What to watch for on Election Day

Lance Selfa and Alan Maass suggest a few Election Day questions to think about.

Voting booths set up for early voting in New York state (Joe Shlabotnik)Voting booths set up for early voting in New York state (Joe Shlabotnik)

IT'S ELECTION Day, and the presidential race has come down to a virtual dead heat between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Overall, opinion polls seem to show that momentum swung to Obama and the Democrats in the final days of the campaign, but an Obama victory is nowhere near a certainty. The Democrats could still take a beating if an energized Republican Party base turns out strong.

The dynamics of the months of campaigning will come into play here: Romney and the Republicans have tried to connect to widespread discontent and bitterness at the economic crisis to win over undecided "swing voters" in the middle--while whipping up hatred and contempt for the Democrats and especially Obama to galvanize their base.

The Democrats are working just as hard to portray themselves as the responsible party that will stand up to the GOP extremists, whether on economic questions, like taxes, or social ones, like the right to choose or immigration. They want to convince core supporters and swing voters alike that however disappointed they may be in Obama, they have to vote to stop the racist, sexist, anti-labor and anti-environment Republicans.

These dynamics have been well reported in the media, and if you watch cable news or follow the Internet today, you'll hear a lot about turnout, swing voters, long or short lines at polling stations, and all the other details of a national election.

But you won't hear anything at all about some of the most important facts about Election 2012.

The candidates, their parties and the media who cover them all have a vested interest in portraying the election as a clear choice between two starkly different options. But if you look behind the rhetoric, the uncomfortable truth for both parties is that Obama and Romney stand for the same basic agenda on many, many questions. Austerity measures to reduce the deficit, U.S. wars and occupations, tax breaks for business, corporate-driven "reform" of public education, "fixing" Social Security and Medicare--on all these and many more issues, the differences between the candidates are dwarfed by what they share in common.

SocialistWorker.org readers should have this in mind today, too: the hard fact that the "most important election in our lifetime" won't change the general direction of U.S. politics--unless ordinary people stand up and fight for it.

So here are a few factors to look for during the day to see where the election is heading--and a few deeper questions to keep in mind that won't get much, if any, attention at all.

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Who voted?

National opinion polls taken in the final weekend before the election showed the presidential race to be essentially a tie, with both Obama and Romney pulling about 48 percent of the vote. At the same time, most political observers, including the statistically rigorous analysts at sites like 538.com and Votamatic.org, predict an Obama win in the Electoral College.

But all of these predictions are based on educated guesswork about who will actually vote--which isn't at all the same as who is eligible or registered to vote. Throughout the campaign, polls have shown consistently that Obama's support is higher among registered voters than "likely" voters.

The population of eligible voters is 27.5 percent non-white, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In the 2008 election, which Obama won handily, the electorate was almost 25 percent non-white, and African Americans were twice as likely as whites to vote. In the 2010 midterm election that the Republicans won in a landslide, the percentage of non-white voters dropped to 22.5 percent.

So if the electorate today looks more like the one that turned out in 2008, Obama has to be considered the strong favorite.

The Obama campaign has banked on getting out its supporters who are less likely to go to the polls on Election Day by promoting early and absentee voting in battleground states where those options exist. That increases the odds that a more working-class Democratic electorate will vote.

It's estimated that as many as one-third of voters will have voted before Election Day, and preliminary figures suggest the Democrats have the edge in most swing states where it's possible to assess the partisan or racial/ethnic makeup of early voters. But the election will hinge on whether Democrats can roll up enough of a lead in early voting to overcome what's expected to be a stronger showing of Republicans on Election Day.

As the media start to go over exit polling data on Election Night, here are a few indicators to watch for:

-- The "gender gap": It's generally conceded that Romney will win the majority of men who vote, so Obama's chances depend on how lopsided the women's vote is for him. The Obama campaign is hoping to win women voters by eight percentage points or more.

-- The "union household" vote: Although union members are only 11.4 percent of the U.S. workforce, they provide a substantial boost for Democratic candidates. If about one-quarter or more of the electorate identifies as a "union household," that's another pro-Obama sign. These figures will be especially important to watch in the Midwestern "battleground" states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where the Republicans are hoping to win over voters bitter about the economic crisis.

-- The Latino vote: If the national Latino component of the electorate increases from 1 out of 14 (the figure in the 2008 presidential election) to 1 out of 10 (the Census Bureau's estimate of Latinos in the voting age population), then Republicans will be in big trouble. If Obama wins in Nevada, Florida and/or Colorado, the Latino vote will be a big part of the story.

