WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Tuesday won a second term in the White House, defeating Republican challenger Mitt Romney in a hard-fought election that served as a referendum on who could better ease Americans' economic pain and uncertainty.
Obama marched across the nation, scoring victory after victory in battleground states where the economy had mounted just enough of a comeback to convince voters to give him four more years.
He held onto the coalition that led him to victory in 2008: women, Latinos, African-Americans and young people. Romney, seeking to become the first Mormon to win the presidency, was able to win only two states Obama had won last time, Indiana and North Carolina.
The second Democrat to win a second term since World War II, Obama swept the Northeast and West Coast states and won most of the Rust Belt battlegrounds, including Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Romney won dependably Republican states across the South and into Texas and the Great Plains.
Obama took office in January 2009 with a mandate to revive an economy still struggling to recover from the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Six of 10 voters Tuesday said the economy was the most important issue, well ahead of health care or foreign policy. Three of four voters said the economy remained poor or not so good.
Obama touted the economy's steady progress on his watch; Romney cited stubbornly high unemployment and mounting federal debt as he argued the recovery's pace was too slow. In the exit polls, slightly more than half said Obama was more in touch with people like them, compared with 44 percent for Romney.
The president will face the status quo in Congress. Republicans held their majority in the House of Representatives, according to projections. All 435 voting seats were up Tuesday. Democrats retained control of the Senate. Republicans had needed a net gain of four seats.
Turnout was reported heavy, particularly in swing states as well as storm-battered New York and New Jersey. Experts still expected it to remain below 2008 levels, finding voters less engaged. About 32 million people had voted early, either in person or by mail.
The president spent Election Day in Chicago. He stopped by his campaign's Hyde Park field office in south Chicago to greet workers and call voters. He called six Wisconsin voters, then talked to supporters at the office.
He congratulated Romney for a "spirited campaign" and said he felt good about the results. "We feel confident we've got the votes to win, that it's going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out," Obama said.
Later Tuesday, Obama was player-coach for a quick basketball game. Among his team members was former Chicago Bulls great Scottie Pippen. Obama's team won by about 20 points.
Romney voted in Belmont, Mass., and then made hastily scheduled campaign swings to Ohio and Pennsylvania. Ohio was considered crucial for Romney; no Republican has been elected president without winning the Buckeye State.
The last day's scramble was vividly on display at the Cleveland airport. As Romney was waiting for running mate Paul Ryan to arrive, Vice President Joe Biden's plane took off. Biden made his own last-minute trek to Ohio.
Romney visited a Cleveland-area campaign office, where he proclaimed, "This is a big day for change."
Obama was dogged throughout the year by voters expressing qualms about his stewardship of the economy. He was unlikely to match the 52.8 percent share of the popular vote he got in 2008, or match the 365 electoral votes he won that year, when he pledged to start a new era of "hope and change" politics.
The campaign will be remembered as a marathon that started and stayed close. Neither Romney nor Obama could open up much of a lead, and both parties spent unprecedented billions of dollars for ads and efforts to turn out their voters.
Obama was vulnerable from the beginning. Within weeks of taking office in January 2009, he pushed through an $831 billion economic stimulus plan aimed at easing the recession's impact. In 2010, he won approval of a historic overhaul of the nation's health system, which will require nearly everyone to obtain coverage by 2014.
Both measures were passed with virtually no Republican support, and often bitter partisan wrangling. Republicans saw a huge political opening, and fueled by the grassroots tea party movement, the party won control of the House of Representatives in 2010 by protesting what it called Obama's overreliance on and expansion of government.
At the same time, the economy struggled to recover. The nation's unemployment rate, 7.8 percent the month Obama took office, went to 10 percent that October and was 7.9 percent last month — more ammunition for the Republicans.
Obama, though, got some breaks. The economy did recover. Unemployment has dropped from its highs. Consumer confidence inched up. And Romney struggled at first to win the hearts of the conservatives who drive the Republican Party.
Obama exploited Romney's past, recalling his support of Massachusetts' abortion rights laws and his support for the state's health care law, considered a model for the federal program.
Obama was also able to target specific groups of voters who Romney tended to alienate. The president pushed hard for women's votes with reminders Romney now sided firmly with anti-abortion forces and had to call for "binders full of women" in order to find qualified women to fill jobs while governor. In states with legions of auto workers such as Ohio, he recalled how Romney urged letting the domestic industry go bankrupt without any help from the federal government.
Romney won the nomination only after an unexpected struggle against a weak field, and not until the summer and fall did the party base begin rallying around him. The choice of Ryan helped energize the right, but Romney's biggest boost came during the Oct. 3 debate in Denver.33 comments on this story
Romney's assured performance that night galvanized conservative support and seemed to give him new momentum. He briefly opened up a larger lead over Obama, only to see it fade as the president came back and did well in the next two debates.
What may have helped Obama most was Superstorm Sandy. Leaders traditionally benefit from a rally-round-the-flag effect immediately after crises, and Obama suspended campaigning for three days last week so he could monitor and manage emergency responses.
Wednesday, he visited battered New Jersey, touring the devastation with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who had given the party convention's keynote address. Christie had warm praise for the president's efforts.