A HUGE sense of expectation, tinged with a strong feeling of relief, was sweeping across the United States this morning as Americans awoke after one of the closest, most expensive and gruelling presidential elections in US history.
Tens of millions of voters from New York on the east coast to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean had cast their ballots by the time the last polling stations closed in the late evening in a race so tight that many analysts were predicting no definite result until at least later today, and maybe even longer.
Whether Barack Obama, the Democratic Party’s incumbent, remains in the White House for another four years or is evicted by his Republican challenger Mitt Romney was still unclear last night as the first results began to trickle in.
But long queues at polling booths across the country yesterday, and the fact that a near-record 35 million votes had already been cast in early voting, gave both candidates notice that, no matter who the eventual winner, the American public wants a decisive move away from an era of recession, high unemployment and a spiralling national debt.
Also at stake in yesterday’s election was the future make-up of the US Senate and House of Representatives. Opinion polls suggested there would be no significant change in either, with a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican House making it difficult for the next president to implement an agenda, regardless of who wins.
Mr Obama, himself among the early voters a week ago, joined campaign workers in Chicago for election night, having spent time earlier in the day at his campaign headquarters in the city to thank supporters by telephone.
“We feel confident we’ve got the votes to win, but it’s going to depend ultimately on whether those votes turn out,” he said, before promising to perform a private “Gangnam-style” victory dance for his wife Michelle if he won.
He later relaxed by playing basketball as he waited for the polls to close, campaign staff said.
Mr Romney, meanwhile, broke with election-day convention to undertake some last-minute campaigning alongside running mate Paul Ryan in the key battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Ohio, two states he needed to win.
No Republican candidate has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio, yet Mr Obama was holding a three per cent advantage in opinion polls there as voting got under way.
“I can’t imagine an election being won or lost by, let’s say, a few hundred votes and you spent your day sitting around,” Mr Romney said.
“I mean, you’d say to yourself, ‘Holy cow, why didn’t I keep working?’
“And so I’m going to make sure I never have to look back with anything other than the greatest degree of satisfaction on this whole campaign.”
The Democratic Party’s campaign managers sent vice president Joe Biden, Mr Obama’s running mate, on an unscheduled and hasty late trip to Ohio to address supporters and counter Mr Romney’s rally.
Fears of a “nightmare scenario” in Ohio over the counting of up to 300,000 provisional ballots, which some experts had warned could prevent the state from announcing a winner for several weeks, were dismissed by John Husted, its secretary of state, who said he expected to be able to declare a result overnight.
With a handful of anecdotal exceptions, such as waits of three or more hours in some parts of Florida because of broken voting machines, and slow progress at polling stations running on generator power in some areas of the north-eastern states affected by superstorm Sandy last week, voting appeared to be running smoothly.
But in Pennsylvania, where Mr Obama led by almost 4 per cent according to the final Real Clear Politics tracking poll, Republican officials filed a lawsuit claiming that 75 of its observers were denied access to polling stations in Philadelphia.
“This was a shameless attempt from the Obama campaign to suppress our legally appointed poll watchers, and they got caught,” said Rob Gleason, chairman of the state’s Republicans.
The first official result came from the tiny New Hampshire hamlet of Dixville Notch, 43 seconds after the polls opened at midnight, where the ten residents split their votes evenly between Mr Obama and Mr Romney.
The 2012 election has already set a record for the most expensive on record.
In 19 months, the candidates raised, and spent, a combined $2 billion (£1.25bn), up from the $1.8bn that Mr Obama and John McCain spent during their 2008 battle.
With spending on the Congressional elections and money raised by interested outside parties, the total expenditure on 2012 polling could exceed $6bn, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics, an amount that National Public Radio said would be enough to build almost 1,000 new schools or buy the military 200 new fighter jets, among other things.