(The Root) — Four years after making history by becoming the first black president elected in the United States, Barack Obama has been elected to a second term. Bolstered by wins in key swing states, among them Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania, the president was declared the winner by multiple news outlets just after 11 p.m. EST. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney took the stage to concede the race shortly after midnight.
Some Obama supporters feared that newly enacted strict voter-identification laws, and the controversy surrounding them, might suppress key segments of the president's base of support — namely young people and voters of color — and tip a close race in the direction of Republican challenger Mitt Romney. That did not happen.
The Voters Who Made the Difference
In fact, the election's outcome has led some to speculate that voter-identification laws did affect turnout among minority voters — just not in the way that proponents of such measures might have anticipated. John Avlon, a columnist for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, speculated on Daily Beast TV that such measures may have sparked a backlash among voters of color who felt targeted and turned out in record numbers in response. An analysis of exit polls by the Wall Street Journal found that with declining support among white voters, the president would need nearly record turnout among black voters to carry the state of Virginia again after doing so four years ago. He did.
Cornell Belcher, an Obama campaign pollster, told The Root that the president's win came down to three key components: minority voters, youth voters and the gender gap — specifically, how well the president did with female voters. According to CNN, the president bested Romney among women voters nationally by a margin of 55 percent to 43 percent.
Echoing Belcher's analysis, David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, told The Root that Latino voters and younger voters were essential to delivering the president a second term. In an election night interview with The Root, Valeisha Butterfield-Jones, the Obama campaign's national youth-vote director, credited younger voters with making the difference in key swing states, including Virginia and Ohio.
"Tonight has been historic due in large part to youth turnout. Young people spoke loud and clear. Young people made a critical difference," she said. While Butterfield-Jones credited young voters for delivering at the polls, she noted that young Obama-campaign volunteers were crucial for delivering in the weeks, months and year leading up to Election Day. Celebrity surrogates like Kerry Washington certainly helped fire up crowds, supporters and young people on the trail, but Butterfield-Jones said that what ultimately won the election was "our grassroots operation, which made a critical difference and started with young volunteers a year ago. Our ground game got young people motivated again."
Seeing the fervor among these young volunteers convinced Butterfield-Jones that media speculation about an "enthusiasm gap" among young Obama supporters that was expected to cost him this election cycle was not accurate. The election results appear to vindicate her perspective.
Analysis by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that the percentage of voters ages 18-29 voting in this election increased by one percentage point over the 2008 election. Those voters supported President Obama over Mitt Romney 60 percent to 36 percent. One news story documented a 21-year-old woman so determined to cast her vote for the president that she voted while in labor.
What the Second Term Might Look Like
Despite the historical significance of electing the nation's first black president four years ago, this election was considered more significant in the eyes of some civil rights proponents. It is widely believed that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is nearing retirement, and she may not be the only member of the nation's highest court soon to depart. This means that the winner of this year's presidential election will have the power to shape the Supreme Court, and subsequently the law, in a manner that will far outlast his presidential term.
Since the most important civil rights victories for African Americans have largely been won in the courts, among them the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending legalized segregation in public schools, the particular importance of Supreme Court nominations to the black community cannot be underestimated. Just before the election, a high-profile civil rights case came before the court, the affirmative action case Fisher v. University Texas.
In addition to the cases the Supreme Court could hear that directly affect African Americans, there is speculation that the next Supreme Court nominee from the Obama administration may be African American. There have been two black justices on the court so far: Thurgood Marshall (famous for litigating Brown v. Board of Education before joining the court) and Clarence Thomas (a well-known conservative who opposes affirmative action). Few believe that the first black president wishes to be remembered for having the opportunity to appoint an African American to the nation's highest court and declining to do so.
As he embarks on his second term, the president will likely enjoy a brief period of celebration before his most devout supporters — those who gave him a second term — become his most determined critics. While other minority groups, such as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and Latinos, could point to a number of high-profile wins under the Obama administration — including the end of "Don't ask, don't tell" for gay and lesbian service members and a policy directive to prevent the deportation of young undocumented immigrants — the needs of black Americans were rarely publicly discussed with the same fervor.
In a previous interview with The Root, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the chairman of the Black Congressional Caucus, said that, with 14 percent black unemployment (pdf), if we had a white president, African Americans would be "marching around the White House." Cleaver explained that he believed President Obama and his advisers feared tackling so-called black issues in his first term because he was a constant lightning rod for racially charged criticism. "I think this administration feels far more comfortable in dealing with LGBT or Latino issues because they will never be accused of embracing those issues more than others of the American public," said Cleaver. "But the moment the president says 'black,' they will begin to call him H. Rapp Brown and Eldridge Cleaver and [say], 'He's a member of the Black Panther Party.' "
To Cleaver's point, prominent conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck called the president a racist who holds anti-white feelings during an appearance on one of America's most watched morning shows. This despite the fact that the president is half white and was raised by white Americans.
It is unlikely that racially based criticism of the president will dissipate with his election. Pre-election polls signaled that this would be one of the most racially divided elections in recent memory. But according to CNN, President Obama needed to secure at least 40 percent of white voters to win re-election, which he did. If other historical examples are any indication, the president's second term could permanently alter the way Americans, particularly younger ones, view race for years to come.
After Vigdis Finnbogadóttir became the first female president of Iceland in 1980 and was re-elected, it was observed that there were young Icelandic children who grew up assuming that the presidency was a female role. Many wonder what long-term impact the re-election of a black president will have on how American children, as well as adults, ultimately view race, equality and power.
Despite the divisive nature in which both race and hyperpartisanship have clouded his first term, the president spoke of unity in his election-night speech. In addition to saying he looked "forward to sitting down with Gov. Romney to talk about where we can work together to move this country forward," (something that I advocated both candidates offer to do), he also spoke of reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans in government.
It's worth noting that his work with New Jersey's high-profile Republican governor, Chris Christie, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy won President Obama high marks from Christie and others. Some have speculated that it won him votes with independents and others who are tired of the partisan bickering that has paralyzed Washington. "Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together," he said.
It remains to be seen whether those Republicans he reaches out to will be willing to reach back in a spirit of cooperation to work with a president newly emboldened and empowered by a commanding victory.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.