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Gary Younge
US midterm elections: machine v momentum

To listen to some pundits, the election is pretty much over already. The Democrats, if you missed it, lost big time. The Republicans are back; Obama is effectively neutered. All we're waiting for now is someone to cast and count those damn votes.

To some extent, this is true. Thanks to early voting, for many people the election really is over. In the closely fought race in Nevada, more than half the electorate has probably voted already. In Washington state, another close one where the majority of votes is mailed in, most have already had their say. Across the country, just under a third of likely voters have voted, according to the US Elections Project website.

But if the tallies tell us that the race, for many, is over, they do not make the final result much clearer – suggesting Tuesday night might provide a far more patchy, regionalised and uneven picture than the national Republican tidal wave that has been predicted. Indeed, with less than 24 hours before the polls close, what remains of this election is shaping up to be a battle between Republican enthusiasm and Democratic organisation.

The Republican base, it has been widely noted, is far more fired up about this election than Democrats, and so far more likely to turn out. This is why, even though Democrats do not fair miserably when pollsters ask registered voters, they collapse when those who are registered are probed about whether they will actually turn up. That said, no matter how enthusiastic you are about your candidate or party, you only get one vote.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have in place a formidable "get out the vote" machine that is largely still in place from 2008. Among the unions and other surrogates, they also have an impressive number of footsoldiers to knock on doors and ferry voters to and from the polls. They are hoping that what they lack in enthusiasm, they can make up for in effort. Still, no matter how well organised you are, you can't get people to support a candidate or party they don't like.

These dichotomies are playing out differently in different places. In Illinois, for example, where both the Senate and gubernatorial races are close, Democrats are cock-a-hoop over the numbers they have managed to turn out. In Nevada, Harry Reid's operation has blunted the Republican surge, leaving him in the game against Sharron Angle – but barely. In Florida, the Republicans have been wiping the floor with the Democrats.

All of this explains the extreme volatility in the latest and last polls, which range from Republicans up 15 points among likely voters from Gallup, to Democrats up 3 points from Newsweek. In between, Republicans are +13 with Fox, +10 with CNN, +9 with Rasmussen, +8 with YouGov, +6 with CBS/New York Times, Pew and NBC/Wall Street Journal, +5 with Politico, +4 with ABC/Washington Post, +3 with Bloomberg and tied with Marist.

This probably won't make a huge amount of difference to the final outcome regarding the Senate. But in the House, this range could be the difference between the Democrats holding on or suffering a total rout. Now, most commentators are going with sizeable – and possibly seismic – Republican gains, most settling on somewhere between 50 and 60 seats. I don't doubt that's the most likely scenario. But there is also a possibility, just as in the UK where the Liberal surge ended with the party taking fewer seats, that the election we think we've been watching is quite different from the one that is actually taking place.

This is not wishful thinking. Having been raised on three Tory victories in the UK (I didn't stay up for the first one, in 1979), I know that self-delusion is ultimately far more painful than realistic appraisal. But this does feel like an election where the facts available may speak for themselves, but as yet, they are speaking in tongues and no reliable interpreter is at hand.

"Tuesday's probably going to be a really good night for Republicans," concludes the New York Times' psephologist, Nate Silver. "But we really don't have a very good idea of exactly how good – it's probably time to embrace that conclusion. This is a really strange election, or at least one that pollsters are having an awfully difficult time getting a handle on. To claim you can predict Republican gains within a range of 5 or 10 seats isn't science – it's superstition."

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