As Americans go to the polls, one of the closest presidential races in years may be determined by a state in the Midwest and a hurricane named Sandy.
After a campaign that has cost some $6 billion, the two candidates are in the same place they started: with President Obama a smidgen ahead of challenger Mitt Romney, so close that differences are in most cases statistically insignificant.
Obama seems to have regained his footing after his sleepy performance in the first debate last month. According to a Pew Research Center poll over the weekend, Obama is leading Romney 48 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, thanks in part to how he handled the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In battleground states, too, the president appears to have the momentum.
And yet, Pew Research Center President Andrew Kohut is bracing for a surprise.
"People are conflicted, especially swing voters and moderate voters," Kohut says. "They look at Obama and say, 'He's underperformed.' And they look at Romney and say, 'We don't trust him and we don't know if he's for us.' "
In one way, the conflict is refreshing, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. The two candidates are "presenting diametrically opposed visions, and that is interesting because often it isn't the case. You have two very different visions on the economy, on social issues, on some aspects of foreign policy."
One thing everyone agrees on: The fate of the presidency will be determined by a handful of battleground states, and perhaps only one: Ohio.
The president has the advantage because there are several routes that would lead him to the 270 electoral college votes he needs to win, says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts polls for NBC and the Wall Street Journal. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, starts from a weaker position in the projected electoral vote count and must win more battleground states.
"So, in a sense, Romney is playing more for an inside straight," Miringoff says.
The Battleground States
Florida: 29 electoral votes; Real Clear Politics average, Romney up 1.5 percentage points.
Florida is a must-win for Romney. The state has three political identities: The south, including Miami, is diverse and, with the exception of an aging and shrinking Cuban population, leans heavily Democratic. The north, including the Panhandle, is socially and religiously conservative, with a strong military presence. People in the central part of the state — the Tampa-Orlando-Daytona Beach-I-4 corridor — are the definition of swing voters.
Ohio: 18 electoral votes; Real Clear Politics average, Obama up by 2.9 percentage points.
Ohio may be in 2012 what Florida was in 2000 — the most contested of the states. Here we have two strains of working-class voters with opposite motivations. In the north, the auto industry bailout has driven the unemployment rate below the national average, and voters are rewarding the president. The southern part of the state is more socially and religiously conservative; it has been hard-hit economically, particularly the coal industry, and workers lean Republican. Watch for a fight over ballots in this state. Ohio law requires a recount if one candidate wins by a quarter of 1 percent or less, which is a possibility. Moreover, more than 200,000 voters are expected to cast provisional ballots because they don't have a photo ID or for other reasons, and those votes would not be counted until Nov. 16.
Virginia: 13 electoral votes; Real Clear Politics average, Obama up by 0.3 percentage points.
The fight here is between fast-growing northern Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., with its young urbanites who vote Democratic, versus the rest of the state: rural pro-gun conservatives. Obama won this historically Republican state in 2008, but Republicans came roaring back in subsequent races. Virginia is critical to a Romney win.
Wisconsin: 10 electoral votes; Real Clear Politics average, Obama up by 4.2 percentage points.
Romney wants to make this a battleground state, but it is an uphill fight. Wisconsin has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. Romney briefly had some traction when he selected a favorite son, Paul Ryan, to be his running mate. However, that enthusiasm has ebbed, and Wisconsin was one of the few states that did not give Romney a bump after the first presidential debate in October.
Colorado: 9 electoral votes; Real Clear Politics average, Obama up by 1.5 percentage points.
Obama carried Colorado by 9 percentage points in 2008, but in the preceding three elections, the state went red. Three ingredients make Colorado a swing state. The urban areas of Denver and Boulder are typically Democratic. The growing Latino population favors Obama. But the Colorado Springs area is considered the mecca for conservative evangelicals.
Iowa: 6 electoral votes; Real Clear Politics average, Obama up by 2.4 percentage points.
Since 1998, Iowa has voted for the Democrat, with the exception of George W. Bush in 2004. Obama can count on its growing Latino vote and strong unions for support. But Iowa has turned more conservative of late and elected Republican Terry Branstad as governor in 2010.
New Hampshire: 4 electoral votes; Real Clear Politics average, Obama up by 2 percentage points.
Ages ago, New Hampshire was a reliably red state, but it has turned decidedly purple in recent years. The White House has paid close attention to the state, sending Vice President Joe Biden there several times. But Romney has a foothold there, as well as a vacation house; the voters have an independent streak and generally dislike government intrusion — a sentiment that Romney has capitalized on.
