* Republicans, Democrats court expat vote in close race
* Enthusiasm for Obama wanes among U.S. voters in Europe
* Absentee ballots could be decisive again in close states
By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN, Oct 28 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 Nov. 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
"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
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."