There were a few things that changed in American political culture between 2004 and 2012. The political culture became more polarized, as media and political rhetoric escalated significant following the 2008 election. The political landscape was change by the 2008 election, which saw an expansion of red states, and renewed interest in politics from African-Americans and Hispanics, two groups that traditionally vote Democrat. The heightened rhetoric can be seen as something of an extension of culture wars, where conservatives and liberals alike seek to more clearly define their positions on both economic and social issues. Socially, Americans have become more liberal on many issues, but there is still a divide with respect to economic issues.
National security, social issues and the economy were three key issues in 2004 and 2012. While Bush gained among conservatives for his national security policy, he performed miserably among liberals. Obama took the middle road on national security issues, perhaps so as not to look too weak. On economic issues, Bush benefitted from a strong economy in 2004, but Obama was able to overcome a weak economy in 2012, largely because of social issues and because the economy was at least trending in the right direction. Social issues seemed to be a key point of voting in 2012 in particular. The Bush re-election was not as focused on these as on national security and the economy, but Obama was able to overcome liberal misgivings about national security and the sluggish economy with positioning opposite to Republican hawkishness of social issues. This gave Obama a strong edge with younger and urban voters. The increasing starkness of political divisions between the two parties seemed to work against Romney and the Republican Party as their positions appeal only to a minority of American people. They have chosen positions that will win them votes in primaries, but not in a general election, allowing Obama to win even if some of his constituents were significantly less enthused with his candidacy than they were in 2008.
Obama swept into office on the economy. Americans in 2008 were already tired of Bush's foreign policy incompetence, so they could not forgive a sinking economy. Obama's four-year upward trend may have been slow, but it was enough to set the economy back as a major issue. The Republicans appeared to spend too much effort on smear campaigns, and failed to convince a skeptical electorate on the merits of economic principles -- having brought the country to recession under Bush, Republicans needed to make a stronger case in favor of their economic program. With a major influx of new voters who are either young or Hispanic, Republicans missed an opportunity to sell these new voters on their social and economic ideas, the former of which seem rooted in the past and the latter of which have some merit but that merit was not really discussed. Voters still want leaders with whom they can connect. Obama and his policies were better at that. In 2004, Bush and Kerry had such similar backgrounds, that Bush's personableness and the state of the economy had voters overlook his deficiencies.
If there was an element of culture war to the 2012 election in particular -- but also in 2008 -- what are those cultures? Are they new? Are these new cultures redefining the American political map? We've seen Obama turn red or purple states into solid blue -- places like Ohio, Michigan, New Mexico and even Florida seem little in doubt any more. As the political parties seem to be moving to a more polarized dynamic, it forces people to choose between very different worldviews. One thing that comes from the 2012 election is that the Republicans did a poor job of either defining a worldview that could get them elected or of selling it -- Obama didn't win because liberals were in love with his performance, which was that of a fairly conservative President, the ACA notwithstanding.
So there are definitely some issues that have been raised, in particular whether the electoral map has changed. While conservative ideology is by definition slow to change, the world today seems to be moving ever more quickly. It could be that 9/11 gave Bush an opportunity to win, which otherwise stalled a trend towards progressive values and progressive Presidents. A large demographic of…