-- Wildcards: Will right-wing third party candidate Virgil Goode, a former Republican member of the house from Virginia, sink Romney's chances in that battleground state? How will the vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico, affect the race in Colorado, New Mexico and New Hampshire? Will voters in East Coast states hit hard by Hurricane Sandy be able to vote?

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Who voted, but it didn't count?

The Republicans haven't left their advantage with a smaller, whiter, older electorate just to chance. The first party of American business has engaged for many years in a systematic effort to disenfranchise a section of voters that is disproportionately young, poor, working class and especially non-white.

The question is whether the election is close enough for this to tip the balance.

Some of the GOP's most brazen voter suppression efforts were defeated in the courts when Pennsylvania, Texas and South Carolina laws requiring voters to show a photo ID were struck down, at least for this election. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, African Americans of voting age are three times less likely to have a current government-issued photo ID than whites; those earning less than $35,000 and people aged 18 to 24 are two times less likely to have a photo ID.

Still, there are less restrictive voter ID laws in place in a majority of states. And then there's the more commonplace way to depress the turnout--make people wait in line for hours and hours.

There are problems at polling places in any election--erroneous records, not enough election workers, malfunctioning machines. But they seem to have been epidemic in the battleground state of Ohio in recent elections--especially when Republican officials had something to do with it. On the other hand, in 2008, the biggest reason for Election Day problems was that polling places were swamped by an unexpectedly high turnout of people wanting to vote for Obama.

The media will follow reports of irregularities closely today, though it will be hard to tell what they mean. But there's one scandalous fact about the "world's greatest democracy" that you won't hear about: Most of the voter suppression for Election 2012 has already taken place, with not a word of protest from Republicans or Democrats.

For example, about 20 million immigrants--both documented and undocumented--are denied a vote in the country where they live, work and raise their families. And there are 5.3 million Americans with felony convictions--and even misdemeanor convictions in several states--which bar them from casting a ballot. African Americans and Latinos are, of course, disproportionately affected.

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Who voted, and their votes were counted, but they didn't vote in a swing state, so it still didn't count?

Here's another disgraceful fact about the "land of the free": Americans don't actually elect the president.

That's done by the Electoral College, the 18th century relic of the Constitution, put in place to placate the Southern slave states. Under this undemocratic arrangement, electors are assigned for each state based on its number of members of Congress. In almost all states, the electors vote unanimously for whoever won the statewide popular vote, no matter how close the margin. (Washington, D.C., has three electors though it doesn't have a single voting representative in Congress, but D.C.'s lack of representation is another undemocratic outrage we don't have time to get into.)

What does this mean? For starters, the least populated states have disproportionately more electoral votes--because all states have two senators. Thus, Wyoming's three electors each represent fewer than 190,000 residents. California's 55 electors each speak for nearly 700,000 residents.

Another consequence of the Electoral College is that the presidential election only takes place in a small number of "battleground states"--and everyone else is an onlooker. The candidates build their campaigns around winning not the votes of the majority of Americans, but whatever combination of states that will get them to 270 electoral votes--a majority in the Electoral College.

Thus, modern presidential campaigns almost always focus on a handful of closely divided "swing states" while ignoring huge swathes of the country where Democrats usually win (so-called "blue states") or Republicans usually win (the "red states"). In 2012, the nine acknowledged swing states--Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Virginia and North Carolina--represent only about one-fifth of the U.S. population.

Election Night coverage of the results will therefore revolve around who wins in these nine states--and chief among the nine, who wins in Ohio.

The media endlessly repeat the nugget of election trivia that no Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio. Nevertheless, the pattern appears likely to hold in 2012--Romney will have a very hard time getting to 270 electoral votes without Ohio. He would have to sweep Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado and still need victories in at least two or three of the bluer battleground states of New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nevada. Likewise, though Obama has more ways to win without Ohio, it would still be an uphill battle.

You'll be hearing about the "Electoral College math" all night--maybe until you're blue-state in the face about it--but here are a few thoughts about what may lie behind the numbers.

When the polls start closing in East Coast states, the first place to look is Virginia--if it goes to Obama, then Romney is pretty much toast. Obama won Virginia in 2008, the first time a Democrat carried the state in almost half a century--because of a surge of Black voters and the changing demographics of Northern Virginia. If Obama repeats this time around, then the Republicans will have failed in their attempt to recreate the largely solid South they've enjoyed since Ronald Reagan.

