Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were in an extraordinarily tight battle for the White House today, but some key states were falling to the current president.
Mr Romney led Mr Obama by 159 electoral votes to 147, as the Associated Press predicted results in 32 states and the District of Columbia. Mr Obama took the swing state of New Hampshire and reports said he had also held on to Wisconsin but the remaining seven that hold the key to victory were still counting.
Mr Romney led in the national popular vote with 25.2 million votes, or 50%. Mr Obama had 24.2 million, or 48%, with 32% of precincts tallied.
The swing states – those that are not predictably Democratic or Republican - are important because the president is chosen in a state-by-state tally of electors, not according to the nationwide popular vote.
At stake at the end of Election Day were overwhelmingly different approaches for healing the ailing US economy, polar opposite views on social issues from abortion rights for women to how to deal with immigration to health care and the conduct of American diplomatic and military policy across the globe.
While nationwide polls going in to Election Day showed Mr Obama and Mr Romney virtually tied, the president was seen as holding slim leads in many of the swing states – Ohio chief among them.
Exit polls found conducted among voters who cast ballots showed most voters saying the economy is the top issue facing the nation with three-fourths calling it poor or not so good.
With so many swing-state electors still up for grabs, there was a possibility of a repeat of the 2000 election, when the winner, George W. Bush, was not known for weeks after a protracted recount in Florida and a Supreme Court decision. A narrow victory for either candidate this time is sure to deepen polarisation and leave the winner without a strong mandate to face mounting problems – notably, the “fiscal cliff” of higher taxes and deep automatic cuts in spending that loom in January if Republicans and Democrats in Congress cannot reach an accord on US finances.
Most eagerly awaited were results in Ohio and four other swing states also in the eastern section of the United States – Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and New Hampshire.
Moving west, the polls will then close next in the swing states of Wisconsin and Iowa in the Central time zone, then in Colorado and Nevada.
Mr Obama played basketball in a gym near his home on Chicago’s south side as millions of Americans waited in long queues to cast their ballots. Earlier he was met with applause and tears from volunteers as he entered a campaign office before picking up a phone to call voters. He congratulated Mr Romney on a “spirited campaign” and told reporters he’s “confident we’ve got the votes to win, but it’s going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out.”
Mr Romney and family were at his home near Boston to wait for the results after making two last campaign stops with running mate Paul Ryan in Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That state was thought to have been solidly in the Obama column but one where the Republican challenger had opened a last minute drive, a move seen as a bid to overcome a potential loss in Ohio. No Republican has ever captured the White House without carrying Ohio.
Mr Obama and Mr Romney have spent months highlighting their sharp divisions over the role of government in Americans’ lives, especially in bringing down the stubbornly high unemployment rate, reducing the federal budget deficit and the national debt.
Mr Obama insists there is no way reduce the staggering debt and safeguard crucial social programmes without asking the wealthy to pay their “fair share” in taxes. Mr Romney, who claims his successful business background gives him the expertise to manage the economy, favours lowering taxes and easing regulations on businesses, saying it would spur job growth.
The economy has proven a huge drag on Mr Obama’s candidacy as he fought to turn it around after the deepest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, a downturn that was well under way when he replaced Bush in the White House on January 20, 2009.
No US president since Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s has run for re-election with a national jobless rate as high as it is now – 7.9% in October.
He ended the war in Iraq and the US intelligence and military tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, but a new host of Middle East crises – especially the war in Syria and the deadly attack on the US Consulate in Libya – shadowed the last months of the campaign.
Mr Obama, making his last run for office at age 51, credits his auto-industry bailout, stimulus plan and other policies for ending the recession and bring a slow but steady drop in the unemployment rate. Mr Romney, 65, says Mr Obama’s policies have kept the economy at a standstill.
If elected, Mr Romney would be the first Mormon US president. At times, the former Massachusetts governor has struggled to connect with the Protestant evangelicals who are a core constituency of the Republican Party, especially because of his shifting positions on some social issues such as abortion.