Two Sides' Last Task: Get Out the Vote

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And then, they voted.

Americans went to the polls on Tuesday to decide whether to give President Obama a second term or to replace him with Mitt Romney after a long, hard-fought campaign that centered on who would heal the battered economy and what role government should play in the 21st century.

From makeshift voting sites in East Coast communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy to the more typical voting booths set up in school gyms, libraries and town halls across the rest of the country, people began lining up before dawn to cast their ballots -- collectively writing the ending to a bitter, expensive presidential campaign in which the candidates, parties, and well-heeled outside groups were on pace to spend some $2.6 billion.

There were long lines to vote in many states. In Florida, where Republican officials cut back the number of days of early voting this year, there were waits of more than four hours at some polling places. There were also waits of up to four hours in Prince William County, Va., election officials said.

Mr. Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts, cast his vote Tuesday morning near his home in Belmont, Mass. When a reporter asked him for whom he had voted, Mr. Romney replied, "I think you know." Mr. Obama voted Oct. 25 in Chicago -- becoming one of more than 31 million people who voted early this year.

Exit polls found, unsurprisingly, that the No. 1 issue on the minds of voters was the economy. While three-quarters of voters rated the national economy as not so good or poor, only 3 in 10 said it was getting worse, while 4 in 10 said it was getting better. Half of voters said that President George W. Bush was more to blame for the nation's current economic problems, while 4 in 10 said that Mr. Obama was.

Voters gave a narrow edge to Mr. Romney when asked which candidate would better handle the economy.

The president visited a campaign office in Chicago on Tuesday morning, where he called and thanked several startled volunteers in Wisconsin and then spoke briefly to the reporters who were traveling with him, congratulating Mr. Romney for having run a "spirited campaign."

"I also want to say to Governor Romney, congratulations on a spirited campaign,'' Mr. Obama said. "I know that his supporters are just as engaged and just as enthusiastic and working just as hard today. We feel confident we've got the votes to win, that it's going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out. And so I would encourage everybody on all sides just to make sure that you exercise this precious right that you have that people fought so hard for, for us to have."

Both campaigns continued trying to grind out votes on Tuesday. Mr. Obama planned a round of satellite television interviews with local stations in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin. Mr. Romney planned campaign stops in Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Given the way both men have sometimes seemed to be campaigning for the presidency of Ohio -- given the repeated stops they made there in their efforts to claim the state's 18 electoral votes -- it was perhaps unsurprising that the two campaigns should cross paths there on Election Day. Mr. Romney was waiting in his campaign plane in Cleveland on Tuesday morning for the arrival of his running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, when another plane touched down and could be seen taxiing nearby. It was carrying Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

If both campaigns could seem small at times, the issues confronting the nation remained big: how to continue to rebuild after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression; whether to implement Mr. Obama's health care law to cover the uninsured, or undo it; whether to reshape Medicare for future beneficiaries to try to curb its costs; whether to raise taxes to reduce the federal deficit or to rely on spending cuts alone; how to wind down the war in Afghanistan without opening the region to new dangers; and how to navigate the post-Arab Spring world.

On their frenzied final full day of campaigning, the candidates reprised their central arguments before crowds in the same handful of swing states where the campaign has been waged for much of the last year, as both men have battled for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. The campaigns were hoping that huge turnout efforts would tilt contested states their way.

For all the twists and turns that the race has taken since the candidates downed their first greasy pork chops on sticks at the Iowa State Fair, those core, competing messages have remained remarkably consistent.

Mr. Obama reminded a crowd in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday how bad things were when he took office, listed his achievements and argued that he has more work to do.

"In 2008, we were in the middle of two wars and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," Mr. Obama said. "Today our businesses have created nearly five and a half million new jobs. The American auto industry has come roaring back. Home values are on the rise. We're less dependent on foreign oil than any time in the last 20 years. Because of the service and sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform, the war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is ending. Al Qaeda's on the path to defeat. Osama Bin Laden is dead. We've made progress these last four years."

Mr. Romney told a crowd in Lynchburg, Va., on Monday that the country needs a new direction after Mr. Obama. "He's tried to convince you that these last four years have been a success," he said. "And so his plan for the next four years is to take all the ideas from the first term -- the stimulus, the borrowing, Obamacare, all the rest -- and do them over again. He calls that 'Forward.' I call it 'Forewarned.' The same course we've been on won't lead to a better destination. The same path means $20 trillion of debt at the end of a second term. It means crippling unemployment continuing for another four years. It means stagnant take-home pay. It means depressed home values. And of course, it means a devastated military."

