The political fortunes of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could be
determined today in little-known counties with names like Loudoun, Lucas
After 17 months and more than $2 billion spent
crisscrossing the nation in search of votes, the two presidential
candidates, their staffs and an army of journalists and political
junkies will huddle tonight over county maps and precinct reports to
gauge the voters' verdict.
It won't be New York, Chicago or Los
Angeles that decides the election. Instead, swing counties such as
Virginia's Loudoun, Ohio's Lucas and Colorado's Larimer will play
outsized roles in picking the next president. (More on those places
turnout among Democrats' and Republicans' base voters will begin to
tell the tale of the 2012 election. Turnout was above 65% in 10 swing
states in 2008 and 61.6% overall, slightly higher than 2004.
the TV networks and other news organizations will begin releasing the
results of "exit polls" taken outside polling places, which will shed
light on the choices made by men and women, whites and minorities, young
and old, urban and rural. More so than in the past, that information is
likely to spill out on Twitter and other social media outlets.
the polls close from east to west, the results from early voting -
representing as much as two-thirds of the vote in some states - will
become known. That will be followed by the gradual tabulation of
Election Day votes, starting at 7 p.m. ET and continuing deep into the
All the clues will be important, because news organizations may be
cautious in projecting state winners from a combination of exit polls,
vote counts from key precincts, the number of votes outstanding and
historical voting data. That's partially a result of the debacle of
2000, when TV networks prematurely proclaimed George W. Bush president
long before that result became clear. In 2004, exit polls greatly
overstated Democrat John Kerry's strength in his failed effort to unseat
Here's a guide to watching the returns tonight:
7 P.M. IN VIRGINIA
was a reason the president kept returning to Prince William County, a
Washington, D.C., exurb, in the campaign's waning days. Together with
neighboring Loudoun County, both just beyond reliably Democratic
Fairfax, it offers the keys to the Old Dominion.
and they're diverse. The big breakthrough for Obama (in 2008) came when
he won those counties," says Larry Sabato, who directs the University of
Virginia's Center for Politics.
Other keys: Henrico and
Chesterfield counties, around Richmond, and military-dependent Virginia
Beach, the state's most populous city. Romney must run strong there; in
2008 Obama held his own, even against war hero John McCain.
demographics, Sabato will look primarily at gender and race. Obama
almost surely will win among women and Romney among men, but whoever
enjoys the greater gender gap will win. And the president must get close
to 40% of the white vote to hold on, Sabato says.
closely mirrored the national election four years ago, giving Obama
52.6% of the vote (he won 52.9% nationally). If one candidate is
declared the winner in Virginia fairly early in the evening, Sabato
says, "that candidate is very likely to win the election, because that
means either Romney or Obama is running well ahead of expectations."
7:30 P.M. IN OHIO
something different to watch here this year beyond the usual
Democratic, Republican and bellwether counties: auto country.
Democratic, the counties around Youngstown and Toledo could be even
more so this year, and that would be welcome news for Obama. If the
president polls 60% or more there, he could win the state, University of
Akron political science professor David Cohen says.
telling will be Lucas County, which Cohen calls "ground zero" of the
latest Ohio flap: Romney's last-minute ad implying that Chrysler, which
runs a Jeep plant in Toledo, will ship jobs to China.
that most often determines the presidency also has several key swing
counties: Look to Lake County east of Cleveland, where Obama visited
Saturday, as well as Canton-based Stark County, both of which usually
pick the winners.
Obama won the male vote here in 2008, exit polls
showed - something he's unlikely to repeat, so he needs a healthy
majority of women, Cohen says. He also needs to crush Romney by more
than 2-to-1 in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), while a strong showing by
Romney in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) could indicate the state is going
A turnout battle
African-American vote in North Carolina gave Obama one of his two most
unlikely victories in 2008 (Indiana was the other). The question this
year: Will blacks turn out in sufficient numbers to do it again?
polls suggest not, giving Romney one of his only clear swing-state
advantages. Still, gains among Latino voters, plus the Obama campaign's
vaunted get-out-the-vote effort, could make things close.
a black president made history. Re-electing a black president isn't the
same thing," says David Rohde, a political science professor at Duke
He will look to the state's heavily minority counties
such as Durham, where Duke is based, for signs that turnout is as strong
or weaker than it was in 2008, when turnout increased over previous
years by more than any other state.
8 P.M. IN FLORIDA
Late night ahead?
the election is close in the Sunshine State, as it usually is, the most
important votes won't show up in either candidate's column as the
results are tabulated.
They are the provisional ballots, those
that election officials must certify later, and their number is expected
to grow this year because of rules relating to address changes.
Historically, Democrats have been twice as likely to cast provisional
"All eyes are going to be on them," University of Florida
political science professor Daniel Smith says of the provisional votes.
"And all the lawyers' eyes are going to be on them."
the state's voters have cast early ballots, and those should be
tabulated fairly quickly after the polls close. Watch Hillsborough
County in the Tampa Bay area for a clue to the election, Smith says -
its ethnic and racial diversity tipped 53% of its voters for Obama in
Manchester is key
biggest city in the state closes its polls at 7 p.m., ahead of some
others, and usually tallies results quickly. So shortly after all state
polls close at 8 p.m., its results should be known.
director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, says Obama
needs at least 53% in Manchester to capture the state. Anything less
could be overwhelmed by the small, rural counties that will report much
later and tilt Romney's way. "Just watch Manchester. That's going to
give you a really good idea," Smith says. "It sets the tone for the
East meets west
late effort to steal the state from Obama's win column will hinge on
turnout in two areas: east of the Susquehanna River in Philadelphia and
its suburbs, where Obama should get a majority of at least 500,000, and
northern and southwestern Pennsylvania, where Romney needs to pile up
white, blue-collar votes.
