When I asked Jackie Kennedy about politics, she just smiled and whispered, "Oh, you must ask Jack"

Just after midnight in Washington, and after five and a half hours in the BBC studios with Peter Allen, broadcasting the election results back to the UK first on Radios 4 and 5, and next the World Service, we still didn't know who'd won. Then over to ITN for its breakfast show, when, just after I said it might be several days before we knew who the winner was, the fat lady sang: the television networks decided who had won.


At about 2.30 in the morning, I finished my round of appearances where I'd begun - with Sky TV - to reflect that this contest was even closer than my first professional election, in 1960, when John F Kennedy just pipped Richard Nixon to the presidency. I was in Omaha that year, working for Associated Press, and I stayed up all night for that election - the closest US presidential race in that century. I had met Jack Kennedy on several occasions and one of the great regrets of my life was that I didn't live in California in 1962, so I could have voted against Richard Nixon then, too.

The first time I met Kennedy was in 1958. It was in his hotel room; he was in shirt and shorts and was getting dressed for his luncheon speech. Jackie was in a peignoir. Even in this state of undress, they were awe-inspiring, as charming and as golden a couple as they are remembered. I later had to interview Jackie for the local newspaper. She was breathless, adorable and very discreet. The moment I approached any subject that bordered on politics, she would smile enigmatically and whisper, "Oh, you must ask Jack!" Hardly a First lady in the Hillary mould.


Then back to the hotel, where the television said, sorry folks, we've goofed, and it ain't over yet! As I write, on Wednesday morning in Washington, they're still counting the votes in Florida. It looks as if Vice- President Al Gore has narrowly won the popular vote and leads in the electoral college.But whoever takes Florida is the one who goes over the magic 270 mark.


Since I am chairman of the MORI polling organisation, it will come as no surprise that this past week, I have been in New York and Washington talking to the pollsters, psephologists and pundits about the American presidential election. It has been a fascinating experience. At the end of the campaign, the polls I was watching most closely split the difference, with Harris saying it was even, Zogby saying Gore by two and the Washington Post saying Bush ahead by three points. You pays your money and you takes your choice.


One factor that I thought might make the difference was the turnout of black Americans, whose support for the Democrats touches 90 per cent - and did so in Florida, according to the exit poll there. Theirs is the vote that brings this election to such a nail-biting finish.


The one certain loser is the spoiler Ralph Nader, whose more than two million votes probably included enough Democratic Party supporters to have made the difference between Bush and Gore. It could certainly have made the difference in Florida, which in the end determined the outcome, as well as in several of the down-to-the-wire western states won by Bush. Nader's game plan was to get 5 per cent of the vote, and thus qualify the Green Party for Federal funding four years from now. He was running at 5 per cent in the polls for much of the last week or so, but the "third-party squeeze", so well known in Britain, gave me cause to think that on the night, he'd only get between 2 and 3 per cent of the vote.


The presidential election is tracked daily by no fewer than five polling organisations and another dozen pollsters who are commissioned by the news media to dip in and out with snapshot measures of the mood of the nation. Statewide polls are taken by both the national pollsters and by pollsters operating just in a single state or region. The reason for this is twofold: there is little homogeneity in the electorate, so calculations of swing are difficult; and the presidential contest is actually determined not by the national vote, but by the votes counted in each state, which in turn determines how the electors in each state cast their vote. The states are allocated electoral votes depending on the population; 270 electoral votes are required to win the presidency and, as I write, no one has 270.


The view from the top of the building on "I" street, where both Sky and ITN were filming, was spectacular. You become blase looking at fake backdrops of the Capitol or the White House on television from America, but there is a mobile TV service in Washington that has built a roof-top platform high above the city, from which a number of US and foreign television companies were filming. From this vantage point, you could see the monumental tributes to the men who have led this empire: the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Monument . . . and the White House, which will soon be home to either Al Gore or George Bush Jr. The sight was so impressive, it almost made up for having stayed up all night.


Will it make such a difference to Britain who wins? Both men will continue the middle-of-the-road policies that characterise politics in this great democracy, the country of my birth. I am proud to be an American; I just couldn't live there for five minutes.