By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - On his road to re-election, President Barack Obama had one group that proved most difficult to woo of all: white men. But in the end, the first African-American president was able to withstand a flight of white male voters from his campaign where it mattered most.
Obama saw his support among the country's second-largest voting group - white women are the largest - decline from 41 percent in 2008 to 36 percent in 2012. His gap in support among white men ballooned from 16 percentage points when he defeated Republican John McCain in 2008, to 21 percentage points in Tuesday's contest against Republican Mitt Romney, according to Reuters/Ipsos Election Day polling.
In Ohio, one of the states that helped to deliver Obama his second term, the president was able to keep his deficit among white men to 10 percentage points, and was even with Romney among white males with incomes of $75,000 or less.
At the heart of that achievement was Obama's support for the federal government's $85 billion bailout of the automobile industry. His decision saved more than 1 million jobs, many held by white men in Ohio and throughout the upper Midwest.
It was no easy feat. Since he took office, Obama's standing among white men appeared to grow increasingly precarious. In 2010, whites fled from Democratic candidates, supporting Republicans by 60 percent to 38 percent in the mid-term elections, according to exit polls. In the 2006 mid-term elections, Republicans held only a 4-point advantage among white voters.
With white men already the most fragile voting bloc for Obama, the recession made their support even more of a stretch. Industries such as construction, in which most of the jobs are held by men, were the hardest hit.
In Toledo, Ohio, home to automobile factories for more than a century, white male voters said that they believed Obama was the stronger candidate on the economy.
"I voted for Obama because he saved my job," David Swogger, 38, who works security at the Jeep plant in Toledo, said at a polling station not far from downtown Toledo.
Like the rest of the population, white men said overwhelmingly that the economy was their first priority, Reuters/Ipsos polling showed.
"The economy is what matters most to me and we need to keep Obama to fix it," said Kai Sprinkle, 39, a truck driver who voted in Toledo.
STICKING WITH OBAMA
Those attitudes may have been crippling for Romney who banked his candidacy on the premise that his experience in the private sector made him the better choice to help the economy.
In Ohio, Romney and his supporters spent the final weeks of the campaign crisscrossing the state arguing that the auto bailout hurt jobs.
Near the campaign's end, Romney released a misleading ad stating that Jeep would move American jobs overseas.
"I didn't like Mitt Romney's ads about Jeep going to China. It made people afraid they'd lose their jobs," Swogger said.
In 2008, Obama won the White House with the strongest showing among white men for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Still the group represented the strongest demographic for McCain in 2008. Romney repeated that feat in 2012 and improved on McCain's finish by four percentage points.
Among all white voters, Romney ran better than did Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980, who won 44 states in a landslide. But the share of white voters has continued to dwindle as African-American and Hispanic voters become greater shares of the voting population.
For Reagan, white voters made up 89 percent of voters. For Romney, white voters made up 72 percent of the voting population, according to exit polls.
(Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Ohio; Editing by David Lindsey and Paul Simao)