As Americans troop to their polling places today from the hamlets of New Hampshire to the beach towns of Hawaii, their job will be to break a tie between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney and, in the ultimate act of democracy, decide their leader for the next four years.
The latest public-opinion surveys indicate the race is a dead heat, with the final NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing Obama with 48 percent and Romney with 47 percent.
Dixville Notch, N.H., already reflected the larger reality. Voters in the tiny village, traditionally the first place to announce its decision, cast their ballots at midnight and the result was a tie, with five votes for each Romney and Obama..
But polling overall showed that, as Election Day dawned, the president retained a narrow edge in most of the nine battleground states where the race will be decided, including Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Iowa and Wisconsin. Polls also showed Florida, another key state, remained a tossup, and Romney was making a last-ditch effort to pry Pennsylvania from the Democratic column.
"It's a choice between two different visions for America," Obama said in Madison, Wis., late Monday. "It's a choice between returning to the top-down policies that crashed our economy, or a future that's built on providing opportunity to everybody and growing a strong middle class."
In Sanford, Fla., Romney declared, "The president thinks more government is the answer. No, Mr. President, more jobs, that's the answer for America."
An estimated one-third of the electorate had already voted by absentee or in person as of Tuesday morning; those ballots will be counted later today.
Both candidates maintained a frenetic schedule to the last minute, with Obama attending a final campaign rally that included singers Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z, and Mariah Carey in Des Moines, Iowa Monday night. He planned to give a dozen radio and satellite television interviews Tuesday to stations across the country. Romney appeared Monday in northern Virginia, and planned to stump Tuesday in Cleveland, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pa. His entourage has included singer Kid Rock and the country-rock performers The Marshall Tucker Band. Both candidates were interviewed during halftime of the nationally televised Monday night football game between Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Romney and vice-presidential running mate Paul Ryan, a congressman from Wisconsin, traveled in tandem to Cleveland Tuesday morning and found that Vice President Joe Biden had added the same key city to his final itinerary. Their planes were parked side by side on the airport runway.
About 133 million Americans are expected to vote. At stake is not only the presidency but the full House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 11 governorships, more than 80 percent of the seats in state legislatures, and state ballot proposals on gay marriage, legalizing marijuana, casino gambling, and other issues.
American politics for many years has featured a pendulum swing between change and continuity, and this was the choice again this time.
History is instructive if not predictive. Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia and a Washington outsider, won in 1976 as a change from the Republican era of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Four years later, Carter was swept out of office in favor of another Washington outsider, Republican Ronald Reagan, former governor of California, who promised a conservative revolution.
Voters opted for continuity in 1984 when they re-elected Reagan and again in 1988 when they choose his vice president, George H.W. Bush, to continue his legacy.
But in 1992, the pendulum swung back to change when Americans selected Democrat Bill Clinton,governor of Arkansas. He was re-elected in 1996.
In 2000, the pendulum swung back to change when voters elected Republican George W. Bush, governor of Texas and son of the former president, and they re-elected him as an endorsement of continuity in 2004.
Of course, in 2008, change was again the message when America chose Democrat Barack Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois. He is the candidate of continuity this time, and Mitt Romney promises to be the agent of change.
Americans are making their choice today.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com 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.