2012 Election Day Is Going to Be a Long Night

Get some sleep everybody. It's the 2000 presidential vote all over again.

Throughout this extremely twisty presidential campaign, political observers have struggled to make sense of what’s been happening and who might win. And one of the go-to ways of doing so is by making analogies to elections of the recent past.

The ones we’ve heard most often have been 2004 (incumbent president who everybody either loves or hates, challenged by an extremely wealthy guy from Massachusetts with a weakness for flip-flopping); 1992 (Republican vs. Democrat amid a weak-but-recovering economy); or, in Republican imaginations, 1980 (Democratic incumbent challenged by a Republican looking to hammer him as weak.)

But as we approach the finish line, it’s looking more and more like the most apt analogy is 2000. It’s going to be a super-close result, with strong possibilities of both no election-night verdict and an electoral college/popular vote split. And—possibly worst of all—one side refusing to accept the result. And that’s to say nothing of the nightmare scenario of an electoral college tie, or the various wrenches thrown into the race by Hurricane Sandy.

Here’s where we’re at, five days from Election Day, at least according to conventional wisdom: President Obama had what appeared to be a solid lead for the entire summer and through the conventions, but blew it in the first debate. After Obama did much better in the second and third debates, the race settled into what’s essentially a tie.

There’s a strong possibility that Romney will get a majority of the popular vote, while Obama ekes out narrow victories in Ohio, Wisconsin and either Iowa or Nevada, which, coupled with Obama’s safe states, would be enough to put the president over 270. Then we’d have the reverse of 2000, minus the whole recount thing. Not that a recount in one or more major state is outside the realm of possibility at all.

Now this may say more about the natures of ideologies than this particular election, but I’ve noticed that most liberals in my orbit—whether it’s pundits, active partisans, or just friends of mine—appear cautiously optimistic about an Obama win, but still nervous as hell. Conservatives I know, on the other hand, are 100 percent convinced that Romney will win and can’t imagine any possibility of that not happening.

And that’s why one other scenario worries me. What if Obama is declared the winner, and a nontrivial amount of Republicans refuse to accept it? I could see this either in the event of an electoral/popular vote split, or merely close results in swing states. We’re going to hear that Obama didn’t really win and he stole the election with the help of voter fraud or ACORN or dead people in Chicago or the ever-powerful thuggery of the New Black Panther Party.

What if Rush Limbaugh goes on the air the next day and urges his followers not to accept Obama as their president? Some of these people already don’t trust polling numbers or even nonpartisan labor statistics. Actual election results could be the next frontier.

So we could have one side denying the legitimacy of the declared winner. Just like in 2000.

After George W. Bush lost the popular vote that year but won the presidency, conservative columnist George Will wrote that “the election, although close, awarded him 100 percent of the presidency, and he intends to use all of it,” and Bush certainly did.

I’ve got a feeling that if Obama wins the election in a similar way, the GOP isn’t prepared to grant him the same courtesy.