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The US midterms: protest voting or conservative revival?

What can we expect from today’s election results?

It's been a long and a noisy election – and today, as voters across America go to the polls, there's been no let-up in the campaigning, from rallies to radio phone-ins and those incessent negative ads. Only Delaware was spared a 30-minute ad from the Tea Party darling Christine O'Donnell: her team left it too late to buy network airtime, and the public access channel that was supposed to run it just plain "forgot". Twice.

President Obama, who's been staying put in the White House since the weekend, called in to four radio shows and taped an interview for American Idol's Ryan Seacrest, hoping to boost Democratic turnout in a handful of key battleground states.

In his place, out on the ground, Michelle Obama has been stumping alongside the embattled Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, in Nevada, pleading with voters to be patient about the pace of change, before heading to Pennsylvania to lend support to Rep Joe Sestak in his tight Senate race.

And Bill Clinton, who seems to have been everywhere in the past few weeks, was back in Florida – in case the Democrats' Alex Sink can slip through in a two-way Republican fight.

But – unless all the polls are suddenly proven wrong, and barring any last-minute surprises – today's election looks like producing the worst results for the Democrats in at least 60 years.

Some pundits have cautioned that this may not turn out to be the expected Republican rout – but according to the latest Gallup poll of 1,539 likely voters, the GOP has built up a 15-point lead.

The survey predicts Republican control of the House of Representatives is "highly likely" – the party needs 39 seats to take over, and Gallup says the party's gains could be "anywhere from 60 seats on up". Thirty-seven seats in the Senate are up for election this year: Rasmussen Reports predicts that the Republicans will pick up 25 of these – not enough to take control of the upper house – but GOP leaders are already talking confidently of "finishing the job" in 2012.

Dozens of races are considered too close to call. Some early signs could come from the first polls to close tonight – with key races in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York pointing to the size of the Republican sweep, though it'll be several hours before the outcome of some crucial seats is clear.

There are plenty of senior Democrats in danger – not Reid, who's neck-and-neck with the Tea Party's Sharron Angle in Nevada – but even Massachusetts Rep Barney Frank, who is facing an unexpectedly tough fight. Another surprise upset could come in Arizona, where the staunchly liberal Raul Grijalva could fall to the 28-year-old rocket scientist and Christian conservative Ruth McClung, whose mother is running her campaign.

And six Democratic governors are at risk, too vulnerable to the white working-class voters who probably backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries, and who now seem likely to switch parties altogether – or simply stay at home.

It's all such a far cry from the euphoria that overwhelmed Washington just two years ago: the queues of excited people who waited hours to cast their vote, the sense of belonging, of making a difference, of a moment in history.

But if the people clamoured for change back in 2008, they're demanding it again now – albeit change of a rather different kind.

Now the grind of hardship, their uncertainty about their jobs, the fragility of their trust in Washington to make it all better – all of this has turned people against the man who once promised so much, and who is now slated (fairly or not) for delivering so little.

Part of this backlash is only to be expected: in times of economic troubles, the party in control gets the blame. And history shows that not only does America expect to have a divided government, in which a different party controls the White House and Congress – most people actively prefer it.

Many independent voters, suggests the pollster Mark Penn, are planning to vote Republican today to achieve just that, a sign that they are "extremely dissatisfied" with what this particular Congress has been doing. Never mind Obama's approval ratings – take a look at how unpopular the pols on Capitol Hill have become. It ain't pretty.

So, rather than some kind of mass conversion towards conservative values, we could view this as a vote against the guys who happened to be in charge during the most challenging economic crisis in living memory.

But the president must take the blame for this much at least: the gaping "enthusiasm gap" that means so many Democratic supporters simply won't bother to show up at the polls. Whether it's been a mixed message, an elitist message, or no clear message at all, Obama has signally failed to sell his agenda to the nation. The man whose own personal narrative was so compelling has consigned his first two years in office to narrative oblivion.

Instead, the wider story of this election has yet to emerge. What has been the real impact of the Tea Party – and how big will its future influence be? How quickly can the Democratic Party – and the president – regroup and recover? And, after all those billions of dollars spent, did money persuade that many people to change how they voted?

All of these questions are waiting for answers. Not least for those planning the next election campaign – the race for 2012.

Felicity Spector is chief writer and US politics expert for Channel 4 News.