This combination of file pictures shows President Obama holding a baby… (Jewel Samad / Emmanuel Dunand…)
As much as our presidential elections are ever-evolving — more and more money and television commercials aimed at fewer truly competitive states — the final days return us to something more eternal. Volunteers walk door-to-door. Phone banks flicker to life. Church buses disgorge scores of parishioners at the polls.
After a year and a half of debating and speculating and declaring about what might be, there’s something reassuring about the movement of battalions of Americans into the voting booths. A thousand pre-election surveys can soon be put, finally, to bed. Something much more consequential has begun to unfold.
No wonder even the stoic Mitt Romney and the professorial President Obama have betrayed signs of the strain and real emotion in recent days. Romney teared up when a large crowd chanted his name. Obama couldn't stop telling aides this would be his "final" time completing this or that ritual of the trail. His final rally of his final campaign will be Monday in Iowa, the mostly white state whose willingness to vote for an African American candidate set Obama on the path to the White House four years ago.
PHOTOS: President Obama’s past
The Democratic president and the Republican challenger can truthfully talk about voters they have met who have big needs and have put big faith that Campaign 2012 will mean something. Amid wall-to-wall ads that strain credulity and the siren calls of the pundit class, an almost sentimental faith in real change somehow survives in many voters.
Mitt Romney could be the first Mormon ever elected to the White House; Barack Obama could be the first president in 76 years elected with unemployment lingering at over 7%.
In an odd way, Romney hesitated to talk about his historic distinction almost as much as Obama, of course, didn’t want to talk about his. The theory was that a Mormon overly emotive about this faith would alienate Republican evangelicals, crucial to the party’s electoral base. But by eschewing talk of his church leadership, Romney largely left on the table one of the subjects that most animated him.
As much as a President Romney would break new ground for the country, he also represented a return to form for his party. Republicans tend to nominate the candidate who appears next in line, who paid his dues but missed his last chance at a general election run. The GOP in recent decades picked moderate dues-payers such as George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and John McCain over purer conservatives like Jack Kemp, Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul.
That held true this election season, despite the dramatic arrival in 2009 of the small-government, anti-tax tea party movement. The activists forced Republican contenders to put talk of the size and purpose of government front and center. But a months-long search failed to produce a viable “un-Romney” who could capture enough mainstream Republicans to win the party’s nomination.
PHOTOS: Mitt Romney’s past
In the event Romney loses Tuesday, there will be an even more forceful push by one GOP camp in 2016 to pick a “movement” conservative — one who evinces no sign of compromising on the party’s tax, spending, tough-on-immigration themes. Another camp will talk about moderating views on same-sex marriage and immigration to widen the party's appeal.
The Democrats also had to answer to insurgent forces this year. It’s hard to discern what long-term impact the Occupy movement will have on American politics. The protests against corporate greed and income disparity certainly found their echo in Obama on the stump, as his campaign took on an increasingly populist tone.
If Obama loses Tuesday, Democrats will have the mirror judgment to make of Republicans — whether the loss represented too great an embrace of a class-consciousness, or an appeal that was not full-throated enough. Regardless, there are almost certain to be candidates representing both the activist and centrist polls of the party in the 2016 race for the White House.
So now it’s down to the welcome verities of voting and counting ballots. What a relief that we're finally here. But wait just a minute — fighting over the nature and fairness of the balloting has also become a perennial. The noises coming out of Florida — where early polling places were closed, reopened, then closed again — sound like recount fodder reminiscent of 2000.