But Pennsylvania also has eight swing
counties in the east that could determine the election: Bucks,
Montgomery, Chester and Delaware counties, which surround Philadelphia,
will be watched closely, as will Lehigh, Northampton, Monroe and Berks,
which include cities such as Allentown, Bethlehem and Reading.
counties have the largest number of independents, says Terry Madonna,
director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin &
Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. The candidate who captures most of
those counties could win the state, he says, "because you're winning the
voters in the middle."
Two key swing counties
years, political prognosticators looked to Macomb County north of
Detroit, home of the "Reagan Democrats," as the key to Michigan
politics. Now it's got competition from neighboring Oakland County.
gave 57% of its votes to Obama in 2008 and Macomb 53%. If Obama can
just break even or come close this year in Macomb while holding Oakland,
"then obviously Republicans are in bad shape," says political analyst
Ed Sarpolus. "There's no way that Romney can win losing Oakland County."
Another place to watch is Kent County, home of Grand Rapids, where the
strong Republican base has been eroding.
This is another state
where Obama needs to win big among blacks and union workers to
compensate for a likely loss among whites. If Romney can get 55% among
whites, Sarpolus says, he could have a good night.
9 P.M. IN COLORADO
Watch the early vote
70% of Colorado voters' ballots were cast before Election Day and will
be counted quickly after the polls close. Ironically, however, this is
one state where the result may hinge on the last votes to be counted -
late postmarks, slow precincts, provisional ballots. It's that close.
parties have their base counties where they should perform well; who
does better depends on turnout, which topped 70% in 2008. Then there are
the swing counties: Jefferson and Arapahoe around Denver, and Larimer
on the Wyoming border, which includes Fort Collins.
Obama won all
three counties in 2008 with 54%-55% of the vote, but this is a closer
election. "You've got to watch what happens in those swing counties,"
says Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado pollster and political analyst.
The president will win women, Latinos and young people, Ciruli says, but the margins will be telling.
North by northwest
Madison and Green Bay won't decide this election. Instead, look to the
north and northwest. That area has been the bellwether of late. It
went for Obama in 2008 but swung back to elect Republican Scott Walker
governor in 2010 and help him survive a recall this past June.
Democrats win statewide, they normally win a majority of the counties
in that area," says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette
University Law School Poll. "If that area looks mostly blue, that's
great news for Obama. If it looks mostly red, that's a real warning, and
probably good news for Romney."
Another wild card is Paul Ryan,
the GOP candidate for vice president. His base in Rock County is usually
Democratic turf - Obama won it with 64% last time - but Ryan's name is
on the ballot twice as he seeks to retain his seat in Congress should
the Romney-Ryan ticket lose.
Ballot issues could help GOP
this blue state nudged its way into the November discussion is a
mystery to many. The answer might come from elsewhere on the ballot.
Obama has trouble, it could indicate conservative enthusiasm for
traditional marriage and tougher voter ID rules, questions that are
being put to voters. "If they're passing, that's an early indication
that it's a good night for Republicans," says Steven Schier, political
science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.
needs 60% or more in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to compensate for
Romney's advantage in the suburbs and exurbs, Schier says. "That's where
Republicans really have to stop the Democrats," he says. Turnout in
Minnesota in 2008 was 78%, the highest in the nation.
10 P.M. IN IOWA
Shades of 2008?
early vote will be tabulated quickly after polls close, giving the
first sign of where things stand. By all indications, it should show a
Democratic lead of as much as 10 points.
Heavy turnout in Iowa's
college towns, such as Ames, Cedar Falls and Iowa City, could be driving
that lead, but whether that turnout matches 2008 remains to be seen.
"There's some concern that younger voters are not going to turn out for
Obama the way they did in 2008," says Steffen Schmidt, a political
science professor at Iowa State University.
Several other races in
Iowa could provide hints for the presidential race: Watch the retention
battle over Judge David Wiggins, a gay marriage proponent; Iowa Senate
Democratic leader Mike Gronstal's difficult re-election, and Christie
Vilsack's uphill challenge to Republican Rep. Steve King for indications
of Democratic strength or weakness, Schmidt says.
Las Vegas area dominates
county dominates the political landscape here: Clark, home to Las Vegas
and 70% of the state's voters. Obama led there by 120,000 votes in
2008, representing his entire margin statewide, and anything close to
that would signal victory again.
Then comes Washoe County, home to
Reno, and one of only two other counties Obama won four years ago.
Romney needs to win there, says David Damore, associate professor of
political science at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
be known right after the polls close, because early voters make up
roughly two-thirds of the state's voters, and those results will come in
fast. "If Romney's not up in the early voting in Washoe, it's really
tough for a Republican," Damore says.
If the election is as close
as polls suggest, it might come down to absentee ballots that are still
in the mail and tens of thousands of "provisional" ballots that won't be
counted until after Election Day. In Ohio, they can't even be reviewed
for 10 days.
"Even without hanging chads, we could be into December before we know the results," Rohde says.