CHICAGO -- Folks, I hate to break it to you, but even though it seems to have been grinding on for years already, this presidential election is on pace to drag on forever.
Why? One word: enthusiasm -- a serious lack of it.
I spent some time with Mitt Romney supporters as his campaign wound through northern Illinois. Let me give you a sense of the vibe: polite people smiling through an insuppressible yawn.
On election night, the ballroom the Romney campaign had secured for the evening fell quite far from feeling full despite all the space taken up by press risers and the area where the band warmed up the tepid, trickling-in crowd.
Once the candidate and his wife, Ann, took the stage, people on Twitter wondered if Mitt would spontaneously break into a few verses of "Sweet Home Chicago" during his victory speech.
Nope. In fact the man barely broke his normal resting heart rate and the crowd matched his energy level decibel for decibel. There was applause, of course, a few hoots here and there, especially after some of Romney's zingier speech lines, but noticeably absent was any sense of passion or the joy that explodes after a hard-fought victory.
Is that what you're supposed to get after spending $3.5 million in advertising in a state whose Republican base has been chomping at the bit for years to step onto the national stage to make a difference in a primary -- and finally got the opportunity on the sitting president's home turf?
I don't think so. And the low voter turnout further told the tale of an unenthused Republican electorate whose majority only forced themselves to the polls on one of the warmest primary days in history to make sure Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul didn't somehow prevail.
Yet, though Santorum can't seem to shake a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease, his supporters genuinely love him. Santorum's latest stumble, (as of this writing, that is) was an Illinois campaign stop the day before the primary during which he said "I don't care what the unemployment rate's going to be. Doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There's something more foundational that's going on here."
By illuminating the courage of his convictions -- his passionate opposition to birth control and abortion, as well as to elitism and naked political pandering -- Santorum only grows in the eyes of conservatives who desire a moral leader.
The day after the Illinois primary -- at just about the same time former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was anointing Romney with his much coveted endorsement -- Santorum came out swinging. He pounced on remarks made by Romney's senior adviser that have been characterized as suggesting that the candidate's strategy is to shake the slate of campaign promises clean, like an Etch a Sketch, for his battle against President Obama in the fall.
If Romney does emerge as the Republican nominee, right now the final battle stands to be all about how many voters are disillusioned, angry, or convinced neither candidate will be able to keep America from driving off a cliff, and avoid the polls altogether.
In other words, November will bring such a tremendous wave of voter lethargy that the winner will be whichever candidate loses less dramatically than the other.
Obama has turned off ultra-liberals just about as much as Romney has failed to win over ultra-conservatives. The members of the "99 percent" could look at the candidates' resumes and see top-notch university degrees, highfalutin past jobs and lucrative book deals, and decide to bypass the polls in favor of "occupying" an Election Day protest. Disillusioned immigrant activist groups have been talking for a year about not voting for Obama because of his record-breaking deportations and are unlikely to embrace Romney's "self-deportation" strategy.
Excitement, the thrill of wonderful possibilities and the electricity generated by the promise of a bright new future weren't quite crackling at Romney headquarters this night and it's hard to imagine them magically appearing for either candidate at the polls next November. Prepare for a long slog.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.