The Final Poll, Before More Polls

Political polls have zigged and zagged throughout the 2012 presidential election and show a virtual dead-heat heading into Election Day.Polling in this presidential contest has shown Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tied up more often than Houdini. 

Tuesday will bring the only poll that counts, and for many citizens not a moment too soon.

The zigzagging polls may have reflected the ups and downs of the Obama and Romney candidacies this fall. They also may have been hopeful interpretations of a margin of error or varying calculations of likely voters.

Whatever, in its final pre-election tracking poll, The Washington Post and ABC reported a slight 50-47 Obama lead over Romney, which could be the combined product of Romney's campaign peaking too soon and Hurricane Sandy thrusting President Obama into a national leadership role.

Nate Silver, who writes a blog for The New York Times about polls, suggested Obama heads into Tuesday with a "very modest lead."  But Silver noted that of the 12 national polls published over the weekend, three called the race dead even.

As the polls on the popular vote tightened in the last few weeks, attention turned with a vengeance to speculation over the Electoral College, which many today view as an Eighteenth Century relic and a 21st Century calamity-waiting-to-happen.

Pundits wondered endlessly about whether one candidate winning the popular vote and the other the necessary 270 electoral votes to claim the presidency — a vagary that has occurred before in American history. More angst was spilled on the prospect — which colored interactive maps illustrated — of the candidates winding up with an Electoral College tie, throwing the election to the GOP-controlled House.

What may be more useful to explore after the election is settled — Tuesday night, Wednesday or whenever — is how Americans wound up voting. We already have a clear picture of the stark divide between red and blue states, but what other schisms will the election bear out?

Pre-election polling indicates Obama enjoys stronger support from women than Romney, while the reverse is true for male voters. Obama does better with minorities; Romney does best with whites.

How much of a factor was Obama's decision to support same-sex marriage and what voting blocs moved the most based on that change of policy? Did young voters vote and for whom did elderly voters cast their ballots?

Much of the latter part of the campaign has focused on swing states, particularly Ohio, which is critical to Republican presidential hopes, but also a battle for the minds and hearts of blue-collar workers. In Midwestern states with large concentrations of auto manufacturing, Obama has held his own with blue-collar workers, while elsewhere this group has leaned toward Romney.

In his November 4 blog, Silver points out another intriguing trend — an erosion of Obama support in solidly Blue states. The erosion won't deny Obama of wins and electoral votes, but it sets the stage for elections to come, starting in 2014.

Of course, more will be decided Tuesday than just the presidency. Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs. Despite early predictions the Republicans would gain control, most observers think Democrats will retain a narrow two or three seat majority. The GOP is expected to hold onto its grip of the U.S. House, but perhaps with a narrower margin.

The closely contested presidential race and slimmer margins of control in the Senate and House by opposite parties could be a prescription for further partisan stalemate. But a second-term presidency and chastened partisans could come together to address a sobering agenda of national priorities, starting with the fiscal cliff staring at the country early next year.

While the election will determine winners and losers, it will just be the opening coda of an endless post-election analysis of what happened and why. There will be more polling to find out what the pre-election polls really meant — and why they were so uncertain and perhaps off the mark.