There was none of the historical resonance of 2008, when Obama battled a former first lady to win the Democratic nomination. Even Obama supporters said the campaign was less a crusade than a rear-guard fight to preserve the accomplishments of the last four years.
Both sides had evidence to cite. Obama pointed to millions of private-sector jobs created, for a net gain under his administration. Romney noted the country's stubbornly high unemployment rate. That was not, Romney said endlessly, the change that people voted for in 2008.
Obama pursued an activist agenda in his first two years, passing an ambitious healthcare plan that had been a Democratic goal for decades. There was, however, a steep political price. Resistance gave rise to the tea party movement, and Republicans gained 63 seats to seize control of the House in the midterm election.
Facing a tough reelection fight, Obama enjoyed one singular advantage: avoiding a primary challenge, which could have divided the Democratic Party and forced him to spend tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars and stake out far-left positions that could have haunted him later.
Romney illustrated that danger. After losing the GOP nomination in 2008, he started the primary season as the front-runner. But he struggled against a weak field and might have lost but for the intervention of free-spending supporters who bombarded his rivals with a deluge of negative ads.
Even so, the fight exacted a heavy toll on Romney. His hard-line stance on immigration appealed to conservative primary voters, and his staunch opposition to abortion and promise to slash federal funding for Planned Parenthood was effective in fending off rivals. But both positions hurt him in the fall campaign with Latino and women voters, respectively.
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While Romney worked to consolidate GOP support, the Obama campaign and its allies set out to define their rival through a blitz of attack ads that portrayed him as a heartless corporate profiteer. It was a charge first leveled in the Republican primaries, and it proved especially resonant in Ohio and among victims of the Rust Belt's decline.
Romney's opposition to the Obama-backed bailout of the auto industry, which faced collapse amid the near-economic meltdown, was especially hurtful.
After a middling GOP convention — perhaps best remembered for an odd turn by actor Clint Eastwood addressing an empty chair intended to represent Obama — many Republicans privately despaired that the race was slipping from Romney's grasp.
The economy seemed to be steadily picking up. Worse for Romney, a secretly recorded videotape surfaced from Mother Jones magazine showing him disparaging the 47% of Americans who paid no federal income tax last year.
Just as the gloom thickened, Romney turned in a commanding Oct. 3 debate performance against a surprisingly listless Obama. Overnight, Republican enthusiasm soared, and the race was suddenly back on.
Obama rebounded with far stronger performances in the next two debates, and the campaign settled into a sort of stalemate — Romney with a marginal lead in national polls, Obama with an advantage in the state-by-state electoral college. Then nature delivered a final surprise in the form of Superstorm Sandy. The president flew to the Jersey Shore to appear alongside the state's Republican governor, Chris Christie, an erstwhile foe.
But the dynamic of the campaign was set early in Obama's term, by the state of the economy, the aggressive government response and Republican assertions that the private sector, if left alone, could have hastened the recovery.
Obama and Romney perfectly reflected those philosophies, leaving voters — all other issues aside — a clear choice.