Late tomorrow night, the election returns are likely to leave us with a political landscape very much like the one we already have right now. A marathon election campaign, longer than almost any other in the world, and decennial redistricting, will do little to change to allocation of political power.
President Obama will probably be re-elected. Democrats will probably retain a thin majority in the U.S. Senate, but not a filibuster-proof lead. Republicans will probably retain a thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, although their majority will probably be very thin. The U.S. Supreme Court (whose members are appointed for life) will continue to have a 5-4 conservative majority.
Although Romney probably won't win, the balance of power in Washington D.C. that must be surpassed to accomplish anything new will remain in territory where he is comfortable, with the handful of remaining moderate Republicans in Congress and moderately conservative judges like Justice Kennedy.
By 2014, the economy should have pretty much rebounded, so a mid-term election boost to the Republicans is likely to be modest, if there is one.
President Obama will be in a good position to protect his signature policy accomplishment, "Obamacare", which mostly uses tax incentives to buy health insurance and expanded Medicaid eligibility to bring about near universal health care, an area where the United States has lagged for decades behind the rest of the developed world. He can veto any outright effort to repeal the law, although the budget process could be used to underfund it.
A status quo in which many tax breaks that President Obama has promised not to renew for the affluent expire at the end of this year gives him considerable leverage in negotiations over tax policy as well. Congressional Republicans will have to choose between tax policies that are second best in their opinion that Democrats will agree to implement, and a status quo that is from their perspective even worse but would arise without their involvement.
For policy wonks, this means a return to the grindstone of uncontroversial technocratic proposals that can win bipartisan support, incremental change, regulatory and enforcement oriented initiatives, court battles, moderate budgetary tweaks, and state and local government level initiatives. Major new federal spending programs, bold new substantive federal legislative reforms, and sweeping federal tax code changes unless some crisis opens the door for action in some particular policy domain.
There is also considerable room for movement politics. Efforts with a long term goal of changing public opinion may look like an attractive place to devote political resources at a time when the formal instruments of governmental action are immobilized. In recent years, efforts to change public opinion about gay rights, marijuana legalization, intellectual property laws, and mass incarceration have all made considerable progress.
When President Obama's next term ends in 2016, Obamacare will have mostly taken full effect, greatly reducing the ranks of the uninsured, controlling health care costs, and removing the "fear of the unknown" factor that has dogged it politically so far. U.S. troops will have been withdrawn from Afghanistan by then. The financial crisis will be forgotten and a new recession will likely not yet have taken hold. Progress on defense spending, health care spending, and collecting taxes from the affluent will have taken some of the edge off the budget deficit. Gay rights struggles that were once controversial will have become a fait accompli. The gun control measures that mobilized Tea Party conservative in 2008 will not have materialized. There is a decent chance that President Obama will have managed to replace one of the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, shifting the balance of power back to the liberal wing of the court for the first time in a very long while. An inability to enact major partisan legislation will leave few polarizing issues for Republicans to attack Democrats with effectively.
Republicans first instinct, after seeing a moderate Republican from New England defeated, will be to argue that it was not conservative enough in 2012. But, by 2016, the Republicans may be hungry enough for some kind of power to moderate that feeling and to recognize that they need a transformative figure who can create a bigger tent for the grand old party. If it doesn't, they will become politically irrelevant.