All Over But the Vote Counting

All Over But the Vote Counting

By Carl M. Cannon - November 5, 2012

After four nationally televised debates, two political conventions, hundreds of speeches, one devastating hurricane, and the expenditure of an estimated $2 billion -- most of it on nasty, negative, and mendacious television ads -- the 2012 campaign finally comes to a close Tuesday.

Going into the final day, independent surveys still show the race to be close, with little recent movement -- and few undecided voters left.

Nonetheless, President Obama’s top advisers and like-minded pundits are openly confident, even haughty, in their certitude that a slight advantage in the public opinion polls will translate into a comfortable Electoral College victory Tuesday night. By contrast, the attitude at Mitt Romney's headquarters might best be described as cautiously hopeful.

The presidential race isn’t all that’s at stake this November. In the election for control of Congress, Democrats would need to reap a net gain of 25 districts to take over the House; privately, party strategists say they expect half that number - or less. The U.S. Senate, once considered a juicy takeover target for Republicans, now seems much less likely to change hands, although races are too close to call in a handful of states.

The Electoral College map has not been as expansive. For most of the 2012 cycle, the two nominees have mainly competed in eight states: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Romney’s selection of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate added the Badger State to the list. Late forays in the last week by Republicans into Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Michigan expanded the map even further.

Democrats scoffed at that gambit, although it is undeniable that the polls have tightened in the tier of states in the upper Midwest. Even allowing for the more expansive list of swing states, however, the upshot of the political polarization that has divided most of the country into reliably Republican “red” or Democratic “blue” states has been the effective disenfranchisement of most American voters.

A stark example, spotlighted recently by The Washington Post, is in the southern Iowa town of Lineville, which straddles the Missouri border. Those on the Missouri side have received no attention from the presidential candidates. Residents on the other side, in too-close-to-call Iowa, have been virtually stalked by the campaigns. That phenomenon brings up another anomalous aspect of American-style democracy in the 21st century: Only swing voters in swing states matter, and there are fewer of both than in any time in recent U.S. history -- at a time of incomparably large campaign war chests.

“Never has so much money been spent,” Obama pollster Joel Benenson told RCP, “in pursuit of so small a group of voters.”

Not all that long ago, this country held presidential elections in which the two major party tickets had to compete, and win, in the populous states of California, Texas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania -- while Missouri and New Mexico were reliable bellwether states.

Today, there are no bellwethers, only battlegrounds -- and they are few. Of the nation’s large states, only Ohio and Florida were actively contested this election cycle, and when pro-Romney forces made their late push in Pennsylvania, senior Obama adviser David Plouffe ridiculed the GOP gambit as “a desperate ploy,” while his colleague David Axelrod vowed to shave his mustache if Romney carried Pennsylvania, Michigan or Minnesota.

In the end, those states may not have any effect the outcome, but that little wager, too, will be decided on Tuesday.

This pursuit of swing voters referenced by Joel Benenson has taken its toll. Amid a sour economy that made it difficult to run solely on his record, Benenson’s boss eschewed the aspirational approach taken in 2008. Instead, the Obama camp embarked on a brass knuckles campaign that was often trivial and tedious -- and so relentlessly negative that a 4-year-old could see through it. In fact, a 4-year-old did: The most memorable response from all the negative campaigning -- and the Republicans certainly did it too -- came from 4-year-old Abigail Evans of Fort Collins, Colo.

In a reaction captured by her mother and posted on YouTube (9.7 million views and counting), the little girl begins crying after hearing an NPR news report on the race. When her mother, Elizabeth, asks her daughter why she’s in tears, Abby replies, “Just because I’m tired of Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney.”

“That’s why you’re crying?” her mother asks, and the girl nods. “The election will be over soon,” she promises soothingly. “Okay?” 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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