The electorate is very "mercurial" and divided, and the race for the White House could go either way, says presidential historian Robert Dallek. But Dallek adds that polarization and close presidential contests are nothing unusual in American history and the country has weathered such situations many times before.
In an interview, Dallek, who has written acclaimed biographies of Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and others, underscored that while politicians and pundits are concerned about the polarizaton of the electorate and the negativity of the 2012 campaign, both trends have been part of presidential politics for a very long time.
Dallek points out that it's possible that one of the major-party candidates—President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney—might win a majority of the popular vote while the other wins a majority of the Electoral College. This would give the White House to the Electoral College victor, but it could cause enormous hard feelings.
Dallek notes that this has happened more than once in the past, and over the years there have been many tight contests.
"We've had some very close calls," Dallek told me.
The most recent example, of course, was in 2000, when Democratic candidate Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000 votes but Republican George W. Bush won a razor-thin majority of electoral votes after the Supreme Court decided that he had won Florida by a relative handful of ballots.
In 1888, a similar situation occurred. Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote and the presidency to Republican Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland came back to win the White House again in 1892.
Dallek points out that Democratic incumbent Harry Truman won narrowly in 1948, as did Democratic candidates John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.
As for negativity, that also has been a common feature of the political landscape, as illustrated in the presidential campaign of 1800 when supporters of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams traded vicious charges. In the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln, now considered an iconic leader, was derided as a "gorilla."
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," and is the author of "The Presidency" column in the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.