Long haul to election reaches a messy end

  • President Barack Obama speaks to media as he visits a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Barack Obama speaks to media as he visits a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., make an unscheduled stop at a Wendy's restaurant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles DharapakRepublican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., make an unscheduled stop at a Wendy's restaurant in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
  • President Barack Obama is embraced by a volunteer as he visits a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Barack Obama is embraced by a volunteer as he visits a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wave as they exit a campaign charter airplane at Cleveland Hopkins International airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. Ryan arrived moments earlier on his own plane and met Romney on board.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wave as they exit a campaign charter airplane at Cleveland Hopkins International airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. Ryan arrived moments earlier on his own plane and met Romney on board. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov.  Mitt Romney returns to his campaign plane at Moon Township Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis, Pa., after he visited a call center in the Pittsburgh area, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney returns to his campaign plane at Moon Township Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis, Pa., after he visited a call center in the Pittsburgh area, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • President Barack Obama calls Wisconsin volunteers as he visits a campaign office call center the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Barack Obama calls Wisconsin volunteers as he visits a campaign office call center the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney poses with campaign workers during a visit to a voter call center in Green Tree, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney poses with campaign workers during a visit to a voter call center in Green Tree, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill Biden, right, and granddaughter Natalie, meets with patrons during a visit to the Landmark Restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill Biden, right, and granddaughter Natalie, meets with patrons during a visit to the Landmark Restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. waves upon his arrival at Richmond International Airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Richmond, Va.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. waves upon his arrival at Richmond International Airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
  • Republican presidential candidate,former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney visits a campaign call center in Green Tree, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Republican presidential candidate,former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney visits a campaign call center in Green Tree, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • President Barack Obama leaves a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago, after visiting with volunteers, making phone calls and speaking to the media. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Barack Obama leaves a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago, after visiting with volunteers, making phone calls and speaking to the media. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., greet campaign workers at a call center in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., greet campaign workers at a call center in Richmond Heights, Ohio, on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • President Barack Obama visits with people outside a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Barack Obama visits with people outside a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to a crowd gathered at a nearby parking lot after his campaign plane arrived at Moon Township Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to a crowd gathered at a nearby parking lot after his campaign plane arrived at Moon Township Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • President Barack Obama gestures during a visit with volunteers in a call center at a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Barack Obama gestures during a visit with volunteers in a call center at a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pose with members of Ryan's family at Cleveland Hopkins International airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., pose with members of Ryan's family at Cleveland Hopkins International airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
  • President Barack Obama has his photo taken during a visit with volunteers, including Carla Windhorst, second from left, at campaign office call center the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Barack Obama has his photo taken during a visit with volunteers, including Carla Windhorst, second from left, at campaign office call center the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • A staff member gives Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., directions on where to proceed after they arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio, before boarding their respective campaign planes.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)A staff member gives Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., directions on where to proceed after they arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio, before boarding their respective campaign planes. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
  • President Barack Obama buttons at the Obama field office located on Wyoming Avenue  in Scranton, Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 during Election Day.  (AP Photo/Scranton Times & Tribune, Butch Comegys)  President Barack Obama buttons at the Obama field office located on Wyoming Avenue in Scranton, Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 during Election Day. (AP Photo/Scranton Times & Tribune, Butch Comegys)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and wife Ann Romney vote in Belmont, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and wife Ann Romney vote in Belmont, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill Biden, meets with patrons during a visit to the Landmark Restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill Biden, meets with patrons during a visit to the Landmark Restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and wife Ann Romney vote in Belmont, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and wife Ann Romney vote in Belmont, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • Vice President Joe Biden hugs a patron  during a visit to the Landmark Restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio. Biden's  daughter Ashley is at left. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Vice President Joe Biden hugs a patron during a visit to the Landmark Restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio. Biden's daughter Ashley is at left. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney kisses wife Ann Romney after they voted in Belmont, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney kisses wife Ann Romney after they voted in Belmont, Mass., Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • President Barack Obama waves to people as he leaves a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)President Barack Obama waves to people as he leaves a campaign office the morning of the 2012 election, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
  • Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., arrive at Cleveland Hopkins International airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio, before boarding their respective campaign planes.  (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., arrive at Cleveland Hopkins International airport, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio, before boarding their respective campaign planes. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
  • Vice President Joe Biden meets with patrons during a visit to the Landmark Restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Vice President Joe Biden meets with patrons during a visit to the Landmark Restaurant, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Cleveland, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The 2012 presidential campaign has been one defined by candidates bumping against ceilings — and, in the final week, by a storm that appears to have helped President Obama regain his footing.

In the GOP primaries, Mitt Romney had trouble breaking through with conservative voters to score the big wins he needed to swat away his lesser-funded opponents and solidify his nomination.

Now in the general election, neither he nor Mr. Obama has been able to cross the 50 percent ceiling in polling that would signify a clear mandate from voters to run the country for the next four years.

All of that presages a potentially messy election night, and possibly another nail-biter like two of the past three presidential elections.

“The messiness of the polls and the real possibility of the Electoral College/popular-vote split, and finally the potential for challenges to the vote in many states, all remind you of 2000,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a political historian at Princeton University.

President Obama and singer Bruce Springsteen show unity on the stump during a campaign event near the state Capitol building in Madison, Wis., on Monday. (Associated Press)

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President Obama and singer Bruce Springsteen show unity on the stump during ... more >

He and other political pros cautioned that the polls could be wrong and either candidate could end up with a bigger win than appears likely right now — in particular as the effects of Hurricane Sandy work their way through.

But if the polls are right, it could be the fourth election in the past six in which the winner didn’t get at least 50 percent of the popular vote.

Control of the House and Senate are also up for grabs, though those outcomes seem far more certain than the presidential election: Republicans are poised to keep control of the lower chamber, while Democrats appear on track to keep control of the Senate.

In fact, polling in Senate races showed they may even expand their majority — something that would have been unthinkable earlier this year, given that they are defending 23 seats to the GOP’s 10.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have said this election is about big, fundamental choices about how much government does, and how it pays for that.

“Tomorrow, you have a choice to make. It’s not just a choice between two candidates or two parties; it is a choice between two different visions for America,” Mr. Obama said Monday.

Mr. Romney struck similar large themes on the campaign trail.

“Paul [Ryan] and I have not promised you a bigger check from the government and we haven’t promised to take from some people and redistribute to you, we have — we’ve instead promised to rebuild the economy and to tame the growth of government and restore the principles that made America the greatest nation in the history of the earth,” the Republican said.

Mr. Obama is seeking re-election amid stiff economic head winds. But Mr. Romney has struggled to argue that he is a credible alternative to the likable incumbent.

The hard-fought race has come at a high price — potentially $3 billion worth of campaign spending on all sides. That money has been spent on heavily negative advertising, which has left both men struggling to get even a majority of voters to see them favorably.

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