Virginia is the best bet for Obama in the South, but he has a chance in Florida and North Carolina, too--and many of the same factors apply.

Then it's the Midwestern battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa--Republicans claim they have a shot in Pennsylvania, too. The key issue here will be the economic crisis under Obama.

There will be a lot of talk about white voters. Obama made big inroads in 2008 that no Democrat had managed in decades. That won't be the case this time around, in a campaign where the Republicans' racist appeals have been even more brazen. But the media may ignore the importance of the African American and Latino vote. If Black turnout for Obama is enthusiastic in Ohio, it could counter any trends among white voters.

The Latino vote will be an important component if Obama wins in the Midwest, but it will be decisive in Colorado and Nevada--once reliably Republican states. Under some scenarios, Colorado, and not Ohio, could be the deciding battleground state. In that case, Obama's hopes will depend on winning the votes of Latinos disappointed by the president's broken promises, especially around immigration, but also fearful of what a Republican president in favor of "self-deportation" would bring.

Only four times in U.S. history has the loser of the national popular vote won the presidency with an Electoral College majority. In the most recent example, George W. Bush stole the White House in 2000 despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore by more than half a million votes.

That outcome is possible again in 2012--only the parties would be on opposite ends of the split, with Obama narrowly losing the popular vote and still getting to 270 electoral votes. If the Electoral College and the popular vote break in opposite directions, Democratic supporters will celebrate--but it will still be another reminder of how ramshackle and elitist capitalist democracy is in the United States.

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A choice or a referendum?

Much of what's discussed above--who the campaigns are trying to get out to vote (or not vote), what they're saying to who, where they're concentrating financial resources--is shaped by the overarching strategic aims of the two campaigns.

At the most basic level, Romney and the Republicans want the election to be a referendum on four years of Obama presiding over terrible economic conditions--while Obama and the Democrats want the election to be a choice between themselves as "defenders of the middle class" versus the Republican servants of the 1 Percent.

This isn't a secret--you'll hear the point made in numerous ways throughout Election Day. But you won't hear the implications--or what they tell us about the character of the two mainstream parties and the U.S. political system.

The strategies are a product of the broader economic and social backdrop to Election 2012. The Great Recession that began in the final years of George W. Bush has continued to take a toll on most people in the U.S. During Obama's time in office, corporate profits rebounded to new heights, while living standards for everyone but the elite declined. Employment is gaining ground so slowly that it will be at least a decade before the jobs lost in the recession are made up, and household real estate--the chief form of savings for ordinary people who have savings in the U.S.--never rebounded at all.

Romney and the Republicans want voters to ask the famous question asked by Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he ran against Jimmy Carter: Are you better off now than you were four years ago? If the election is about whether to rehire or fire Obama based on how his term in office affected them, voters would give Obama the pink slip.

But of course, Romney and the Republicans aren't going to improve the lives of working people. On the contrary, their agenda consists of tax cuts for the rich and big business, austerity measures to shrink the government, and a scorched-earth attack on organized labor and other forms of working-class organization.

Thus, the aim of the Obama campaign has been to turn the election into a "choice" between the two candidates, rather than a yes or no on Obama's record. The Democrats have to convince enough voters that firing Obama means hiring Romney, and that will make things worse.

For most of the year, the Obama campaign seemed to have the upper hand defining the election. The Democrats effectively painted Romney as an out-of-touch "1 Percenter," whose agenda was to continue redistributing wealth to the rich, while tearing up what's left of the social safety net.

The Republicans themselves turned out to be the Democrats' best ally in this effort. The GOP presidential primaries were a right-wing freak show--Romney and the other candidates vied to propose their personal tax cut fantasies and take the most extreme position on reproductive rights. Then Romney chose Paul Ryan as his running mate--the architect of the slash-and-burn House Republican budget designed to push austerity into hyperdrive.

But the dynamic of the election changed with the first presidential debate between Romney and Obama in early October. As an estimated 70 million people watched, a confident Romney fired statistic after statistic--about joblessness, poverty rates, the growing federal deficit and other indicators of a terrible economy--at a squirming and uncomfortable Obama.

In a brazen example of political shape-shifting, Romney disavowed his unpopular positions on cutting taxes for the wealthy, while insisting he had a "plan" to put Americans back to work. The election became a "referendum" again, and Obama's consistent lead in national opinion polls disappeared.

Romney's momentum only really slowed in the week before the election. One important factor was the political effects of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath.

