The world's most extravagant presidential race reaches its climax

Rupert Cornwell introduces our pull-out companion for insomniac UK viewers

At last – and most would say not before time – the only poll that matters is at hand. Today Americans will elect either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as their next president. Which man an estimated 130 million or more voters will choose, is as uncertain now as it has been almost all year.

The campaign has been a record-breaker in many ways, not all of them desirable. An unprecedented $2bn (£1.2bn) will have been spent on the presidential vote alone, more than $6bn if Senate and House elections are included. More ads will have flooded the airwaves than ever before. Yet fewer states were seriously contested than in any recent election, leaving much of the country unvisited by a candidate and in spirit almost disenfranchised.

Some constants however hold true. History shows that incumbents are rarely defeated. With the exception of 1976 and Gerald Ford (who was never elected in the first place), it has happened only twice in three-quarters of a century. On the other hand however, the ever-growing polarisation of US politics means that close elections are now the norm.

A Roosevelt or Reagan-style landslide is inconceivable in today's divided America. George W Bush won a couple of squeakers, while Mr Obama's 2008 margin of 365-173 in the Electoral College may have been a high water mark for any candidate.

This time, he will do well to garner 300 electoral votes. As for the challenger, barring an undetected eleventh-hour break in Mr Romney's favour, a win might be even narrower, with few even among his own supporters giving him more than 280 or so, barely above the 270 needed to win. A 269-269 tie is not totally out of the question; nor is a split verdict, where one candidate (more probably Mr Romney right now, according to analysts) wins the popular vote but loses the Electoral College. If there are recounts and legal disputes, the winner may not be known for days, perhaps longer.

For all the ups and downs, the contest has ended up more or less where it started: too close to call. From early in the Republican primary season, Team Obama never doubted two things: that 2012 would be a much more difficult and very different campaign from 2008; and that Romney would be the opponent in November.

The result was a grinding and mostly negative campaign, concentrated on a handful of swing states, in which the Obama campaign quickly moved to define Mr Romney as an elitist corporate raider, in thrall to his party's right wing. The challenger was slow to fight back, and did not help his cause with a series of gaffes, most notably his secretly recorded riff at a closed door Florida fundraiser about 47 per cent of Americans who considered themselves "victims".

Even so the race was neck and neck, except for the single month of September, between the Democratic convention and the first presidential debate, when Mr Obama opened up a lead beyond the statistical margin of error and even many Republicans were starting to give up on their candidate.

That fleeting advantage evaporated on 3 October and the first debate in Denver, where Mr Romney was as commanding as the President was listless. Momentum passed to the challenger, wooing independent voters with a more moderate stance. Not only did the former Massachusetts governor pull into a narrow lead in national polls, he also chipped away at Mr Obama's advantage in the 10 or so battleground states that the latter carried in 2008, in some of them overtaking him.

There matters stood until Hurricane Sandy stopped the campaign in its tracks for three days. Suddenly, the strident candidate Obama became Commander-in-Chief Obama, monitoring the crisis from the White House Situation Room, even basking in praise from Republican Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, the state worst hit by Sandy. Mr Romney perforce was reduced to onlooker. Early voting notwithstanding, if Sandy helped anyone, it was Mr Obama.

But with few undecideds, the result may hinge on the "ground game" – the ability of each side to get supporters to the polls. Republicans appear to have the energy, the Obama campaign the better organisation. Which will prevail, no one can be sure.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine