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Some States Called; Eyes On Crucial Swing States Amid Close Race

Supporters attend a Mitt Romney rally Monday in Columbus, Ohio.
Emmanuel Dunand
Supporters attend a Mitt Romney rally Monday in Columbus, Ohio.

Doran holds a Mitt Romney sign and an umbrella outside Precinct 116, at the Southwest Branch of the Orange County Library in Dr. Phillips area of south Orlando, Florida, Tuesday, Nov. 6.
Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda
Doran holds a Mitt Romney sign and an umbrella outside Precinct 116, at the Southwest Branch of the Orange County Library in Dr. Phillips area of south Orlando, Florida, Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Supporters listen to President Obama at a campaign rally Monday in Columbus, Ohio.
Jewel Samad
Supporters listen to President Obama at a campaign rally Monday in Columbus, Ohio.

President Obama has won the key battleground state of Ohio, narrowing the path to victory for Mitt Romney. The president has also won three other key states, New Hampshire, Iowa and Pennsylvania. If Obama holds the "Midwestern firewall" -- by winning Wisconsin -- he can cede Virginia and Florida to Romney and still win the election.

It will still be some time before the results are known. But in both Florida and Virginia, the margins are as narrow as a razor's edge, which is something of a surprise.

Nationwide, the presidential race is a seesaw, though Andrew Kohut, president of Pew Research Center, gives Obama an edge in the popular vote. "Late deciders nationally are going more in Obama's direction than in Romney's direction," he says, noting that Mitt Romney has not benefited as much as expected from voters' unhappiness with the economy.

Kohut notes that intangibles have helped Obama: More Americans have favorable opinion of the President than Romney. And about 10 percent more believe Obama is in touch with them than is the Republican challenger.

Other states brought no surprises: President Obama has won Vermont, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington D.C., Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Rhode Island.Gov. Romney carried Arizona, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Wyoming, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Montana, Utah, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Nationwide, Kohut says, "the most startling thing for the Obama campaign is the loss of support among young people 18-29 years old." Their support has fallen by 6 percent, he says. The reason? Jobs.

The president has the advantage, since there are several routes that would lead him to the 270 electoral college votes he needs to win, says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts polls for NBC and The Wall Street Journal. Gov. Romney starts from a weaker position in the projected electoral vote count, and must win more battleground states.

"So in a sense, Romney is playing more for an inside straight," Miringoff says.

The Battleground States

The following states are considered battleground swing states, beginning with the one the president has already won.

New Hampshire: 4 electoral votes.

Ages ago, New Hampshire was a reliably red state, but has turned decidedly purple in recent years. The White House has paid close attention to the state, sending Vice President Joe Biden there several times. But Mitt Romney had a foothold there, as well as a vacation house. But that was not enough to overcome the state's historic trend toward Democrats.

Florida: 29 electoral votes

Florida is a must-win for Romney. The state has three political identities: The south, including Miami, is diverse and, with the exception of an aging and shrinking Cuban population, leans heavily Democratic. The north, including the Panhandle, is socially and religiously conservative, with a strong military presence. People in the central part of the state -- the Tampa-Orlando-Daytona Beach-I-4 corridor -- are the definition of swing voters.

Ohio: 18 electoral votes

Ohio may be in 2012 what Florida was in 2000 -- the most contested of the states. Here we have two strains of working-class voters with opposite motivations. In the north, the auto industry bailout has driven the unemployment rate below the national average, and voters are rewarding the president. The southern part of the state is more socially and religiously conservative; it has been hard-hit economically, particularly the coal industry, and workers lean Republican. Watch for a fight over ballots in this state. Ohio law requires a recount if one candidate wins by a quarter of 1 percent or less, which is a possibility. Moreover, more than 200,000 voters are expected to cast provisional ballots because they don't have a photo ID or for other reasons, and those votes would not be counted until Nov. 16.

Virginia: 13 electoral votes

The fight here is between fast-growing northern Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., with its young urbanites who vote Democratic, versus the rest of the state: rural pro-gun conservatives. Obama won this historically Republican state in 2008, but Republicans came roaring back in subsequent races. Virginia is critical to a Romney win.

Wisconsin: 10 electoral votes

Romney wants to make this a battleground state, but it is an uphill fight. Wisconsin has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. Romney briefly had some traction when he selected a favorite son, Paul Ryan, to be his running mate. However, that enthusiasm has ebbed, and Wisconsin was one of the few states that did not give Romney a bump after the first presidential debate in October.

Colorado: 9 electoral votes

Obama carried Colorado by 9 percentage points in 2008, but in the preceding three elections, the state went red. Three ingredients make Colorado a swing state. The urban areas of Denver and Boulder are typically Democratic. The growing Latino population favors Obama. But the Colorado Springs area is considered the mecca for conservative evangelicals.

