With the presidential election too close to call, hundreds of thousands of Americans living in Europe have been posting their absentee ballots with a sense that they could truly make a difference on November 6.
From Berlin to Paris and London to Madrid, they have closely tracked the battle between Democrat President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, though the emotional temperature is several degrees lower than four years ago, when most expats rallied behind Obama after two terms of George W. Bush, whom many thought had tarnished the U.S. image abroad.
Both the Republicans and Democrats have courted the expat vote since 1988, when absentee ballots reversed the outcome of a Senate race in Florida, allowing Republican Connie Mack to pip Democrat Buddy MacKay, who had led when polling stations closed.
Absentee ballots also made the difference in another Senate race in 2008. Democrat Al Franken came from 215 votes behind to win with the help of absentee votes.
The tightness of the presidential race, with a Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll showing a dead heat [ID:nL1E8LO7LJ], has made the expat vote arguably more important than ever. Both Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad organizations have gone all out to get Americans registered and voting in their home states.
"Americans in Germany are really excited about this year's election but nervous too," said Nancy Green, an opera singer who chairs the Democrats Abroad in Berlin. A New York state voter, she helped hundreds get registered in their states this year. "Everyone knows it's going to be really, really close," she added. "People abroad realize our votes really count. We've done everything we can to find Americans and help them register."
U.S. citizens wanting to vote have to be registered in advance in a state, each with different rules and deadlines. Even though there is no data available about the distribution of the expat vote, it could have an impact in key swing states such as Ohio, Florida and Virginia.
MOST EXPATS FOR OBAMA?
"There's a high interest among expats in Germany, but I sense those on the Democrat side aren't as fervent today as they were in 2008," said Thomas Leiser of Texas, chairman of German's Republicans Abroad and a businessman in Frankfurt. "There's intense disappointment in President Obama's leadership."
The estimated 250,000 Americans in Germany - the fourth largest U.S. expatriate community in the world - traditionally leant toward Republican candidates, partly due to a large cohort of generally more conservative soldiers stationed there, and the coordinated efforts of the military to get absentee ballots to the 50,000 troops. But that shifted in recent elections as disenchantment with Bush in Germany and across Europe grew - though political scientist James Walston of the American University in Rome believes expats in the military will still mostly vote Romney.
"The majority of soldiers will tend to be Republican voters because of the demographics," Walston said. "They tend to come from the Southern and Central states where the Republicans win."