Predicting the outcome of this presidential election is like trying to rope a dust devil. Which way it goes is anybody’s guess and predicting its path is next to impossible.

That’s because, when it comes to presidential politics, America is a house divided, says Josh Winegarner, government relations specialist for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. “It’s a dead-even heat and nobody really knows” who will ultimately occupy the White House, he said during a Farm Credit seminar Sept. 27 in Amarillo.

Depending on which poll you look at, about 47% of voters are leaning right and will vote for Mitt Romney, and about 47% are leaning left and will vote for President Obama. That makes the small sliver in the middle of the pie chart critical, the former Senate staffer turned lobbyist says. “Those are the people who are really going to decide the election.”

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Based on polling data, the toss-up states in the presidential race are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire and North Carolina. “And I think that Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New Mexico may still be in play,” Winegarner adds.

That’s because most polls are based on the assumption that the same number of people who voted in 2008 will show up at the polls in 2012. “But as we’ve seen, based on conversations with voters and the mood around the country, the energy and enthusiasm aren’t there among young people and minorities. So I think you’re going to see something different than what the pollsters are telling us,” he says.

In 2008, Obama was very successful in energizing young voters and minorities to go to the voting booth. “And it was depressed in the number of white males who came out,” Winegarner says. Those traditionally Republican voters weren’t enthused about the McCain-Palin ticket, saw the momentum that Obama was generating, and just didn’t vote.

Several polls that take this shift in voter enthusiasm into account show a much tighter race this year, with Romney and Obama in a tie, and Romney slightly ahead in some toss-up states.

So what happens between now and Nov. 6 may well depend on the next two presidential debates. If Romney doesn’t do well, it has the potential to knock him out of the race, Winegarner says. But that’s true for Obama as well, he adds. “Because there are so few undecided voters in so few states, if either of them really messes up between now and then, it could really affect the election.”

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Winegarner thinks Republicans will maintain control of the House of Representatives, but not by the margin they initially hoped for. And in the Senate, there’s a chance the Republican Party can gain a slight upper hand, he says, as Democrats are defending 23 seats while Republicans are defending 11. Republicans also are closing the money gap, which will keep the highly contested Senate races very competitive right up to voting day.

For the presidential race, “I think you’ll see more energy from some of the Republicans who stayed home in 2008 to come out and vote, and I think you’ll see less enthusiasm from the young people who voted,” he says. “It’s split down the middle and it’s all going to depend on who shows up that day and where they show up.”