As of Wednesday night, Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls has President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney in a statistical tie to become the most powerful man in the world: 47.4% apiece, and the election goes to whomever can convince that 5.2% in between. Of course, to win this election, neither candidate needs to convince that entire 5.2%, only the fraction that happens to live in Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado, Florida, or Virginia.
It is hard to imagine either the Green Party candidate Jill Stein or the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson taking enough votes from either Obama or Romney to change the outcome of the election. (Most of the states where they are likely to steal votes, like Massachusetts and Montana , aren’t swing states anyway). But the coverage they have received and endorsements they have secured might prevent the eventual Democratic or Republican victor from having a mandate.
The problem is not so much the even split; it's that no one seems to be particularly enthusiastic about the candidate on their side of the divide. In spite of what third party voters say, there are significant differences between Romney and Obama. But voters are casting the ballots for the parties this time; not for their candidates. Even among Obama’s supporters, there is a sense that his presidency was much less than they bargained for. Maybe they got most of what they wanted: health insurance is mandatory, the president signed a stimulus package, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed.
But BHO is no FDR or JFK. He might not even be an LBJ (at least Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act and the Social Security Amendments of 1965). When Obama became president, the ocean levels were supposed to stop rising, the planet was supposed to begin to heal, the unemployment rate was supposed to stay below 8% and the President and Democratic Congress were supposed to create a ruling consensus to which the Republicans would have to either acquiesce to, or become extinct.
That was a long time ago. Now, unemployment isn’t much better than it was when Obama came into office and the president is touting on his website that fossil fuel production has increased during every year of his presidency. For a lot of people wearing Hope and Change T-shirts in 2008, their choice this year is probably looking like the lesser of two evils.
The same is true in the Republican camp. Mitt Romney might be a conservative candidate, but he looks a lot less conservative than he did in 2007, when he was getting endorsements from people like Tom Tancredo. The Romney who was governor of Massachusetts was much less conservative than Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie — officials whose potential 2016 candidacies would be forestalled by a Romney administration. In Massachusetts, Romney was probably even less fiscally conservative than New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a likely Democratic nominee in four years.
Neither candidate is likely to emerge from the election in an immediate position to enact significant change, unless it is bipartisan. Maybe if Romney were elected, some sort of budget deal could be worked out with the Democratic Senate. But, as David Brooks argued recently, four more years of President Obama would probably be four more years of gridlock (which may or may not be broken by the 2014 midterms, but probably not so much that the Democrats could enact many changes beyond maybe raising income taxes slightly.)
Don’t get me wrong. Your vote matters (at least if you live in Ohio). But, if nothing else, the closeness of this horse race indicates that there isn’t much enthusiasm on either side. Gone are the days when an incumbent could have an electoral map that looked like this, or a challenger could have one that looked like this. Maps like that require either a very weak opponent or a very strong candidate. Neither Romney nor Obama are particularly weak in this contest, but since both of them are likely to emerge from it with less than 50% of the vote, neither of them is looking very strong either.