Time's almost up. The candidates are making their final summations, unleashing their sharpest TV ads, and taking their best shots at the opposition. And voters will have the final say on Tuesday. But the result is likely to be more of the same in Washington — partisan bitterness and the real possibility of a sustained stalemate.
The presidential race is too close to call, according to the polls, with President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney statistically tied with about 48 percent of the vote. Nine batteground states are likely to make the difference — Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin — with Romney making a surprising last-minute bid to wrest Pennsylvania from the Democrats' grip. The rest of the states aren't considered competitive.
Political scientist Larry Sabato says the result will probably be a "status quo election" that reflects the reality of a "50-50 nation," evenly split between Obama and Romney, between the Democrats and the Republicans, and between a belief in government and a distrust of government.
Sabato, who teaches at the University of Virginia, told CBS's "Face the Nation" it's very possible the House of Representatives will continue to be controlled by Republicans by roughly the same margin as today, and the Senate will likewise continue to be controlled by Democrats, also by the same margin. The Republicans hold a 242-193 edge in the House, and the Democrats hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats).
All this would have serious implications for policy-making in Washington. If both sides essentially fight to a draw, there's a good chance that neither would back off in the foreseeable future. And that could mean continued deadlock, and more rancor.
What the nation could be left with is this: A president re-elected by half the country, with the other half opposed in varying degrees to his agenda; a House controlled by conservatives determined to push their own initiatives at every turn, and a Senate controlled by Democrats who are severely limited by rules that require super-majorities to get much of anything done.
"If voters don't provide a clear mandate, presidents often find that they have added challenges when dealing with Congress, as legislators have far less fear about the commander-in-chief," writes Princeton historian Julian Zelizerin a blog for CNN.com Monday. Zelizer adds: "In today's political era, every president — even those who enjoy landslide victories — faces immense challenges working in the current congressional environment. Partisan polarization, interest-group politics and the 24-hour media make legislating difficult."
The immediate test will be dealing with the "fiscal cliff" — mandatory spending cuts and tax increases that will occur at year's end unless Congress and the president find a compromise to avoid them. Obama and congressional leaders of both parties went along with the mandatory trigger, believing it would never come to that. The most realistic possibility is for a temporary solution of about six months, at which time the powers-that-be in Washington would have to deal with it all over again.
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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 for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of five books, most recently "Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House." He can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook and Twitter.