During Election Night coverage, expect plenty of talk about how Obama showed he was "a strong leader"--and the importance of the president's photo op with New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie, reportedly Romney's first choice for a running mate, and the endorsement of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But there's a wider political issue that may be even more important: The Sandy disaster showed the need for government action--not only for the competent management of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was famously turned into a nest of cronyism and corruption under George Bush, but for the major infrastructure projects and other initiatives that are so clearly necessary to prevent climate change-related catastrophes in the future.

Meanwhile, the Republican presidential campaign revolves--more so than for any GOP presidential candidate in a generation--around letting the free market reign supreme and radically reducing the size and role of the federal government.

So the presidential race may have tilted back to a choice election.

We'll know more about which strategy won out when Election Day is over. But one more point can be made now: The Democrats want to define Election 2012 as a choice, rather than a referendum on Obama's record. But they don't want it to be a real choice. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, on most issues, the Democratic ticket doesn't stand for anything that's all that different from the Republican agenda.

Consider Obama's own act of political shape-shifting: He claimed in every campaign speech that he will stand up against the Republicans' plans to wreck the federal government's two most popular programs, Social Security and Medicare. Yet Obama's health care law included a big cut in Medicare funding--and the president himself proposed huge cuts in...that's right...Social Security and Medicare when he offered a "grand bargain" on deficit reduction during the debt ceiling debate in 2011.

Obama has made no secret of the fact that a bipartisan agreement on "deficit reduction" will be at the top of his list if he wins a second term. And therefore we know what won't be at the top of the list: challenging income inequality or providing economic security for millions of Americans.

Obama may have a different way than Romney of getting there--but U.S. politics during a second Obama term will be headed in the same rightward direction. It will take a movement from outside Washington to turn things the other way.

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The rest of the races

The likely outcome of congressional elections for one-third of Senate seats and all of the seats in the House is the status quo--narrow Democratic control of the Senate and a slightly larger Republican majority in the House.

But a year ago, most analysts thought a Republican sweep in both houses was more likely. Among the 33 elections for the Senate, the Democrats are the incumbent party in more than twice as many races--so the Republicans have more chances to pick up seats. One-third of Democratic incumbents are retiring--a lot of those decisions not to run got made in the wake of the sweeping Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections.

In the meantime, however, the right-wing fanaticism of the Republican Party became a factor in 2012. If Mitt Romney managed to rein in his most extreme positions and project an image of being responsible and moderate, at least for the final month of the campaign, the Republicans' Senate candidates couldn't be bothered.

In August, Todd Akin, the GOP candidate in Missouri, explained that there shouldn't be any exceptions in abortions bans, even in the case of rape, since "[i]f it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Akin's lead in the polls evaporated--incumbent Claire McCaskill, thought to be one of the most vulnerable Democratic candidates, seems assured of an easy win.

Then came Richard Mourdock in Indiana, who announced, "I came to realize life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." Mourdock dropped behind in the polls, making the Democrats the likely winners in a Republican stronghold.

Both Akin and Mourdock are social conservatives who won primaries against more establishment and moderate Republicans--Mourdock trounced incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar, who was once seen as a possible presidential candidate--by running a hard-right campaign to appeal to the Tea Party-inspired base of the GOP.

Their primary victories illustrate the shift of power in the Republican Party toward the fanatics of the Christian Right. Between the circus of the Republican presidential primaries and the behavior of the GOP House majority, the real agenda of the Republicans has been exposed--shameless giveaways to the rich and big business, and unhinged bigotry toward women, African Americans, Latinos, the poor and more.

This is shaping the outcome of congressional races, including probably the most closely watched Senate campaign: in Massachusetts, where Republican incumbent Scott Brown is being challenged by Elizabeth Warren.

In early 2010, when the Tea Party war on Obama's health care law was stealing headlines, Brown won a special election to take over the Senate seat of Ted Kennedy. Brown's election was a preview of the 2010 midterm election landslide for the GOP, though Brown distanced himself from the Tea Party after his election.

Warren is a Harvard law professor and the national Democratic candidate liberals are most excited about. Warren gained prominence as the chair of a panel to oversee the Wall Street bailout, where she championed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. For this, she earned the wrath of Republicans--and, reportedly, Obama's pro-Wall Street Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

Despite a right-wing smear campaign against her, Warren is ahead in the polls. If her victory is projected early on election night, it will be a sign that the Democrats will hold the Senate. But remember: even if Warren remains on the liberal wing of the party as a senator, she'll be in a small minority in the Senate--and within her own party, which is clearly committed to austerity and neoliberalism.