Pennsylvania East Meets West
Romney's 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.
Those 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."
Michigan Two key Swing Counties
For 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.
Oakland 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
Some 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.
Both 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.
Wisconsin North by Northwest
Milwaukee, 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.
"When 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.
Minnesota Ballot issues could help GOP
How this blue state nudged its way into the November discussion is a mystery to many. The answer might come from elsewhere on the ballot.
If 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.
Obama 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?
The 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.
Nevada Las Vegas area dominates
One 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.
Much will 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.
Contributing: Martha T. Moore
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