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Why the 2012 election will be the closest since Bush vs Gore

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The 2012 presidential election is going to be close. Very close. Incredibly close. Like Al-Gore-vs-George-W.-Bush close.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during the Skybridge Alternatives (SALT) Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada May, 9, 2012. SALT brings together public policy officials, capital allocators, and hedge fund managers to discuss financial markets. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

A review of the last year’s worth of national polling conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News makes clear that not only is the electorate almost equally divided between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney but people are also equally split on which of the two men is better equipped to handle the economy, which, of course, is the only issue that matters to a majority of voters.

In the last 12 national polls conducted by the Post-ABC, Obama averages 47.6 percent among registered voters while Romney averages 47 percent. Only twice in the those 12 polls has either candidate secured a majority of the vote or held a lead outside the margin of error; Obama had a seven-point edge in April 2012 and a six-point lead in February.

Here’s a chart that illustrates the narrowness of the race over the past year:

And it’s not only the horse race numbers that suggest we are headed for a very close result on November 6.

In the most recent Post-ABC poll, which was released this morning, 52 percent of people said “economy/jobs” was the most important issue in their choice for president. (No other issue received double digit support.)

Asked which of the candidates is better suited to handle the economy, 47 percent of registered voters opt for Obama and 47 percent choose Romney. Asked which candidate is better able to create jobs, 46 percent of registered voters name Obama while 45 percent say Romney.

So, yeah. Barring some sort of cataclysmic revelation about one of the candidates or some major outside event that reshapes the electorate, it’s going to be tight.

Defining just how tight — and whether 2012 will go down in the history books as a record-settingly close election — remains to be seen.

The standard to which all close elections are judged is the 2000 race between Gore and Bush. In that election, Gore won 50,999,897 votes (48.38 percent) to Bush’s 50,456,002 votes (47.87 percent). Bush won thanks to a 271 to 267 electoral vote margin over Gore.

That level of closeness may never be reached again in the Fix lifetime — or maybe even Fix Jr’s lifetime. (The popular vote winner not winning the presidency has only happened four times in history and, prior to 2000, the last time it happened was way back in 1888!)

But, it’s entirely possible that the Obama-Romney race this fall will equal or even eclipse the closeness of the 2004 contest between Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. Bush took 62,040,610 votes (50.73 percent) to Kerry’s 59,028,439 (48.27 percent) in that election and were it not for Bush’s 118,000-vote margin in Ohio, Kerry would have been elected president.

What’s abundantly clear is that Obama won’t come close to matching the massive margins — in the popular and electoral vote — that he ran up in 2008. In that race, Obama won 69,498,215 (53 percent) of the vote as compared to 59,948,240 (46 percent) for Arizona Sen. John McCain. He took 365 electoral votes to 173 for McCain.

When all of the votes are counted on Nov. 6 (or 7th or 8th — gulp), the 2012 election will look a lot more like 2004 or even 2000 than it does 2008. And with such a small margin expected, little things can make a very big difference.

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