Voters decided to stay the course yesterday with President Barack Obama, handing him a second term after a bitterly fought election that laid bare the ideological chasm between the two political parties. Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, put Obama over the top with 274, four more than needed. NBC News first projected Ohio for Obama at 11:14 p.m., quickly followed by CBS, Fox and CNN.

Voters decided to stay the course yesterday with President Barack Obama, handing him a second term after a bitterly fought election that laid bare the ideological chasm between the two political parties.

Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, put Obama over the top with 274, four more than needed. The president padded that count by nearly sweeping the toss up states, while holding a slim margin in the national popular vote.

Obama, 51, made history anew as the first black president to win re-election, beating back Republican Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

Appearing before throngs of ecstatic supporters at McCormick Place in Chicago, Obama sounded a hopeful note for the future.

“We are the American family and we rise and fall together as one nation, as one people.

“Tonight in this election, you, the American people, 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 and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America the best is yet to come.”

Obama said he planned to work with members of both parties, because “tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual.”

From Boston, Romney greeted followers at 12:54 a.m., saying he had just called Obama to congratulate him.

Standing with his wife, Romney was gracious in defeat: “I so wish that I had been able to fulfill your hopes to lead the country in a different direction, but the nation chose another leader. And so, Ann and I join with you to earnestly pray for him and for this great nation.”

Romney said the nation “is at a critical point,” and must come together to solve its problems.

“At a time like this,” he said, “we can’t risk partisan bickering and political posturing. Our leaders have to reach across the aisle to do the people’s work.”

The die apparently was cast around 9 p.m. when one battleground state after another steadily began falling for Obama, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Iowa.

He later added Virginia, Nevada and Colorado, with Florida too close to call.

In unofficial returns, with 98 percent of Ohio’s precincts reporting, Obama was winning the state by about 2 percentage points early this morning, 50 percent to 48 percent.

The result upheld Ohio’s uncanny record of picking presidents: 26 of 28 since the turn of the 20th century, the best in the nation.

Facing monumental problems, including tax and spending decisions that must be made by year’s end to keep the economy from going over the so-called fiscal cliff, Obama must attempt to unite a politically and ideologically divided Congress after Republicans retained control of the House and Democrats kept the Senate.

As expected, Obama jumped to a lead in Ohio when the release of more than 1.7 million votes cast early by mail or in person showed him leading Romney substantially. But Romney, bolstered by the historic preference of Republicans to vote on Election Day, whittled away at the president’s early ad? vantage — only to fall short.

The election was a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy, which 6 in 10 voters said was the most important issue, according to exit polls released by the Associated Press. With the national unemployment rate at 7.9 percent in October, Obama’s challenge was to buck history: No president since World War II had won re-election to a second term with unemployment above 7.5 percent.

The president argued that his policies, including an $878 billion stimulus and $82 billion auto bailout, had rescued the nation from the Great Recession and created more than 5 million jobs.

But Romney countered by citing the 23 million jobless Americans, rising poverty on Obama’s watch, a growing federal debt and an economy recovering too slowly.

Exit polls showed that Romney won 56 percent of self-identified independents in Ohio, compared with 40 percent going for Obama. And the gender gap long foretold in surveys also played out in the exit polls, with 55 percent of Ohio women voters breaking for Obama and 44 percent for Romney — wider than the 8-point margin for Obama among women in 2008.

Obama and Romney and their running mates, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, respectively, made a record 86 visits to Ohio this year, more than to any other state.

Striving to leave no vote on the table, Romney and Ryan made a last-minute stop yesterday in Cleveland, where Biden also showed up in a surprise visit aimed at denying the GOP team exclusive coverage in Ohio’s largest media market.

With Ryan failing to bring along his home state, Wisconsin, Romney will be second-guessed for not selecting Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, his second choice, as a running mate who might have helped him carry Ohio.

The campaign was omnipresent in Ohio households, with dinners routinely interrupted over the past month by political calls, and TV shows pocked with attack ads as Ohio got a disproportionate share of the more than 1 million political commercials aired nationwide between June 1 and last week.

Obama and Romney combined to spend at least $877?million, making it the most-expensive presidential race. In the first election after the U.S. Supreme

Court’s controversial Citizens United decision in 2010 that allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions, outside groups poured more than $1 billion into the presidential race and other races across the country.

Total spending related to the presidential race, including by the candidates, parties and outside groups is nearly $2 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Romney got off to a slow start after wrapping up the nomination in March following a divisive Republican primary slog, but he came on strong at the end.

Once Romney became the presumptive nominee, the Obama campaign embarked on a strategy to define him early as a multimillionaire with little affinity for common people. Over the summer, the Obama campaign outspent Romney’s campaign by a 2-to-1 ratio on Ohio television, airing ads that focused on Romney’s leadership of Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that the Obama campaign spots portrayed as a destroyer and outsourcer of American jobs.

In mid-September, the Romney-is-not-one-of-us message of the Obama ads became reinforced by the release of a clandestinely recorded video of a speech that Romney had given at a private fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., in May. Romney told the audience that 47 percent of Americans “believe the government has a responsibility to care for them” and, as a result, will never vote for him. “My job is not to worry about those people,” Romney said.

Romney tried to walk back the comment, but the damage was done. After showing the race to be a dead heat in late August, a Dispatch Poll published on Sept. 30 showed that Obama had opened a 9-point lead in bellwether Ohio.

Just when it seemed Obama might waltz into a second term, his lethargic and unfocused performance in the first televised debate, on Oct. 3, changed the race and gave the momentum to Romney, who had dominated the debate.

But as Romney continued to gain steam, the race once again was roiled, this time by Hurricane Sandy, which gave Obama a late-inning opportunity to act as commander in chief during a disaster. The storm threatened to put the brakes on Romney’s momentum.

On the final Sunday before the election, the Dispatch Poll showed Obama clinging to a 2-point lead in Ohio, which was inside the margin of sampling error. The winner, it became more evident than ever, would be determined by whichever campaign had a superior get-out-the-vote operation.

Last night’s results showed that campaign belonging to Obama.