The political fortunes of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could be determined today in little-known counties with names like Loudoun, Lucas and Larimer.
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 below.)
Today, 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.
Then 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.
Once 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 night.
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 Bush.
Here's a guide to watching the returns tonight:
7 p.m. in Virginia Exurbs rule
There 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.
"They're exurbs, 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.
As for 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.
Virginia most 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."
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