President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney—along with their myriad surrogates, advisors and official and unofficial campaign wingmen—worked deep in the final night of the contentious 2012 campaign spinning predictions for the outcome of today’s election, preparing for the blame game that will follow bitter disappointment certain for millions who vote for the losing candidate, and making a frantic final scramble for votes.
For months, this race was described as a grueling duel between candidates who each were viewed less than enthusiastically by even their own base of supporters—a grinding battle of attrition by two flawed and not-so-inspiring men. Yet in the last days and hours of the campaign, something very different appeared to be happening. As Romney, Obama and their allies raced through a whirlwind of appearances across the key battleground states, the campaign transformed as they were by raucous crowds of often staggering size.
Romney closed his day in New Hampshire before more than 12,000 ecstatic supporters. Earlier, the Republican made aswift visit to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, part of a last ditch effort to put in play the 20 electoral votes held by a state long assumed to be solidly in the Democratic column. He was greeted by a crowd of 30,000, according to local reporters.
Obama finished the night in Iowa, in an emotional gathering before 20,000 during which, in the style of his late-campaign partner, former President Bill Clinton, he reportedly shed a single tear. Earlier, the president spoke to 20,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin. That was on the heels of a Virginia rally late Saturday with a crowd of more than 24,000 people. (Notably, the other most recent ex-president, Republican George W. Bush, remained to the last hour as he has been throughout this election year—completely invisible.)
On both sides of the race, advocates for the candidates made dramatic claims that the huge gatherings of supporters and other signs demonstrated that the electorate was breaking their direction—that victory was certain. Michael Barone, an editorial writer for the conservative Washington Examiner, pronounced that Romney was on his way to a stunning 315 electoral vote victory. That tally included a sweep of not just both Florida and Virginia (where polls have shown the candidate with razor thin leads), but also in most states where surveys put him meaningfully behind—Ohio, Colorado, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The president’s chief political advisor, David Axelrod, bluntly countered those and similar “weird theories” during a stop in Wisconsin. “We’re going to win the electoral vote and we’re going to win the popular vote,” Axelrod said. “We’re very, very confident.”
The last final rounds of independent polling in the race continued to show an astonishingly close election, but also suggested that Romney in fact faced growing obstacles as election day arrived. There was little movement in all late polls, but where there was any, nearly all of shifted toward Obama—including a potentially decisive movement back toward the president by female voters.
Early Monday, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll put the president ahead in critical Ohio by a six-point margin, 51-45. A Washington Post daily tracking poll released later in the day gave Obama a two point edge, 50-48, in nationwide polling—a small but dramatic shift after weeks of surveys showing a virtual dead heat. The New York Times’ celebrated number cruncher, Nate Silver, calculated that based on his analysis of all polls, Obama’s likelihood of reelection was above 92%.
Republican groups—particular ones affiliated with some tea party organizations—arguably mounted the party’s most ambitious effort in decades to attract conservative black voters in 2012. The strategy was that in a tightly contested election, convincing even a sliver of African-American voters to return to the Republican coalition that virtually all blacks were a part of until the 1930s could potentially change the outcome of the race. A coalition of black pastors traveled the country calling on other minority clergymen to denounce Obama for his shift to support gay marriage—a position historically opposed by a large majority of black voters. FreedomWorks, one of the largest national organizations affiliated with the Tea Party movement, helped finance extensive outreach efforts aimed at socially conservative African-Americans, including production of a feature length film titled “Runaway Slave” that toured cineplexes across the U.S. in recent months.
But in the final stage of the campaign, there were growing signs that little erosion had occurred in black support for the president. After an initial dip in support for the president among African-Americans immediately after his gay marriage announcement, polls in critical states showed black support return to levels essentially equivalent to 2008. Surveys by Public Policy Polling in North Carolina found that over time, many more black voters shifted to support gay marriage after the president changed his position than turned against Obama because of it. Many black voters also said they were infuriated by attacks by Congressional Republicans on Attorney General Eric Holder and comments by Romney last summer to an NAACP national meeting.
In narrow margin states where a large population of African-American voters could be decisive to the outcome—Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio—the Obama campaign unleashed massive get out the vote efforts in recent days. Focused on predominantly black colleges and African-American barber and beauty shops, the push reached tens of thousands of voters. “We tell them their vote counts,” said Tiara Moore, a 23-year-old graduate student at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., after a day of canvassing on campus. “People fought for this. Died for it. And you’re just going to sit in your classroom.” Social issues like gay marriage, she said, were irrelevant. “We talk about healthcare and student loans.”
Across the country, huge numbers of Americans voted early—reaching more than 45 million, or a third of all votes likely to be cast. In Florida, 4.4 million had voted by Monday morning, slightly more of them Democrats than Republicans. In Ohio, the total number of early ballots reached 1.6 million, with long lines and record level voting in some counties right to the end. The campaigns quarreled through interviews and talk shows over whether those numbers worked to the advantage of Romney or Obama, but the numbers were indisputable that voter enthusiasm has not plummeted. In North Carolina, where Obama won the state by fewer than 15,000 votes in 2008, the number of earlyvotes approached 3 million, with 48 percent of them coming from Democrats and 32 percent from registered Republicans. Obama partisans said tens of thousands more advance ballots had been cast in Ohio counties won by the president in 2008 than in counties carried that year by Sen. John McCain—and that large majorities of the early and late-registering voters were women, minorities and young people. Those are all groups in which late polling showed strong leads for the president. Advisors to Romney scoffed at those suggestions.
Both campaigns also appeared to be competing for the “most-grueling” finale prize, as they and their surrogates appeared in a dizzying number of locations. Each candidate was said to have logged 6,000 or more miles of travel in the final episode of the race. An Obama insider circulated a data sheet that read like the racing sheets on a thoroughbred horse. The president had visited Ohio 22 times in 2012; Vice President Joe Biden 1 time; First Lady Michelle Obama 8 times; More than 21,000 volunteers had visited 828,000 voters over the past weekend.
In news stories Monday, Romney campaign officials said they had matched the president’s vaunted get out the vote machine step by step, sign by sign, and door knocker by door knocker. Now let the votes be counted.
Douglas A. Blackmon is the Pulitzer Prize winning chair of the Miller Center Forum at the University of Virginia and a contributor to the Washington Post.