(The Root) — After nearly two years of campaigning, billions of dollar spent and thousands of hours of TV ads, the 2012 presidential election came down to just one night and nine swing states. But what, ultimately, made the difference between who won and who lost? Below is a look at the eight people and things most responsible for giving Barack Obama a second term in office.
1. First Lady Michelle Obama
Her bumpy introduction to the American people on the campaign trail four years ago is a distant memory now. She has spent much of her husband's first term being much more popular than he — or anyone else in politics — is. Her speech at the Democratic National Convention, which was considered one of the week's best (even better than the commander in chief's), confirmed what the president said in his victory speech on election night: that just as he fell in love with her 20 years ago, America has fallen in love with Michelle Obama, too.
2. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, aka the Republican Rape Jokers
If there are two people to whom Democrats should send the world's biggest thank-you bouquets, they are Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin and Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, because if it weren't for these two geniuses, the GOP would likely control the Senate next year. When asked for his opinion on whether abortion should be allowed for rape survivors, Akin replied, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
Akin had been leading his opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill, in a race that many expected Republicans to win. Akin's comments, however, received national attention and ended up hurting not only his campaign but also the campaigns of many Republicans running this year, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Romney's newly selected running mate, Paul Ryan, was asked to weigh in, and while he and Romney disagreed with the offensive delivery of Akin's remarks, the controversy cast a spotlight on the fact that Ryan opposed abortion, even in the case of rape and incest, the same position held by Akin.
Months later, after the Romney campaign had finally begun to close the gap with female voters (thanks in large part to his performance in the first presidential debate), Mourdock said in an Indiana Senate debate, "And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Within days he began to free-fall in the polls, taking Romney's newfound momentum with him.
Romney had the misfortune to have recently endorsed and filmed an ad for Mourdock. Though he denounced the remarks, Romney declined to pull the campaign ad, a move that he may now be rethinking as he reflects on his loss, particularly since President Obama won the election in part because of a double-digit advantage with female voters.
3. Brown Voters
In an interview with The Root, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) expressed concern over strict voter-identification laws, spearheaded primarily by Republicans after President Obama's historic 2008 win, which was powered by a coalition of nearly 5 million new voters of color. He worried that the laws could jeopardize President Obama's re-election if they resulted in a decrease of 2 to 5 percent of the black vote. He needn't have worried.
Latino voters also significantly increased their share of the electorate, from 6 percent in 2000 to 10 percent this time. They, too, overwhelmingly supported President Obama.
4. Voter-ID Laws
As mentioned above, there were fears among progressive activists and Democratic leaders that voter-identification laws could have a chilling effect on the electorate this election cycle. Apparently it did — just not the impact that some voter-ID proponents may have hoped for. Bucking conventional wisdom that they would be less enthusiastic this election than last, black voters increased their turnout this election cycle over 2008 in the swing states Ohio, Florida and North Carolina. Their turnout was so impressive — and surprising — that it led Republican mastermind Karl Rove to cry that it was the Obama campaign that actually engaged in voter-suppression efforts this election through negative campaign ads about Romney. No, that is not a joke.
5. James Carter IV
Some of you may have just scratched your heads, asking "Who?" while others may have just said, "That name sounds familiar." It should. James Carter IV is the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. Thanks to this election, Carter IV has now secured his own place in presidential history. Working for the publication Mother Jones, Carter IV did something that no Democratic operative working for President Obama or the Democratic National Committee had been able to: He saw footage of Mitt Romney on tape saying what he really thinks about poor people, and convinced the owner to let the magazine run the video. Carter unearthed the footage of Romney speaking about the "47 percent" at a private fundraiser through good, old-fashioned digging. It became one of the defining moments of the presidential campaign.
6. Bain Capital
Americans don't mind voting for rich people. Just ask the Kennedys, the Bushes and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But apparently, Americans are particular about what kind of rich people they will vote for, drawing the line at those who seem to make their money at the expense of other Americans.
That was the perception that many voters had of Romney's tenure at Bain Capital. A recent Washington Post article on how the president ultimately won highlighted how devastating the Obama campaign's early attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital proved to be for the GOP. Those attacks created a gap with working-class voters — many of whom had more in common with some of the workers laid off during Romney's successful Bain Capital run than they did with Romney himself.
7. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
The idea of putting the governor on this list would have been laughable just a few short months ago. The man who said of President Obama at the Republican National Convention, "You see, Mr. President, real leaders do not follow polls. Real leaders change polls," was an unlikely candidate to help salvage the president's struggling campaign.
But when Christie said in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, "I have to say, the administration, the president himself and FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate have been outstanding with us so far. We have a great partnership with them," he helped solidify the president's image as a leader who is willing to work in a bipartisan fashion, something particularly appealing to independent voters. Clearly, the weight of Christie's praise was not lost on Republicans, who criticized the governor's comments and his literal (as well as symbolic) embrace of the president.
No one predicted that just before Election Day, a heretofore-unknown name would end up affecting the outcome of the election, but apparently a hurricane-turned-superstorm by the name of Sandy did just that. A number of disappointed Republicans blamed the storm for Romney's defeat, and according to exit polls, they had good reason to.
According to Fox News, 4 out of 10 voters based their vote in part on the government response to Hurricane Sandy, and those voters overwhelmingly supported the president. His response drew praise from Christie and secured the endorsement of Republican-turned-independent Mayor Bloomberg. It probably didn't help matters that during a presidential-primary debate, Romney had hinted at eliminating the disaster-relief Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.