BERLIN With the U.S. 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 , has made the expat vote arguably more important than ever. Both Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad organisations 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 realise 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."
But civilian expats appear to have been more influenced by the overwhelmingly pro-Obama stance of their European hosts. Many Americans in Europe, for instance, are baffled that Republicans oppose national health care, which most Europeans take for granted.
An opinion poll by the Emnid polling institute found 87 percent of German nationals would vote for Obama and only 5 percent for Romney if they had the chance to cast ballots. Those numbers are similar to polls of Germans taken four years ago.
In France, a CSA poll found 67 percent would prefer Obama versus 5 percent for Romney. In 2008 the same poll found 83 percent for Obama and 10 percent for Republican John McCain.
"Based on what I'm hearing, I'd say most expats are going to vote for Obama, probably about 90 percent," said Alan Benson, a leader of American Voices Abroad, which helps people register.
But Benson, a 53-year-old teacher who has lived in Germany for 47 years, said the enthusiasm for Obama was gone. "People were over-excited by Obama and got disappointed. Some people voted once in a lifetime in 2008. We met people who crawled out from under their rocks for that. But they're not coming back."
WHERE'S THE PASSION?
In Britain, where about 400,000 Americans live, several of them admitted the mood was subdued this time and they were less passionate about Obama. Most seem disillusioned as the promise of hope and change was dashed by partisan politics and Congressional obstacles.
"This election is different," said Kendred Dove, 25, a marketing executive whose vote will count in Arizona. "In 2008 there had been a real turn against Republicans after Bush. Obama symbolized a bright new future and had the celebrity factor. Neither candidate has the celebrity factor any more."
American expats interviewed at random in Berlin, Paris, Madrid and Brussels said they were leaning towards Obama, but with less enthusiasm than in 2008.
But a vote's a vote, however zealous the voter.
"People may not be as passionate as in the last election, when we were voting for the first black American president and the end of the Bush years, but we are just as determined," said Brian Lee Ford, a psychotherapist in Madrid. "With Bush, it was embarrassing that we couldn't justify our foreign policy."
In France, where about 100,000 Americans live permanently, a short walk through a 17th century cobblestone courtyard in Paris leads you to the "Obama Meetup", where several dozen Democrats have assembled in a room decorated with a life-size cut-out of the president, blue Obama T-shirts and a few U.S. flags.
"France has one of the highest (U.S. expat) voter registration rates in the world. Congratulations everybody!" announced Eileen Bastianelli, who heads social media for Democrats Abroad.
Tom McGrath, 53, a banker at the helm of Republicans Abroad, said Americans were suffering in a deep recession and Obama would be held accountable.
"French people that I know can't really imagine Obama losing," he said. "They don't see Romney as a serious contender. They just cannot imagine Americans would throw out Obama. What they miss is that Americans haven't experienced the type of economic situation that we've been through since the 1930s." (Additional reporting by Isla Binnie in London, Tracy Rucinski in Madrid, Alexandria Sage in Paris, Ethan Bilby in Brussels and Martin Schmidt-Bleek in Berlin; Editing by Will Waterman)