(CBS NEWS) - Four years after a historic victory driven by lofty promises of hope and change, CBS News projects that a battle-hardened President Obama will win re-election with a very different message: We've made progress, but there's still a long way to go.
In the end, an election many expected to come down to the wire ended early. While Mr. Obama lost states he won four years ago, including Indiana and North Carolina, his Midwestern firewall of Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa is projected to have held. The president was buoyed in Ohio by his action to use federal dollars to bail out the auto industry, while union households helped power him in Wisconsin. Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes, where Republican nominee Mitt Romney made a late run in hopes of expanding the electoral map, ended up being projected to go to the president early in the evening.
One by one, projections showed battleground states falling to Mr. Obama throughout Tuesday night: New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado. It was enough to put him over the top even without the hard-fought battlegrounds of Virginia and Florida, where voters were lined up long after polls closed to decide close contests. (CBS News has not yet projected a winner in either state.)
After CBS News and other media outlets called the race after Mr. Obama was projected the winner in Ohio, a group of about 1,000 young people gathered in Lafayette Park, near the White House, to celebrate. In the president's home base of Chicago, Obama supporters waved flags, danced and hugged, some breaking down into tears; in Romney's home state of Boston, the GOP nominee's supporters stood shell-shocked and silent as they processed the news.
The good news for Republicans on Tuesday: As expected, they are projected to hold onto the House of Representatives. But the Senate, which one year ago looked very likely to fall into Republican hands, was projected to stay with the Democrats - thanks in part to missteps by Republicans in Missouri and Indiana, whose controversial comments concerning rape helped vulnerable Democrats triumph.
It adds up to an election set to be remembered for maintaining the status quo. After an oft-nasty battle in which the campaigns and outside groups are projected to have spent a record-breaking $6 billion, Washington is poised to look the same way it has for the past two years: With Democrats in control of the Senate, Republicans in control of the House, and Mr. Obama in the Oval Office.
The CBS News exit poll showed Mr. Obama's victory was attributable to a double-digit advantage among women as well as huge advantages among young, urban and minority voters. (Romney led among married women, but unmarried women broke overwhelmingly to the president.) It was enough to overcome Romney's advantage among white, male, and older voters, as well as rural voters and those with high incomes.
Mr. Obama may ultimately fall short of the margin he won by four years ago - roughly seven percentage points nationally - in part because he performed worse among independents. The president won 52 percent to 44 percent among in 2008 independents. This year, the CBS News exit poll showed Romney winning by four points among that group, which made up 30 percent of the electorate.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whose nomination was driven less by passion than the Republican belief that he represented their best chance for unseating the president, spent much of the campaign relentlessly hammering the president as a failed steward of the economy. But the recovery, while slow, may have been just good enough: The unemployment rate fell - barely - below eight percent, and consumer confidence rose this month to its highest level in nearly 5 years. The exit poll showed that voters were ultimately split on which candidate was better to handle the economy, while the president had a double-digit lead when it came to who was more in touch with people like you.
The Obama campaign spent handsomely early in the race in an attempt to portray the GOP nominee as a heartless plutocrat unconcerned with the plight of the middle class. While Romney's strong performance in the first presidential debate helped to counter that portrayal, the president rebounded in the second and third debates. And while polls showed that Republicans had the edge in voter enthusiasm, the Democrats' robust and sophisticated ground game appears to have given the president an advantage in driving turnout among his base.
For Republicans, this election will prompt soul searching. For the second straight presidential cycle, the GOP nominated a relatively moderate candidate and lost; conservative voices in the party will take the 2012 results as a sign that they need to shift right in 2016. For others, the election will mark an opportunity to push the party to shift gears as their base - white, rural and older voters - shrinks as a portion of the electorate. Contemplating a possible Romney loss before Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would "go nuts" if he hears complaints it was because Romney wasn't conservative enough.
"We're not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we're not being hard-ass enough," he said.
Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, won re-election to the House on Tuesday, and the House Budget Committee chairman is already considered a leading contender for the 2016 presidential nomination. The future for the 65-year-old Romney is unclear: It's hard to imagine he seeks elective office again after falling short in the presidential race. Romney may choose to return to the business world, where he made his fortune before turning to politics.
Mr. Obama will have little time to celebrate his triumph. The lame-duck Congress must now work to keep the nation from going off the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year - the combination of automatic spending cuts and tax increases that economists say would cause a major drag on the economy.
The president spent a relatively small portion of his campaign discussing his second term agenda, but he did open up in an off-the-record October interview with the Des Moines Register that was later made public. The president predicted a "grand bargain" on the deficit within his first six months of his second term as well as a deal on immigration reform and corporate tax reform.
For now, however, Mr. Obama is certainly relishing a victory in what may well be the last campaign he will ever have to run.