It's easy to forget in this polarized era that presidential re-election campaigns are rarely close. George W. Bush narrowly beat John Kerry in 2004, but that was the first close re-election campaign since President Woodrow Wilson defeated Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916.
Today, though, we face a near dead-even race where nobody can predict with confidence whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will take the oath of office Jan. 20.
This is what happens when the force of an undeniably historic presidency collides with the intransigence of a brutally historic recession.
In Obama we have a candidate who won the presidency four years ago promising hope, change and transformational politics. Today, he is trying to become the first president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to win a second term with unemployment north of 7.2 percent by slicing and dicing the electorate's demographics and shredding his opponent's image.
In Romney, we have a technocrat who effortlessly shifts his ideology and who despite every advantage struggled mightily to win his party's nomination against seriously flawed rivals. The former governor and venture capitalist long expected this election to be a simple referendum on the incumbent, but instead it became a choice between two of America's best and brightest success stories.
And again Florida is in the middle of it all.
Without Florida, Romney has no plausible path to the White House. But despite Republican hopes that Romney would lock it down months ago, he finds himself spending precious time in the final days still trying to secure our 29 electoral votes.
Romney has the edge here, but this is a mega state whose demographics are moving inexorably toward the Democrats unless the GOP finds a way to reach out to the growing pool of nonwhite voters.
Just two years ago, Floridians swept Democrats into irrelevancy in Tallahassee and elected as governor a little-known businessman with a potent promise similar to Romney's: "Let's get to work" and "700,000 jobs in seven years."
Florida looked more Republican red than any time in history. If ever there were a state that looked to be leaning Republican, this was it.
That Obama has even managed to keep this state that he barely won four years ago competitive speaks volumes about the political landscape and the electorate. Polls generally show voters in Florida and across the country trust Romney more to improve the economy, but in an election where the economy is the overriding issue, he still can't close the deal.
"Normally one would expect that with the state of the economy that the incumbent would have a very hard mountain to climb to be successful," said former Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat. "For a variety of reasons Gov. Romney hasn't connected with the American people to the point they have been willing to say, 'I want to fire the incumbent and I'm sure this is the person that I want to replace the incumbent.' Plus, there was a campaign on both sides focused so heavily on negatives and therefore hasn't given a reason for people to be emotionally enthusiastic about either candidate."
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Given the confounding economic condition of the country, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the election is so confounding.
"People were disappointed in Obama but still a narrow majority approved of his job performance unlike Carter in '80 or Bush in '92 or Ford in '76. Obama has been in the gray area all along,'' said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "I think that happened once the economy didn't bounce back strongly — but it also didn't fail, it didn't spin back into recession as some people predicted. It's in the gray area, and guess what? The election's in the gray area, too."
If Obama loses the election, we will pinpoint one critical moment: That first debate in Denver, when his lifeless performance — and Romney's strong performance — opened the door for Romney to get back into a race that had been slipping away.
It has happened before. John F. Kennedy by many accounts would not have become president without Richard Nixon appearing pale and sickly in the nation's first televised presidential debate in 1960. Gerald Ford may well have beaten Jimmy Carter if he hadn't said during their 1976 debate that, "There is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe" — and then refused to budge on that for days.
If Romney loses the election, we probably will look back at this past summer as the key factor. The Romney campaign held off on running ads positively introducing him, while Obama spent millions of dollars casting Romney as a greedy corporate takeover artist who became super wealthy while cutting and outsourcing jobs.
It was precisely the same tactic Ted Kennedy used to defeat Romney in their 1994 Massachusetts U.S. Senate race but, amazingly, the Romney campaign struggled to counter it effectively. They allowed Obama to define Romney before Romney defined himself.
"It was a big mistake," Bob Shrum, a top Kennedy adviser, said of Romney's inability to defend his record as CEO of Bain Capital. "The only thing I can think of is there isn't a good answer. They could have put out a paper that said, 'Look here's the net job creation in the U.S. as a result of the deals that he did.' I assume if they could have done that they would have done that. But they should have had some answer beyond, 'This is the free enterprise system.' "
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This is a deeply polarized country, but it is also a deeply optimistic country.
Extreme partisans will fume over the results. But the center core of America, even those disappointed with the final vote tally, can embrace the hope that every election offers. The country is winding down two wars, the economy is ticking up and a new chapter is about the start.
Even the images of President Obama last week working well with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the GOP convention's keynote speaker, seemed a sign of hope fitting for the end of a marathon election.
"We are at the same time increasingly tribal as a country and yet yearning for cooperation and compromise to solve problems," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
Along the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged shores of New Jersey, the images of a Republican governor and Democratic president simply doing their jobs suggested that at some point, finally, politics will give way to leadership.
Tuesday offers that same opportunity, whoever wins.
Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected]