Election Day is here at last, and maybe not a moment too soon. The most anticipated, emotional, drawn-out, hyped-up, talked-about, ugly, expensive, divisive and perhaps important Election Day in decades, if not ever, has turned the country upside down.
If you don't believe all of the above, ask Dan Jones, Utah's renowned pollster and election guru. He's polled every election from 1960 on, starting with Kennedy and Nixon (for you kids out there, that election fell somewhere between Abraham Lincoln and the first Super Bowl). If that weren't enough, Jones was an official judge for the Kennedy-Nixon debate and served as a consultant for Sens. Ted Kennedy, Bob Dole and Orrin Hatch. He's been in the polling business for 53 years.
So Jones thought he had seen it all in the past 13 presidential elections, until the Romney-Obama campaign. Ask him what makes this election different from the others and what has surprised him, he doesn't miss a beat.
1. The intensity. "It's different because it's so intense," Jones said. "There is so much animosity between Republicans and Democrats. It's the most emotional campaign I've ever covered." He notes the proliferation of polls, media coverage, TV networks taking sides and the attention the campaign has received from the average citizen.
"There is intensity everywhere," Jones said. The feelings have run so high that Jones notes, "People have been leaving Utah and going to Colorado and Nevada trying to get votes for Romney — and Obama. I've never seen such enthusiasm."
2. The nonfactor of Romney's Mormon faith. "I really thought (Romney's) Mormonism would be an issue," he said. "That's a plus for the American people. I don't think religion is as much of a factor as I thought it would be. A lot of it is how Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, have handled it. They've gone to their services and haven't made a big deal about it. I think the American people began to accept the LDS faith when he won the South Carolina primary. There are so many evangelicals there. That was the real test. Of course it could be a factor when people get in the voting booth, but according to our research, it's not among the top 10 issues."
3. The amount of money spent nationally and statewide. This is the first election in which both sides have refused to accept public campaign funding, which comes with spending limits. As Jones said: "The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that the contributions of companies and organizations cannot be limited. The Super PACs can do what they want, and, boy, they have done it." Some $3 billion has been spent by the candidates and various organizations campaigning in their behalf.
4. The impact of the debates. In Jones' estimation, people had a difficult time relating to Romney until the first debate. "The debate this year was important," he said. "Romney really came on after that. It was one of the most important debates ever. Reagan and Carter came close, and, of course, the first debate made Kennedy." Romney gained momentum from the debates, but Jones thinks Hurricane Sandy changed that. "It gave Obama momentum — because he acted presidential," Jones said. "It stopped Romney's momentum."
5. The closeness of the election. "Yeah, I'd have to say it's the closest that I've watched and observed," Jones said. "There are 11 swing states, and they could go either way." The key, as has been widely noted, is Ohio. "A Republican has never won the presidency without winning Ohio," says Jones. "It's a great barometric state. Obama is ahead by 2 percent. But it will come down to a ground war — who gets people out to vote. They'll fight over ballots. If a person goes to vote and can't find his name, he'll fill out a provisional ballot. It might be two weeks before we find out who won."
6. The sheer length of the campaign. "This is the longest," Jones said. "There were so many primaries and all those debates in the Republican Party. They started right after New Year's. Some might argue the fight between Obama and Hillary made for a long election year, but that really ended after the nomination. McCain and Obama wasn't really in doubt. This one has always been in question. It's just so darn close."
As you might imagine, everywhere Jones goes these days the question is the same: Can Romney win? "That's the question I get asked the most," he said. He offers a qualified answer: "Again, it comes down to who gets out to vote. I find that Romney supporters are more enthusiastic about Romney than Obama supporters are about Obama, but not enough for Democrats and some independents to cross over and vote for Romney."
Pushed for a more definitive answer, Jones said: "It's possible, but I've never thought Romney was going to win. But he could, he really could."