WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney left voters on Election Day with a stark choice between their fundamentally different visions for the country’s future, laid out during an aggressive and closely fought battle for the White House. The winner might not be known until early Wednesday morning.
Both sides cast Tuesday’s decision as one with far-reaching repercussions for a nation still recovering from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and at odds over how big a role government should play in solving the country’s staggering debt and high unemployment.
After months of campaigning and billions of dollars spent in the battle for leadership of the world’s most powerful country, Obama and Romney were in a virtual nationwide tie, a symptom of the country’s vast partisan divide.
Obama appeared to have a slight edge, however, in some of the key swing states such as Ohio that do not vote reliably Democratic or Republican. That gives him an easier path to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
“I feel optimistic, but only cautiously optimistic,” Obama said on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.” ”Because until people actually show up at the polls and cast their ballot, the rest of this stuff is all just speculation.“
Romney told Ohio voters to remember as they go to the polls that the country is hurting financially under Obama’s policies. “If it comes down to economics and jobs, this is an election I should win,” Romney told Cleveland radio station WTAM. Romney cast his vote near his Massachusetts home Tuesday morning.
The Republican challenger and his running mate Paul Ryan later met in Cleveland Ohio for an Election Day rally in the state that could perhaps be the most crucial battleground of all. The Midwestern industrial state has chosen the winner of the last 12 presidential elections, and no Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio.
Reflecting its importance: Vice-President Joe Biden made an unannounced stop in Cleveland to play defence, arriving at the airport just before Ryan’s charter was pulling in for a landing. Biden left the tarmac without comment to the surprised media travelling on his plane.
Romney, who earlier Tuesday cast his vote near his Massachusetts home, also still had a rally in Pennsylvania, traditionally Democratic territory where the Republican has made a surprise and last-minute push — perhaps against all odds — to compensate for Obama’s expected victory in Ohio.
Obama voted last month, a move intended to encourage early voting that tends to favour Democrats.
The president was spending Election Day in his hometown of Chicago, where he was met with applause and tears from volunteers as he entered a campaign office before picking up a phone to call voters in Wisconsin. He congratulated Romney on a “spirited campaign” and told reporters he’s “confident we’ve got the votes to win but it’s going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out.”
Under the U.S. system, the winner of the presidential election is not determined by the nationwide popular vote but in state-by-state contests. The candidate who wins a state — with Maine and Nebraska the exceptions — is awarded all of that state’s electoral votes, which are apportioned based on representation in Congress.
The close race raised the possibility of a repeat of 2000, when the outcome was not known for weeks after protected recount in Florida and a Supreme Court decision. A narrow victory for either candidate is sure to deepen polarization and leave the winner without a strong mandate to face mounting problems —most pressingly, averting the “fiscal cliff” of higher taxes and deep automatic cuts in spending looming in January.
It wasn’t just the presidency at stake Tuesday: All 435 seats in the House of Representatives, a third of the 100 Senate seats, and 11 governorships were on the line, along with state ballot proposals on topics ranging from gay marriage to legalizing marijuana. Democrats were expected to maintain their majority in the Senate, with Republicans doing likewise in the House, raising the prospect of continued partisan wrangling no matter who might be president.
Obama’s final campaign rally, Monday night in Iowa was filled with nostalgia as he returned to the state which launched him on the road to the White House in 2008 with a victory in the race for the Democratic nomination. A single tear streamed down Obama’s face during his remarks, though it was hard to tell whether it was from emotion or the bitter cold.
There has been little of the euphoria that propelled Obama to the White House four years ago, with America’s first black president promising hope and renovation to a nation weighed down by war and a near financial meltdown.
The economy has proven a huge drag on Obama’s candidacy as he fought to turn it around after the deepest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, a downturn that was well under way when he replaced George W. Bush in the White House on Jan. 20, 2009.
No U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s has run for re-election with a national jobless rate as high as it is now — 7.9 per cent in October.
Unable to bridge America’s fierce partisan divide, especially on taxes and debt, Obama was thwarted in Congress in his efforts to pass aggressive plans for jobs creation and deficit reduction.
He ended the war in Iraq and the U.S. intelligence and military tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, but a new host of Middle East crises — especially the war in Syria and the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya — shadowed the last months of the campaign.
Obama, making his last run for office at age 51, credits his auto-industry bailout, stimulus plan and other policies for ending the recession. He points to recent positive economic reports and a slow but steady drop in the unemployment rate.
Romney, 65, assails Obama’s economic policies amid the recession and promised to bring change that he asserted Obama had only talked about.
If elected, Romney would be the first Mormon U.S. president. At times, the former Massachusetts governor has struggled to connect with the protestant evangelicals who are a core constituency of the Republican Party, especially because of his shifting positions on some social issues such as abortion.
Romney, the ultra-wealthy founder of a private equity firm who has essentially been running for president for the past six years, worked doggedly to keep the race focused on the economy, and polls suggest that he succeeded in persuading many Americans he has the right credentials to steer America to better times. His selection of Ryan, a young and fiercely conservative Wisconsin congressman, as his running mate put Romney squarely on the side of the small-government Tea Party movement that has been a driving force of the Republican Party in recent years.
Romney’s strong performance during the first presidential debate in September turned around a campaign that had been stumbling over the summer — including a gaffe-filled trip abroad — and he has worked carefully ever since to keep up the momentum and avoid new mistakes.
When he spoke after voting Tuesday, it was the first time he had answered a direct question from the travelling press corps since late September. Asked who he voted for, he said with a smile, “I think you know.”
Obama and Romney have spent months highlighting their sharp divisions over the role of government in Americans’ lives, in bringing down the stubbornly high unemployment rate, reducing the $1 trillion-plus federal budget deficit and reducing a national debt that has crept above $16 trillion.
Obama insists there is no way reduce the staggering debt and safeguard crucial social programs without asking the wealthy to pay their “fair share” in taxes. Romney, who claims his successful business background gives him the expertise to manage the economy, favours lowering taxes and easing regulations on businesses, saying this would spur job growth.
The final Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, released Monday, showed Obama with support from 50 per cent of likely voters to 47 per cent for Romney. The poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.
More than 30 million absentee or early ballots have already been cast, including in excess of 3 million in Florida.
In surveys of the battleground states, Obama held small advantages in Nevada, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin — enough to deliver a second term if they held up, but not so significant that they could withstand an Election Day surge by Romney supporters. Romney appears to be performing slightly better than Obama or has pulled even in North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
Election Day turnout was heavy in several storm-ravaged areas in New York and New Jersey, with many voters expressing relief and even elation at being able to vote at all, considering the devastation from Superstorm Sandy.