diverse coalition, Obama prevailed -- but a negative, fractured political landscape remains.

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Presidential elections tell us a lot about ourselves as a nation, and Tuesday's balloting was no exception. It revealed in vivid detail how Balkanized the United States has become, and how difficult it will be to achieve compromise in Washington.

Demographically, President Obama managed to win re-election with a coalition similar to, if smaller than, the one he built in 2008: diverse and distinct from other groups. He captured about half the popular vote.

The social fissures ran deep. He won 55 percent of women voters, and was especially popular among single women, while 52 percent of men preferred Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

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Ninety-three percent of African Americans cast their ballots for Obama, the first black president, along with about 71 percent of Hispanics. But Romney won the support of 58 percent of whites.

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Supporters cheer after Obama's remarks during the election night party in Chicago.

Forty-four percent of voters 65 and older supported Obama and 56 percent backed Romney. At the same time, 60 percent of younger voters 18 to 29 supported Obama and 37 percent backed Romney.

Sixty percent of urban voters preferred Obama, while 37 percent chose Romney. But 60 percent of rural voters backed Romney and 38 percent chose Obama.

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Churchgoers voted for Romney, while those who never go to church supported Obama.

The racial breakdown of the electorate was especially important. Whites' proportion of the electorate continued its gradual decline. Whites now comprise about 72 percent of the voting public, according to the exit polls, a decline from 74 percent in 2008, and down from 81 percent in 2000 and 87 percent in 1992.

This is of course bad news, long term, for Republicans who have tried to anchor their party in the dwindling white vote when it is people of color who are approaching majority status.

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As for Obama, he remains a very likable figure for many people, but he fell short in delivering on his promises. And this disconnect between the "hope and change" candidate of 2008 and the slash-and-burn partisan of his 2012 campaign remained a source of consternation among many Americans. But exit polls suggested that a big factor in Obama's victory was the sense that, despite his flaws as president, he was preferable to Romney.

The former investor and Massachusetts governor was depicted by the Obama campaign as an insensitive plutocrat and an overly zealous conservative who wanted to grant tax breaks to the rich and big corporations and move too far to the right on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

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This caricature was unfair on many levels, and it certainly never told the full story about Romney, a caring and decent man in his private life. (And it must be said that Romney also attacked Obama unfairly during the long campaign.) But the anti-Romney caricature resonated with enough voters to do Romney lasting harm. Just as important, it served to divide Americans at least to some extent along class lines.

The upshot of all this is that we are living in a fractured nation. It will be up to Obama as president to unite us to achieve common goals. But it's unclear whether he can do so since he has the support of only half the country.

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  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of five books, most recently Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com.