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Will the election really change anything?

News Analysis

During the home stretch of the campaign, both President Obama and Mitt Romney have claimed to be the candidate of change. Mr. Obama claims to "know what real change looks like"; his challenger is telling supporters that, "You can stay on the path of the last four years, or you can choose change."

Yet no matter who wins on Tuesday, much of what goes on in Washington won't be all that different.

That's because there are significant limits on what a president can do without a compliant Congress. And forecasters expect the House to remain in Republican handsand the Senate to remain in Democratic hands. That sets the stage for the same Congressional gridlock we've seen over the past four years, when Congress' approval rating has hovered around 10 percent.

And let's say that Mr. Obama wins the election and the House also, improbably, ends up in Democratic hands. Even if Democrats hold the Senate, they still almost certainly won't have the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster, which will make it easy for Republicans to block many of their policy goals.

On the flip side, let's say Romney wins and Republicans take control of the Senate and hang onto the House. Republicans also wouldn't have 60 Senate votes, and while either party could use a maneuver called "reconciliation" to circumvent the filibuster on certain budget matters - this is what Republicans want to use to block the health care law from going into effect - the minority would still have significant power to stymie the majority.

At the beginning of his second term, President George W. Bush's presided over a fully GOP Congress; his signature policy proposal, Social Security reform, still failed. Mr. Obama, meanwhile, was barely able to get the health care law through Congress despite his party having control of the House and a near-supermajority in the Senate. Neither presidential candidate will have that many allies in the Senate after this election. 

This isn't to say that the outcome of the election doesn't matter: The two candidates have very different visions for America, and they will use the significant power of the presidency to try to push them through. There is also a lot that a president can do without assent from Congress, including instituting executive orders (like Mr. Obama's decision to stop deporting some young illegal immigrants) and appointing Supreme Court justices.

But neither party will have the power to fully institute their policy goals or fulfill the promises the candidates have made on the campaign trail, and neither candidate is likely to win the popular vote by such a large margin that he can claim a mandate. More broadly, Washington will be the same place it is now: One where special interests have a significant impact on the decision-making process of lawmakers. It's the reality Mr. Obama ran into following his campaign trail promises of change four years ago, and it's not going away anytime soon.

In addition, there's a good chance the specific dynamics won't change at all. Polls suggest that the most likely outcome in this election is that Mr. Obama wins reelection, the House stays Republican and the Senate stays Democratic - exactly where things stand now. Despite the copious campaigning and media coverage, not to mention the billions of dollars spent, 2012 may well be the very definition of a status quo election -- one that leaves American facing another four years of "tough, divided, gridlocked" government, as political scientist Larry Sabato put it on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday.

Yet all this does not mean that there wouldn't be significant differences in a second Obama term. For starters, while the president will have to worry about the prospects for Democrats getting elected in 2014 and beyond, he will not have to worry about his own reelection. He also will be operating with the benefit of some of the hard lessons he learned in his first term, including the relative ineffectiveness of the conciliatory tone he took at the outset of the health care fight and other battles with Republicans. Mr. Obama seemed to enter his first term in thrall to his own campaign trail hype; he'd enter his second term as far more of a calculating Washington tactician who treats the opposition as largely antagonistic.

In an off-the-record interview with the Des Moines Register in October that was ultimately made public, Mr. Obama said that in his second term he could deal with "some things that really historically have not been ideological," including tax reform. He also predicted a "grand bargain" on the deficit within six months and said he expected passage of immigration reform in part because Republicans are wary of further alienating Latino voters.

"Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community," Mr. Obama said. "And this is a relatively new phenomenon. George Bush and Karl Rove were smart enough to understand the changing nature of America. And so I am fairly confident that they're going to have a deep interest in getting that done."

Indeed, America's shifting demographics is one of the most important factors in dictating what does or doesn't get done over the next four years. The Republican Party has become dependent on white voters, but whites are shrinking as a portion of the electorate - in 30 years, nonwhites are expected to outnumber whites - and the party has no choice but to try to appeal to groups outside its older, white base if it wants to remain relevant. For all the candidates' talk about change, it is the shifting nature of the electorate - not the politicians themselves - that is the driving force behind it.

It's a fact that Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., brought up when discussing the potential Republican response if Romney loses on Tuesday.

"If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn't conservative enough I'm going to go nuts," he told Politico. "We're not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we're not being hard-ass enough."

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