But at times the campaign has been as notable for what was left unsaid as for what was said.

Both men seemed to avoid speaking of some of their biggest legislative achievements. Mr. Romney rarely invoked the health care law he enacted as the governor of Massachusetts, which was a model for Mr. Obama's health care law which many Republicans derided as "Obamacare" and which Mr. Romney has vowed to repeal. And Mr. Obama, for his part, rarely spoke about the $787 billion stimulus bill he signed early in his term, which used a combination of tax cuts, aid to states and infrastructure spending to try to bolster the economy -- but which was seen as insufficient by some liberals and as inefficient by some conservatives.

For all the clear differences between the two men, they were both somewhat hazy about their plans for the next four years.

Mr. Romney called for cutting income tax rates across the board by 20 percent while offsetting the lost revenue by eliminating tax breaks, but failed to specify which ones, even after some nonpartisan groups questioned whether it was mathematically possible for him to achieve all his goals. He called for overhauling the Medicare system so that a decade from now, beneficiaries would receive fixed amounts of money from the federal government with which to buy private or public coverage -- and even tapped Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, one of the main proponents of such an approach, as his running mate. But he declined to give details of just how it would work, making it difficult to evaluate.

And Mr. Obama did not lay out a detailed agenda for his second term, and instead spoke generally of trying to finish the things left undone in his first term. If he wins, though, he is still likely to face the opposition of the Republicans in Congress who have blocked many if his initiatives. So during the campaign Mr. Obama has made it clear that he still wants to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, which he failed to persuade Congress to do in his first term. In the course of three debates he did not even utter the words "climate change," an issue that was thrust to the fore soon afterward when Hurricane Sandy made landfall, destroying parts of the Jersey Shore and flooding Manhattan.

As tightly scripted as both campaigns were, there were moments when both candidates were knocked off their messages, sometimes in revealing ways.

Mr. Romney's trip abroad over the summer was overshadowed by controversy after he offended his British hosts by publicly questioning whether they were prepared for the London Olympics. Then, there was the release of a secretly recorded videotape that captured Mr. Romney telling wealthy donors that 47 percent of Americans pay no taxes and see themselves as victims. And one of the big moments of his campaign, his speech at the Republican National Convention, was upstaged by the odd introduction he received from Clint Eastwood, who spoke to an empty chair representing the president.

Mr. Obama's low-wattage performance at the first presidential debate, in Denver -- he later joked that he had had a "nice long nap" there -- wound up dispiriting his supporters and firing up opponents. The deadly attacks on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks thrust the president into a complex national security crisis near the end of the campaign. And earlier in the campaign, Mr. Obama was knocked off his timetable and publicly endorsed same-sex marriage earlier than he had planned after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. got out ahead of the administration and voiced his own support of it.

The biggest unplanned moment, of course, occurred when Hurricane Sandy hit and knocked the presidential campaign off the front pages the week before the election. As the scope of the disaster sank in, there was a brief respite from campaigning. Then it resumed, at a more frenetic pace than ever.

There were long lines of voters in many of the swing states that will decide the election. In Kensington, N.H. -- a swing town in a swing county in a swing state -- Lee Veader said that he hoped that the election would bring relief from what he said had been the most acidic campaign that he could remember, with partisanship as rife in his own social circles as it has been on cable television.

"There's really people that we're close with that are willing to let politics end relationships -- we're talking friends that you've been friends with for years that all of a sudden can't get past not sharing the same viewpoint," said Mr. Veader, a registered Republican who voted for Mr. Romney. "People really feel strongly how they stand nowadays. It's not as gray as it used to be -- because of that, it just gets personal."

Diane Chigas, a receptionist at a law firm who is an independent voter, said that she was voting for Mr. Obama, in large part because of his health care law. "I had to work through two years of chemo so I wouldn't lose my insurance," said Ms. Chigas. "I'm not a pre-existing condition. I'm a person."

Dennis Carroll, a retired small-business owner, said that he opposed Mr. Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy and that he was voting for Mr. Romney. "He's doing class warfare,'' Mr. Carroll said of the president. "I'm not a rich guy, but they pay their fair share."

Inside the polling station, the election moderator, Harold Bragg, stuck ballots into a wooden box and steeled himself for the task of counting them all by hand later this evening. "It's been very busy, we have yet to see a break this morning," said Mr. Bragg. "I'd say we're doing three-to-one what we normally do."

Jess Bidgood contributed reporting.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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