Ups And Downs
If the presidential race has people on pins and needles, it wasn't that way six months ago. Democrats said they were disappointed with Obama's performance, smarting from the desultory economy, and frustrated that he seemed to have forgotten the poor in favor of the middle class. Republicans, too, were tepid about their candidate. In fact, until springtime, evangelicals, who make up a large part of the Republican base, flirted with a number of candidates whose chief characteristic seemed to be that they were not Mitt Romney.
But the past two months have turned into a "roller coaster ride," Sabato says. Each candidate made strategic errors.
The first bit of excitement arrived in mid-September, in the form of a leaked tape of Romney saying that 47 percent of Americans "will vote for the president no matter what," are "dependent upon government, who believe they are victims" and do not pay taxes.
But then, two weeks later, Obama stumbled throughout the first debate. The president looked like a boxer on the ropes taking blows from an aggressive Romney; he even failed to land a punch on Romney with an attack on Romney's 47 percent comment. This erased the president's yawning lead in the polls, and we had a horse race.
"Before the first debate, President Obama was on his way to a landslide re-election victory," says Thomas Riehl, a senior vice president of YouGov, an online polling firm. But after the debate, not only were Obama supporters deflated, but independents and undecided voters took a hard look at Romney — and liked what they saw.
"What Romney accomplished in the first debate was that he stood up on a stage with President Obama and made it clear he was at least his equal," Riehl says. "You could imagine a Romney presidency, and there wasn't much that was very threatening about that."
For the first time, more people told pollsters they would vote for Romney and not just against Obama. According to polls by Pew Research, 36 percent of likely voters said they had a better opinion of Romney after the debate, and his favorability rating shot up to 50 percent — about the same as the president.
But Romney's good fortunes were arrested by the weather. Hurricane Sandy served as a circuit breaker that cut into whatever momentum Romney had generated.
"This was kind of an October surprise," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. "It gave the president an opportunity to act presidential, to act like a commander in chief."
As Obama visited devastated parts of New Jersey and New York — as he received glowing praise from New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, and then an endorsement from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — Romney was forced to the sidelines, at least temporarily. Those television shots of the president impressed voters: The Pew poll found that nearly seven in 10 likely voters — and 63 percent of swing voters — approved of the way the president handled the disaster.
How The Vote Falls
In the final moments of the race, each candidate has advantages and disadvantages that could tip the scale.
Romney has a clear edge among men, especially white working-class men who make up much of the vote in battleground states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. He's leading among older voters — who are bigger in number and more reliable than the young people, who overwhelmingly support the president. Independents are expected to break Republican, as they have in every presidential race since 1952, with the exception of 1964 and 2008, when Obama swept them in a wave of hope and change. Finally, Romney has generated great enthusiasm among Republicans: Romney supporters are more engaged in the contest, and say they are more likely to vote, than Obama supporters. This could mean a larger turnout for Romney on Tuesday night.
The president, however, has plenty of arrows in his quiver. As to enthusiasm, many more voters strongly support Obama than Romney — an indicator that has predicted the popular vote winner in nine of the past 12 elections, says Kohut. Moreover, after cooling to the president last month, female voters have come roaring back to the president's side. Minorities — and especially Latinos, who factor large in swing states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada — are firmly in the president's camp, as are young people.
Undecided voters remain a big question mark. Republicans hope that 2012 will look like 1980, when undecideds moved en masse in Ronald Reagan's direction.
"But from what we've seen this time around, there isn't that big chunk of undecided voters almost anywhere to be able to make that massive move at the end," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University. "On the other hand, if the election is really close, even a feather on the scale can make a difference."
Close Elections 'The New Normal'
Abramowitz at Emory University has developed a model for predicting elections, which he calls the "time for change" model. He looks at presidential approval ratings and GDP in June, as well as incumbency.
Typically, he says, "voters are reluctant to change parties after only one term. When you get to second term or later, they're more willing to make that change."
Using this model, Obama should be poised to win the popular vote by 1 percent, Abramowitz says. But Abramowitz has noticed another development of late: partisanship.
"The advantage of incumbency has gotten smaller, because voters are less willing to cross party lines now," he says. "So when there's a Democratic president like now, Republicans are less willing to cross party lines to vote for him. As a result, the advantage is about half what it used to be."
Abramowitz and others are bracing for a nightmare scenario, similar to 2000, when George W. Bush won the electoral vote and Al Gore won the popular vote. That's a real possibility, says Goldford at Drake, particularly since Hurricane Sandy could suppress the popular vote in New York and New Jersey, even as these states go blue. If that happens, Goldford says, "this past four years will seem like a picnic compared to the next four years."
He pauses, remembering the chaos of 2000, the hanging chads and Supreme Court decision. "One thing I hope more than anything else," he says, "is that this is actually over on Tuesday night."
It may be a vain hope. Lawyers representing both sides are in place, ready to litigate and demand recounts in every close state.