Following the final scramble for the White House is a bit like watching a tennis match—with heads constantly turning as President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney jet across the country. With Obama holding a narrow lead in the polls, the race is on a razor thin margin. Their schedules seem to defy the laws of time and space.
On Monday, Obama led rallies in Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa before heading to Chicago where he will await the returns. Romney appeared Monday in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and wrapped up the evening at a rally in Manchester, N.H. The former Massachusetts governor will return to Ohio and Pennsylvania today.
If you want to be the smartest guest at the election party tomorrow night, and offer the best answer to who will actually win, The Fiscal Times has put together a list of the nine major factors to watch on Election Day.
270 —The magic number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency can be reached a variety of ways. What makes Obama the favorite is that he’s on-track to secure 237 electoral votes. Romney is set to lock down 206 votes—with about 95 electoral votes left for the taking.
Even if Romney wins Colorado, Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin, he would still need three more electoral votes to break 270. This means also checking for potential upsets where Obama appears to be ahead, such as Pennsylvania (20 votes) and Michigan (16 votes), that would suddenly improve Romney’s odds.
Weather Forecast – It’s supposed to be sunny in Cleveland on Tuesday with a high of 46 degrees. There’s a 60 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms in Tampa. Romney’s fortunes could be riding on cloudy skies. On Wednesday, a Nor’easter is set to rampage through the mid-Atlantic, a region already dealing with the fallout of Hurricane Sandy. Bad weather causes fewer people to vote.
A 2007 study that appeared in the “The Journal of Politics” found voter turnout decreases by about 1 percent for each inch of rainfall—and poor weather tends to benefit Republicans. The study, entitled “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in U.S. Presidential Elections,” examined 14 presidential elections in 3,000 counties.
For example, Tunica County, Miss. received 4.35 inches of rain on election day in 1972 and turnout fell by 3.8 percent. Bad weather in 1960 would have denied John F. Kennedy the White House, while dry skies in 2000 would have made Al Gore president, the paper concludes.
Early Voting – About 40.6 million people—more than 30 percent of the electorate—voted early in 2008, compared to slightly more than 30.6 million people so far this year, according to tracking by George Mason University.
Advanced voting will influence the outcome in several key states. Florida had roughly 53 percent of its voters cast their ballots early, with Democrats representing an increasing share of early voters relative to 2008. Almost a third of Ohio ballots will be from early voters.
The early voting—the results of which are not yet public—reveal the importance of independents. Democrats hold a sizable edge in Nevada and North Carolina, two states where early voters are the majority of the electorate. That makes independents, somewhere between 19 percent and 20 percent of voters in those states, critical for a Romney win.
If you’re looking for early returns tonight, here are four states to consider:
Virginia – Polls close at 7 p.m. EST in this critical state, where control of the Senate is also potentially in the balance. Former Democratic governor Tim Kaine holds a slight lead over former Republican governor and senator George Allen for a seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Jim Webb. Republicans acknowledge that unless Romney manages to carry the state, Allen is unlikely to win.
Indiana –The Hoosier state—normally a GOP lock— is another Senate bellwether with polls closing at 7 pm. After upsetting veteran Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in the GOP primary, arch conservative State Treasurer Richard Mourdock has alienated moderates and suggested that pregnancies from rape are part of God’s plan. If Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly wins the seat, that could keep the Democratic majority in the Senate.
Ohio – Returns from the Buckeye state will start being released after 7:30 p.m. EST. This has the potential to be the whole ball of wax, since an Obama win here practically puts a Romney victory out of reach. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is favored to fend off a challenge from Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel.
North Carolina -- The polls close at 7:30 p.m. Obama scored a surprising win in the Tar Heel State four years ago by a razor thin 0.4 percent of the vote, but times have changed. Romney has led in most of the surveys of likely voters. Yet early voting gives a decisive advantage to Obama.
0.5 percent – This is the critical margin of victory in Colorado and Florida. Anything below 0.5 percent triggers an automatic recount. If Obama and Romney are within about 40,000 votes of each other in Florida, then the state’s 29 electoral votes are up for grabs. For statewide elections in Ohio, automatic recounts are triggered by margins of less than 0.25 percent—roughly 13,000 votes.
The last recount twelve years ago in Florida erupted into a bureaucratic and legal battle that was eventually settled by the Supreme Court in the Republicans’ favor. With the government set to topple off the fiscal cliff next year, an extended period of limbo about the occupant of the White House could prove devastating.
“Recall that in 2000 it took until December 12th to decide the election, something we can ill afford today,” said Ethan Harris, North American economist for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Exit Polls – These get a lot of attention on election night, but the networks have a checkered past in calling big races – think 2000 when Florida was prematurely called for Democrat Al Gore and then for George W. Bush and the projections were withdrawn.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, a veteran of election nights, has this added advice: “Ignore the leaked exit polls. I have found them frequently to be wrong and heavily tilted to one side. I’ve been doing this for decades—believe me when I tell you the first waves are often misleading.”
The operating philosophy with exit polls this year is that it’s better to be accurate than to be first in announcing a winner. And just as in 2008, TV channels and newspapers will not project a winner of the presidential election before the polls close on the West Coast.