By Dave Clark
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Tens of millions of U.S. voters cast judgment on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Tuesday, with both fighting nerves and emotion but sure of victory in a tight tussle for the White House.
Republican Romney, seeking to unseat the Democratic president after a single term, wrote his victory speech, while the cool Obama blew off election day stress with his traditional game of basketball as voters decided his fate.
Obama, 51 hoped to shrug off a slow economy to become the second Democrat since World War II to win re-election, and went into election day as slight favorite given the fact he led polls in sufficient swing states to win.
Romney, 65, a private equity baron and former Massachusetts governor blasted by critics as an out-of-touch plutocrat, would make history as the first Mormon president, and is hoping for a late swing undetected by pollsters.
The Republican made last-minute election-day trips to key states Ohio and Pennsylvania and appeared caught up in the emotion of seeing his name on the ballot for president of the United States.
Romney also saw an omen in a huge crowd that showed up at a multistory parking lot to see his plane land at Pittsburgh airport.
“Intellectually I felt that we’re going to win this and I’ve felt that for some time,” Romney told reporters on his plane.
“But emotionally, just getting off the plane and seeing those people standing there, … I not only think we’re going to win intellectually but I feel it as well.”
Romney said he had already penned a victory speech he expected to deliver in Boston late on Tuesday night.
Obama took part in his election day tradition of playing a game of pick-up basketball with friends, including Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, after visiting a campaign office near his Chicago home.
The president, who like a third of U.S. voters cast his ballot before election day, congratulated Romney on “a spirited campaign” despite their frequently hot-tempered exchanges.
“I know that his supporters are just as engaged and just as enthusiastic and working just as hard today. We feel confident we’ve got the votes to win, that it’s going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out,” he said.
“I think anybody who’s running for office would be lying if they say that there’s not some butterflies before the polls come in because anything can happen,” the president added later in a radio interview.
“That’s the magic of democracy, it’s up to the people to decide.”
Early voting was brisk as many sought to beat fast-developing queues in key battleground states like Florida and Virginia, where waits of up to three hours were reported at some polling stations.
CBS News, quoting early exit polls, said 39 percent of people approached after they had voted said the economy, the key issue, was improving, while 31 percent said it was worse and 28 saw it as staying the same.
Voters were also choosing a third of the Democratic-led Senate and the entire Republican-run House of Representatives. But, with neither chamber expected to change hands, the current political gridlock will likely continue.
First polls, in Indiana and Kentucky, closed at 2300 GMT, while voting ends in key battlegrounds Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio within hours.
A dispiriting and ill-tempered race, so different from Obama’s euphoric “hope and change” victory in 2008, produced the election both sides expected – a frantic scrap for thin victory margins in a clutch of swing states.
The U.S. presidential election is not directly decided by the popular vote, but requires candidates to pile up a majority – 270 – of 538 electoral votes awarded state-by-state on the basis of population.
A candidate can therefore win the nationwide popular vote and still be deprived of the presidency by falling short in the Electoral College.
Obama, the U.S.’ first black president, has built a last line of defense in the Midwestern states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa, which would, in conjunction with safe Democratic states, guarantee him re-election.
In poll averages by the RealClearPolitics website, Obama led in Iowa (by 2.4 percent), Ohio (2.9 percent), Wisconsin (4.2 percent), Virginia (0.3 percent), New Hampshire (2.0 percent), and Colorado (1.5 percent).
Romney led by 1.5 percent in the biggest swing state, Florida, and in North Carolina, which Obama won by just three percent, or 14,000 votes, in 2008.
Romney aides predicted a surge of enthusiasm for the Republican would confound state polls, which they said overestimated the likely Democratic turnout and did not register the undercurrent of antipathy for Obama.
“It’s going to be a higher than normal turnout for sure,” said Romney campaigner Chris Redder as he distributed sample ballots to voters in Falls Church, Virginia, indicating which Republican boxes they should tick.
There were certainly long lines at many voting places, leading to grumbling in some quarters and especially in flood-battered areas of New York and New Jersey where last week’s superstorm disrupted polling preparations.
Adora Agim, an immigrant from Nigeria, said the chaos shouldn’t stop voting. “I have lived in a Third World country where your vote does not matter. It’s nice to be somewhere where it matters,” she said, in Hoboken, New Jersey.
The central message of Obama’s campaign has been that he saved the U.S. from a second Great Depression after the economy was on the brink of collapse when he took over from Republican President George W. Bush in 2009.
He claims credit for ending the war in Iraq, saving the U.S. auto industry, killing Osama bin Laden, offering almost every U.S. resident health insurance, and passing the most sweeping Wall Street reform in decades.
Romney sought to mine frustration with the slow pace of the economic recovery and argued that the president was out of ideas and has no clue how to create jobs, with unemployment at 7.9 percent and millions out of work.
No president since World War II has been elected with the unemployment rate above 7.4 percent, and Obama is hoping to avoid the fate of a host of European leaders who paid for the economic crisis with their jobs.
Voters will also weigh in on more than 170 statewide ballot issues for everything from gay marriage to marijuana legalization and abortion.