After a long and bitter White House campaign, Americans began casting their votes yesterday with polls showing US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney neck-and-neck in an election that is likely to be decided in a handful of states.
Polling stations opened across the eastern US and parts of the Midwest as Election Day dawned. At least 120 million people were expected to render judgement on whether to give Obama a second term or replace him with Romney.
Their decision will set the country’s course for four years on spending, taxes, healthcare and foreign policy challenges, such as the rise of China and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
National opinion polls show Obama and Romney in a virtual dead heat, although the incumbent has a slight advantage in several vital swing states — most notably Ohio — that could give him the 270 electoral votes he needs to win.
Romney, the multimillionaire, would be the first Mormon president and one of the wealthiest Americans to occupy the White House. Obama, the first black president, is vying to be the first Democrat to win a second term since former US president Bill Clinton in 1996.
Fueled by record spending on negative ads, the battle between the two men was focused primarily on the lagging economic recovery and persistent high unemployment, but at times it turned personal.
As Americans headed to voting booths and long lines formed in some places, campaign teams for both candidates worked the telephones feverishly to mobilize supporters to cast their ballots.
Polls would begin to close in Indiana and Kentucky at 6pm Eastern Standard Time yesterday, with voting ending across the country over the following six hours.
The first results, by tradition, were tallied in Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location, New Hampshire, shortly after midnight. Obama and Romney each received five votes in Dixville Notch. In Hart’s Location, Obama got 23 votes to nine votes for Romney and two votes for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
The close presidential race raises the prospect of a disputed outcome similar to the 2000 election, which was decided by the US Supreme Court. Both campaigns have assembled legal teams to deal with possible voting problems or recounts.
The balance of power in the US Congress will also be at stake in the Senate and House of Representatives races that could impact the outcome of “fiscal cliff” negotiations on spending cuts and tax increases, which kick in at the end of the year unless a deal is reached.
Obama’s Democrats were expected to narrowly hold their Senate majority, while Romney’s Republicans are favored to retain control of the House.
Despite the weak economy, Obama appeared in September to be cruising to a relatively easy win after a strong party convention and a series of stumbles by Romney, including a secretly recorded video showing the Republican writing off 47 percent of the electorate as government-dependent victims, but Romney rebounded in the first debate on Oct. 3 in Denver, Colorado, where his sure-footed criticism of the president and Obama’s listless response started a slow rise for Romney in the polls.
Obama seemed to regain his footing in recent days at the head of federal relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
The presidential contest was likely to be determined by voter turnout — specifically, what combination of Republicans, Democrats, white, minority, young, old and independent voters showed up at polling stations.
Obama and Romney raced through seven battleground states on Monday to hammer home their final themes, urge supporters to go to the polls and try to woo the last remaining undecided voters.
Obama focused on Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, the three Midwestern swing states that, barring surprises elsewhere, would insure that he reaches the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Romney visited the must-win states of Florida, Virginia and Ohio, before finishing in New Hampshire, where he launched his presidential run in June last year.
After two days of nearly round-the-clock travel, Obama wrapped up his final campaign tour in Des Moines, Iowa, with a speech that hearkened back to his 2008 campaign.
“I’ve come back to Iowa one more time to ask for your vote. I came back to ask you to help us finish what we’ve started, because this is where our movement for change began,” he told a crowd of about 20,000 people.
Obama’s voice broke and he wiped away tears as he reflected on those who had helped his campaign.
Romney’s final day included stops in Florida, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire. The former governor of Massachusetts ended Monday at a raucous “Final Victory” rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, the city where he launched his campaign last year.
“We’re one day away from a fresh start. We’re one day away from a new beginning,” the candidate told the crowd of 12,000 at a sports arena in the center of the city.