Florida. Ohio. Virginia. Pennsylvania. After nearly two years of stump speeches, commercials, infomercials, debates, robocalls, conventions, a landfill's worth of mailings, hundreds of rallies and a mountain of yard signs, the presidential race could be decided Tuesday (November 4) by a handful of precincts in four crucial states.
While most polls show Democratic Senator Barack Obama up by as many as eight points nationally and leading in several key battleground states, Republican challenger Senator John McCain has warned that he's been counted out before, reviving his "Mac is back!" rallying cry over the weekend.
At the end of an election cycle that has seen more twists and turns than anyone could have predicted, CNN political director Mark Preston went to the interactive big board to gauge some of the potential scenarios for Election Day. As of 6 p.m. ET Monday, CNN's election-prediction calculator had Obama with a White House-winning 291 electoral votes (270 are required for victory) to McCain's 157. Preston said to keep an eye on the seven toss-up states CNN has judged to be crucial to either man's win: Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota and Montana. Even if McCain picks those states up, though, he's still 23 votes short of a victory, unless he can pick up Pennsylvania as well, which gets him two votes away from the prize.
"If McCain wins Pennsylvania, there's a good chance he'll win Ohio, Indiana and Missouri," Preston said, in which case he suggested looking for results from Indiana, where polls close at 7 p.m. ET, as well as Virginia and Georgia. A half-hour later, Ohio and North Carolina roll in, and while Preston doubted anyone would call the evening that early, by then, exit polls will be coming in and the night will begin shaping up. By 9 p.m. ET, the big Western states start closing the polls. If the race is neck-and-neck, you might see states that have traditionally gone one way or the other flip, and suddenly Colorado and Minnesota could play decisive roles.
Here are some key areas to watch in the four most hotly contested states Tuesday night as election results start coming in:
This key state has voted Republican for every president since 1964. But in this incredibly tight election, even a traditionally red state like Virginia is starting to seem a bit purple, with Obama leading slightly in a number of polls. Virginia could be the key to it all, according to Jeremy Mayer, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax County. "If McCain loses Virginia, it's pretty much over," Mayer said of the state's crucial 13 electoral votes.
Mayer said the key areas to watch are the Norfolk area, where Obama has had a lot of success in getting out the vote, and Northern Virginia counties such as Arlington and Loudoun, where a formerly solid red voting record has gone from purple to predictably blue.
Hamilton County, Ohio
Election officials said this week that they're expecting record turnout in the state that has been the linchpin to victories in the most recent presidential races and has voted with the winning candidate every time in the past 10 presidential elections. With 20 electoral votes at stake, at press time, Obama had a seven-point lead in the Buckeye State.
Anticipating potential issues, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that dozens of lawyers and federal judges will be working late Tuesday night in case of any potential voting snafus. And because all the ballots from those who voted early (estimated at 20 percent of Ohioans) don't get tabulated until after the polls close at 7:30 p.m., officials are warning that it could be a very late night for counting the votes.
According to Mayer, Ohio, like Florida, is a "mosaic" state, where you find a bit of everything. "You have Southern Ohio, which is basically like the Confederacy in its ethos, then larger urban areas and parts that are indistinguishable from the Midwest, as well as the Rust Belt and some smaller cities," he said.
In some ways, Ohio is the golden ticket to the presidency, since no 20th-century candidate, with the exception of John F. Kennedy, has won the office without taking the state. "The nation tends to go the way Ohio and Missouri do, because they're so much like the whole country," Mayer said.
One key area to watch is Franklin County, north of Columbus, where Mayer predicted Obama could wrap things up if he does better than Senator John Kerry did there in 2004.
James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., said another key place in Ohio to watch (and, coincidentally, this writer's home base) is Hamilton County in Cincinnati. "Cincinnati has a Democratic mayor now, and Obama thinks he can carry that [traditionally conservative] area. If he can, it's a bellwether to watch," Thurber said. "It's too close to call, but look closely at the turnout in Cleveland, Akron and Canton for McCain, and Toledo and Hamilton County for Democrats."
Bucks County, Pennsylvania
Democrat John Kerry won Pennsylvania in 2004, and though most polls show the state leaning toward Obama (who has a seven-point lead in the latest USA Today/ Gallup poll), McCain's camp has insisted in recent days that his numbers are on the rise in that state, hit hard by the struggling economy.
Unlike Ohio and Virginia, Pennsylvania did not allow early voting, so its citizens could be making final decisions in the hours before polls open Tuesday. Mayer believes the state is "very susceptible" to a late McCain surge, especially if Obama support weakens thanks to some late-breaking attacks launched by an outside group focused on the Illinois senator's controversial former minister. "If those ads hit white working-class voters hard, it could make a big difference," Mayer said. And given the racially charged political history of the state, with large black populations in Philadelphia trending Democratic and the rural white vote trending Republican, if McCain can keep those historical patterns in place, "It could be a long night."
Some key areas to watch are Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where, Mayer said, if Obama can win by large margins and still fight to a tie in the suburbs, he might take the state. Another key area is Scranton and the northeastern part of the state. Obama's running mate, Senator Joe Biden, hails from Scranton, and he has been visiting often over the past few months. "That area went heavily for [Senator] Hillary [Clinton], and if it changes to Obama, you will see Joe Biden sitting in the second seat in the White House," Mayer said.
On Monday, Thurber declared Pennsylvania "over with." He said McCain desperately needs a win in the state, but he doesn't appear within striking distance. If it is close, Thurber suggested keeping an eye on Bucks County, outside of Philadelphia, an area he said McCain has to win in order to bring those suburban Republicans into the mix. He also said to watch the rural areas of the state, where McCain is more popular among the working-class voters.
With 2000's hanging chads and a squeaker in 2004, the Sunshine State has been the thorn in the side of presidential politics for two elections running. At press time, the state was still too close to call. With the fourth-largest number of electoral votes in the country (27), Mayer noted that Florida is important because it is diverse. "In Florida, you have the redneck north, an unusual mix of Hispanic populations, an active black community, high-tech white immigrants and, of course, the huge Jewish population, all of which make it unpredictable," he said.
Mayer said to watch the heavily Jewish South Florida area on Tuesday night, because "it's the real thing" when it comes to predicting how Florida will go. "Watch McCain's margins in Miami, because it has one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the country, and they vote like crazy," he said. "If McCain is doing better than Bush did in 2004 in those very Democratic areas, that might mean that Obama's message is not getting through."
Thurber said the I-4 corridor, the traditionally Republican territory in the center of the state that encompasses Jacksonville and Pensacola, is a toss-up at this point, with both Obama and McCain having hammered the area repeatedly over the past few months. He also said the way the Cuban vote breaks in and around Miami could be a crucial determinant in who carries the state.
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