US President Barack Obama has captured a second White House term, even though he has claimed only 50% of the popular vote with returns from 94% of the country's precincts so far.
It means that Mr Obama had 58 million, while his Republican counterpart Mitt Romney had 56 million, or 48% of the popular vote.
Nevertheless, his victory has blunted a strong challenge by Romney as Americans voted for a leader they knew over a wealthy businessman they did not.
Mr Obama, America’s first black president, easily captured far more than the 270 electoral votes needed for victory and further cemented his place in American history, despite having his first term dominated by stubbornly high unemployment and Americans’ anxiety about their future.
Mr Obama’s re-election to another four-year term should guarantee the future of his signature legislative achievement, a health care overhaul, which Republicans hoped to overturn.
Internationally, it means the United States is likely to continue a foreign policy emphasising multinational partnerships in dealing with issues such as Syria’s civil war and Iran’s nuclear programme – an approach Mr Romney derided as weak.
Mr Obama’s victory could also come as a relief to China since Romney had pledged to declare it a currency manipulator, potentially leading to sanctions and escalating trade tensions.
Thousands of Obama supporters waving small American flags and cheering gathered in the cavernous McCormick Place convention centre on the lakefront in Mr Obama’s hometown of Chicago. They hugged each other, danced and pumped their fists in the air when TV networks declared Mr Obama the winner. Excited crowds also gathered in New York’s Times Square, at Faneuil Hall in Boston and near the White House in Washington, drivers joyfully honking as they passed by.
Mr Obama told supporters in Chicago that the election “reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back”.
For the United States, “the best is yet to come,” he said.
Mr Romney called Mr Obama to concede, and in an appearance before supporters in Boston, he congratulated the President saying: “I pray that he will be successful in guiding our nation.” Mr Obama said he wants to meet with Mr Romney to discuss how they can work together.
But while Mr Romney and Mr Obama both spoke of the need for unity and healing the nation’s partisan schism, the election did nothing to end America’s divided government. The Democrats retained their narrow majority in the Senate, while the Republicans kept firm control of the House of Representatives.
That means Mr Obama’s agenda will be largely in the hands of House Speaker John Boehner, the President’s partner in unsuccessful deficit talks.
Mr Obama’s narrow lead in the popular vote will make it difficult for him to claim a sweeping mandate. With returns from 94% of the nation’s precincts, Mr Obama had 58 million, 50%. Romney had 56 million, or 48% of the popular vote.
But Mr Obama did have a sizeable victory where it mattered: in the competition for electoral votes. He had at least 303 votes to Mr Romney’s 206.
The president is chosen in a state-by-state tally of electors, not according to the nationwide popular vote, making such “battleground” states – which vote neither Republican nor Democrat on a consistent basis – particularly important.
Mr Obama won Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and Nevada, seven of the nine battleground states where the rivals and their allies poured nearly 1 billion dollars into duelling television commercials. Mr Romney captured only North Carolina. The final swing state – Florida – remained too close to call.
The election emerged as a choice between two very different visions of government: Mr Obama’s – as a major, front-row player in Americans’ lives, or Mr Romney’s – as a less-obtrusive facilitator for private enterprise and entrepreneurship.
The economy was rated the top issue by about 60% of voters surveyed as they left polling places. But more said former President George W Bush bore responsibility for current circumstances than Mr Obama did after nearly four years in office.
About four in 10 said the economy is on the mend, but more than that said it was stagnant or getting worse four years after the near-collapse of 2008. The survey was conducted for AP and a group of television networks.
The race was the most expensive ever, with costs soaring into the billions, much of it spent on harsh, negative ads.
Mr Obama’s campaign was a striking contrast from 2008, when he inspired followers around the world with his soaring rhetoric and message of hope and change. The excitement surrounding his candidacy faded soon after he took office as Mr Obama struggled to cope with a weak economy. Big parts of his agenda, such as winning passage of legislation to fight climate change or closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, were shelved in the face of Republican opposition.
This year, both parties emphasised the weaknesses of their rivals more than the strengths of their candidates. Republicans looked to make the race a referendum on Mr Obama’s stewardship of the economy. No US president since Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s had run for re-election with a national jobless rate as high as it is now – 7.9%.
Democrats cast Mr Romney as a heartless businessman, out of touch with everyday Americans, who would restore policies that helped the wealthy and contributed to the economic collapse, in particular rolling back Mr Obama’s financial reform legislation aimed at curbing Wall Street’s excesses.
According to the exit poll, 53% of voters said Mr Obama was more in touch with people like them, compared to 43% for Mr Romney.
One memorable commercial showed Mr Romney singing an off-key rendition of America The Beautiful. Pictures and signs scrolled by saying that his companies had shipped jobs to Mexico and China, that Massachusetts state jobs had gone to India while he was governor and that he has personal investments in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
Mr Obama and Mr Romney spent months highlighting their sharp divisions over the role of government in Americans’ lives, especially in bringing down the stubbornly high unemployment rate, reducing the 1 trillion dollar-plus federal budget deficit and shrinking a national debt that has crept above 16 trillion dollars.
Mr Obama insists there is no way to reduce the staggering debt and safeguard crucial social programmes without asking the wealthy to pay their “fair share” in taxes. Mr Romney, pointing to his business success, said he had the expertise to manage the economy. He favoured lowering taxes and easing regulations on businesses, saying it would spur job growth.
Mr Romney, who would have been America’s first Mormon president, won the nomination after fending off an eclectic series of challengers, including Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. To win over the party’s conservative base, he shifted positions far to the right of those he held as governor of Massachusetts, a liberal state.
That made it difficult for him to pivot back toward the centre to claim independent voters who tend to decide US elections. He was not a comfortable campaigner, often seen as wooden and awkward and prone to gaffes.
But Mr Romney’s candidacy surged after a sharp, confident performance in the first debate in early October, while Mr Obama appeared tired and listless. Still, Mr Obama recovered after stronger performances in the next two debates, new signs of economic recovery and a widely praised response to Superstorm Sandy.
Mr Obama won in the reliably Democratic Northeast and on the West Coast. Pennsylvania was his, too, despite two late campaign stops by Mr Romney. He also swept most of the industrial Midwestern states.
Mr Romney won most of the South as well as much of the Rocky Mountain West and Farm Belt.
Mr Obama spent the final day of his final campaign – he is barred from seeking a third term – in Chicago where he gave TV and radio interviews to swing states. Mr Romney raced to Ohio and Pennsylvania for Election Day campaigning and projected confidence as he flew home to Massachusetts. “We fought to the very end, and I think that’s why we’ll be successful,” he said, adding that he had finished writing a speech anticipating victory but nothing if the election went to his rival.
Like Mr Obama, Vice President Joe Biden was in Chicago as he waited to find out if he was in line for a second term. Republican running mate Paul Ryan was with Mr Romney in Boston, although he kept one eye on his campaign for re-election to the House from Wisconsin, a race he won.