Iowa: 6 electoral votes

Since 1998, Iowa has voted for the Democrat, with the exception of George W. Bush in 2004. Obama can count on its growing Latino vote and strong unions for support. But Iowa has turned more conservative of late and elected Republican Terry Branstad as governor in 2010.

Ups And Downs

If the presidential race has people on pins and needles, it wasn't that way six months ago. Democrats said they were disappointed with Obama's performance, smarting from the desultory economy, and frustrated that he seemed to have forgotten the poor in favor of the middle class. Republicans, too, were tepid about their candidate. In fact, until springtime, evangelicals, who make up a large part of the Republican base, flirted with a number of candidates whose chief characteristic seemed to be that they were not Mitt Romney.

But the past two months have turned into a "roller coaster ride," Sabato says. Each candidate made strategic errors.

The first bit of excitement arrived in mid-September, in the form of a leaked tape of Romney saying that 47 percent of Americans "will vote for the president no matter what," are "dependent upon government, who believe they are victims" and do not pay taxes.

But then, two weeks later, Obama stumbled throughout the first debate. The president looked like a boxer on the ropes taking blows from an aggressive Romney; he even failed to land a punch on Romney with an attack on Romney's 47 percent comment. This erased the president's yawning lead in the polls, and we had a horse race.

"Before the first debate, President Obama was on his way to a landslide re-election victory," says Thomas Riehl, a senior vice president of YouGov, an online polling firm. But after the debate, not only were Obama supporters deflated, but independents and undecided voters took a hard look at Romney -- and liked what they saw.

"What Romney accomplished in the first debate was that he stood up on a stage with President Obama and made it clear he was at least his equal," Riehl says. "You could imagine a Romney presidency, and there wasn't much that was very threatening about that."

For the first time, more people told pollsters they would vote for Romney and not just against Obama. According to polls by Pew Research, 36 percent of likely voters said they had a better opinion of Romney after the debate, and his favorability rating shot up to 50 percent -- about the same as the president.

But Romney's good fortunes were arrested by the weather. Hurricane Sandy served as a circuit breaker that cut into whatever momentum Romney had generated.

"This was kind of an October surprise," says Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. "It gave the president an opportunity to act presidential, to act like a commander in chief."

As Obama visited devastated parts of New Jersey and New York -- as he received glowing praise from New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, and then an endorsement from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- Romney was forced to the sidelines, at least temporarily. Those television shots of the president impressed voters: The Pew poll found that nearly seven in 10 likely voters -- and 63 percent of swing voters -- approved of the way the president handled the disaster.

How The Vote Falls

In the final moments of the race, each candidate has advantages and disadvantages that could tip the scale.

Gov. Romney has a clear edge among men, especially white working class men who make up much of the vote in battleground states such as Ohio and Wisconsin. He's leading among older voters, as well as independents, though by smaller margins that polls during the campaign indicated. Independents have voted Republican in every presidential race since 1952, with the exception of 1964 (Johnson v. Goldwater) and 2008, when Obama swept them in a wave of hope and change.

The president, however, has plenty of arrows in his quiver. After cooling to him last month, women voters have come roaring back to the president's side. Minorities -- and especially Latinos, who factor large in swing states such as Florida, Colorado, and Nevada -- are firmly in the president's camp. One big trend in this campaign is the strong turnout amng Latinos. Young people are also loyal to the president, although not quite as enthusiastically as in 2008.

Undecided voters remain a big question mark, although early indications suggest that Republicans will not see a wave of undecideds breaking for them, as happened in 1980, when they moved en masse in Ronald Reagan's direction.

Close Elections 'The New Normal'

Abramowitz at Emory University has developed a model for predicting elections, which he calls the "time for change" model. He looks at presidential approval ratings and GDP in June, as well as incumbency.

Typically, he says, "voters are reluctant to change parties after only one term. When you get to second term or later, they're more willing to make that change."

Using this model, Obama should be poised to win the popular vote by 1 percent, Abramowitz says. But Abramowitz has noticed another development of late: partisanship.

"The advantage of incumbency has gotten smaller, because voters are less willing to cross party lines now," he says. "So when there's a Democratic president like now, Republicans are less willing to cross party lines to vote for him. As a result, the advantage is about half what it used to be."

Abramowitz and others are bracing for a nightmare scenario, similar to 2000, when George W. Bush won the electoral vote and Al Gore won the popular vote. That's a real possibility, says Goldford at Drake, particularly since Hurricane Sandy could suppress the popular vote in New York and New Jersey, even as these states go blue. If that happens, Goldford says, "this past four years will seem like a picnic compared to the next four years."

He pauses, remembering the chaos of 2000, the hanging chads and Supreme Court decision. "One thing I hope more than anything else," he says, "is that this is actually over on Tuesday night."

It may be a vain hope. Lawyers representing both sides are in place, ready to litigate and demand recounts in every close state.

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