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.
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.
Mr. Obama was viewed favorably by 50.5 percent and unfavorably by 45.6 percent in the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls, while Mr. Romney came in at 49.8 percent favorable and 43.9 percent unfavorable. Mr. Romney’s 5.9 percent “net favorable” rating came in 1 point higher than Mr. Obama’s.
The horse race between the two has been just as crazy.
The final Gallup Poll gave Mr. Romney a 49 percent to 48 percent edge among likely voters, but gave Mr. Obama a 49 percent to 46 percent edge when all registered voters were surveyed. Both numbers show improvement for the president over the past week, when Hurricane Sandy rolled onshore and devastated much of New Jersey and New York City.
“Voter support for Obama increased by six points in the East, to 58 percent from 52 percent, while it held largely steady in the three other regions,” Gallup’s editors concluded. “This provides further support for the possibility that Obama’s support grew as a result of his response to the storm.”
Gallup said the race is now back to where it was at the beginning of October, just before Mr. Romney grabbed a clear lead based on his strong performance in the first of the three presidential debates.
Mr. Obama is more likable, Mr. Romney is seen as more bipartisan, and they tied on which one would be a “strong and decisive leader.”
When asked whether Mr. Obama deserves re-election, 51 percent said no, and 48 percent said yes.
Whichever man wins, myriad challenges await him. Both men say they want to reform the tax code, and both have vowed to work on immigration from the get-go. They also will have to confront what some analysts said is a resurgence of al Qaeda, punctuated by the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Some challenges won’t wait for Inauguration Day: The Bush-era tax cuts expire Jan. 1, and more than $100 billion in automatic spending cuts are due to take effect Jan. 2.