After a hectic campaign season that's focused on the serious (unemployment) and the frivolous (Big Bird and bayonets) the two top presidential contenders are still dead-locked in polling. But the American voters will soon render their verdict on whether or not President Barack Obama deserves more time to fulfill the promises he has made, or if a better course is to turn the keys over to businessman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Obama is trying to do the unprecedented—win re-election with the unemployment rate of 7.9 percent, a feat no one has accomplished before. President Ronald Reagan, one of the most hailed GOP heroes, won when the rate was 7.2 percent, but his predecessor, Democrat Jimmy Carter, and successor, Republican George Bush, lost their re-election bids with higher rates.
The American public may care about an array of issues, but in a down economy, things like a candidate's stance on environmental issues, education, or abortion rights tend to take a backseat in the voting booth.
The case Obama has made is that the economy was in a much deeper spiral than anyone realized (shedding nearly 800,000 jobs a month at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009) when he took office and that the recovery has taken longer as a result. He argues that by raising taxes on the most wealthy and cutting government spending elsewhere, he can reduce the country's record debt and grow the middle class.
Throughout the campaign, Obama has spoken of "giving everyone a fair shot" and making sure everyone "plays by the same rules" in order to restore the economy, which he says failed because of an unregulated Wall Street and tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. He's defended his moves to pass financial regulation reform and a sweeping healthcare law that will require all Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a fine beginning in 2014. Obama says the law will help lower the skyrocketing costs of health plan premiums and the overall cost of care, but it's a case that voters are skeptical about.
Romney has run a campaign based on his business experience and by projecting the image of a reassuring hand on the tiller. He argues Obama chose to pursue long-held liberal plans for things like healthcare reform and raising taxes on the wealthy instead of focusing solely on the economy. Romney also has been making the case that Obama is simply out of his depth as president.
A better course for the country is to repeal the signature health law, which ironically was based on a similar plan Romney passed as governor, repeal parts of the financial regulation reform package, and cut back federal spending in nearly every sector except defense. Romney also has plans to cutting taxes across the board in hopes of spurring economic growth.
Since Romney was chosen as the GOP nominee, he and running mate Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin have held largely even with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, though the Democrats edged ahead following their nominating convention and when some disparaging remarks Romney made about Americans who don't pay income taxes were made public.
But Romney rebounded with an exceptional debate performance and the two have been virtually tied in national polling since. However, it's the state polls that matter now, as Romney and Obama battle for the 270 Electoral College votes necessary to secure the White House. And it's there—specifically in Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, and New Hampshire—where it appears Obama may have an edge. His slight advantage in those swing states may prove too much for Romney to overcome, even if he runs the table in the other battlegrounds of Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.
In one of the great traditions of American politics, the final outcome will only be determined when the voters head to the polls—no matter how loudly cables news talking heads scream or how many campaign advertisements run.
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Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.