The President's 'Grand Bet' Pays Off

A relentlessly negative campaign secured a victory but will make it harder to govern in the second term.

In a difficult political environment, President Barack Obama charted an unusual and impressive course to victory, defeating Mitt Romney by 2% (50% to 48%).

The president's team ran a focused, disciplined ground game to identify all Obama supporters from 2008, hold them in line, and turn them out this year. While the president appears to have converted very few supporters of Sen. John McCain, he did get at least 92% of the votes he received in 2008. America's shifting demographics—fewer whites, more young people and minorities—were just enough for the president.

Mr. Obama was ruthlessly efficient in executing what his campaign manager, Jim Messina, told the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza was "a grand bet"—an early negative campaign that started in May and targeted Mr. Romney's character, business ethics and wealth. A massive volunteer army armed with these same arguments then worked in the fall to convince family, neighbors and friends to support Mr. Obama.

This strategy required money, lots of it. Team Obama convinced the president to attend a record-shattering 220 fundraising events over 20 months, with the campaign and Democratic National Committee raising around $900 million.

If this grand bet had failed to raise serious doubts about Mr. Romney among ordinary voters—or if the attacks on the GOP challenger's character and business background had been effectively rebutted—the Obama campaign would have been without money or time enough to pursue a different strategy.

But it succeeded. By Election Day, 53% of voters in the exit polls said Mr. Romney's policies would "generally favor the rich." They backed Mr. Obama with 87% to Mr. Romney's 10%. Even among the 59% of voters for whom the economy was the No. 1 issue, Mr. Romney prevailed only 51% to 47%. And the 21% of voters who thought "care about people like me" was the most important candidate quality split 81% for Mr. Obama, 18% for Mr. Romney.

The president was also lucky. This time, the October surprise was not a dirty trick but an act of God. Hurricane Sandy interrupted Mr. Romney's momentum and allowed Mr. Obama to look presidential and bipartisan.

Then there was the anonymous New York Times headline writer who affixed "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" to Mr. Romney's November 2008 op-ed on reorganizing the auto companies, which the Obama campaign brought up again and again in the industrial Midwest. The president made it appear that Mr. Romney favored liquidation of the companies (which he did not), instead of an orderly reorganization (which he did).

That wasn't all. A hotel employee with a cellphone camera taped Mr. Romney talking at a May fundraiser about the "47%" of the population that do not have any federal income-tax liability. When released in September, the video added to public doubts about Mr. Romney's wealth and character.

Mr. Obama became the only president to secure a second term with a smaller percentage of the vote than in his first election. Every other re-elected president expanded his coalition. Mr. Obama merely kept his from shrinking too much.

Compared with 2008, Mr. Obama got roughly 7.8 million fewer votes from whites, 1.6 million fewer from African-Americans, 1.8 million fewer from Millennials (those aged 19-29), and four million fewer from women. Fewer people voted in 2012 than in 2008, and the share of the voting-age population that turned out was smaller than in the three previous elections. The president's share of the vote was down in every state but two—Hawaii and Mississippi—and then only up less than a quarter of a point.

A bright spot for the president (and a warning sign for the GOP) is that his share of the Latino vote rose four points, to 71%. A larger Hispanic turnout brought him an additional 700,000 votes from that group.

While victorious, the president is hardly a colossus. He ran a campaign utterly devoid of a governing vision because he offered little in the way of a prospective agenda. And because his campaign was unprecedented in its negativity and ugliness, it will be doubly hard for him to reach across the aisle. The Chicago Way may have produced a re-election victory, but it will exact costs when it comes to governing.

Mr. Obama can try to repair the damage. He can be large-minded and generous in spirit, trying to work genuinely with Republicans rather than demonize them. And he can confront pressing problems rather than kick them down the road. But doing so will require him to act in a second term very differently than he did in his first. Even his election opponents, of whom I was one, are hoping he does.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, November 7, 2012.