The 2012 presidential election could be effectively settled shortly after 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, when all polls will have closed in three of the biggest battleground states: Florida, Virginia and Ohio.
Quick projections of a sweep of these competitive states by either President Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney probably would mean that candidate will win the White House. If there’s a split decision or if some of these races remain unsettled for hours, the election’s outcome could stretch into tomorrow. Challenges to ballot tallies -- like in Florida in 2000 -- could delay the call for days or weeks.
Throw out the national polls, which show a close race. U.S. elections are won in the Electoral College, where each state receives votes equaling the total of their two U.S. senators and their number of House representatives, which are apportioned on the basis of population. The candidate taking the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 21, 2013, will be the one who garners at least 270 electoral votes.
For Obama, early wins in Florida or both Virginia and Ohio probably would cement his re-election, given the other states he is heavily favored to carry that include New York and California.
Early projections of victories in Florida and Virginia would get Romney off to a good start. An upset victory for him in Pennsylvania, where polls close at 8 p.m. EST, would signal he’s likely to defeat Obama nationwide.
“There are enough important states early in the night to tell us who has the leg up in the election,” said Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a Washington-based publication that tracks U.S. elections. “The question is: How quickly do they count the votes and are those states too close to call until much later in the evening?”
Obama, who won 365 electoral votes in his 2008 victory, could lose several states he carried four years ago and still reach the 270 electoral-vote threshold. The one state both sides concede will slip from his column this year is Indiana.
Romney’s electoral calculations include holding every state won by the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and sweeping the three southern states that broke for Obama that year: Florida, Virginia and North Carolina.
Even then, he would fall short of the 270 mark. Along with heightening Ohio’s importance to him, that math also explains his effort to expand the electoral map into Pennsylvania, which hasn’t backed a Republican since 1988.
Joining Florida, Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina as this campaign’s main battleground states were New Hampshire, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado and Nevada. The nine, all of which went for Obama four years ago, combine for 110 electoral votes. The most recent opinion polls put the president ahead in most of them, though by small margins.
In 48 states, the winner of the popular vote statewide gets all of the electoral votes; Maine and Nebraska divide their votes among the winners of each congressional district.
Since the Civil War, only three times has a candidate won the electoral-vote majority while losing the popular vote nationally: in 1876, when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Democrat Samuel Tilden; in 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison denied Democrat Grover Cleveland re-election; and in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore thanks to a 5-4 Supreme Court decision concerning the recount in Florida.
Fight for Congress
Also on the ballot today will be one-third of the 100-member U.S. Senate and all 435 members of the U.S. House. The Democrats control the Senate, 53 to 47, while the Republicans hold the House majority, 240 to 190, with five vacancies. A Republican pickup of four Democratic-held Senate seats would assure the party takes over the chamber; three would be needed if Romney wins the presidency. Democrats need a net gain of 25 seats for a House majority.
If the Democratic or Republican candidates sweep the four Senate races in Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio and Virginia -- where all polls will be closed by 8 p.m. EST or earlier -- that party is all but assured the chamber’s majority.
Here’s a guide to tonight’s vote count, arranged by poll closings in Eastern Standard Time.
Indiana’s Vigo County, in the state’s Eastern Time Zone where polls are among the nation’s first to close, has been won by the winner in every presidential election since 1956 and in all but two since 1888. The exceptions were its backing of Democrat William Jennings Bryan in 1908 over Republican William Howard Taft, and Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 over Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
“No other county is even close to this record,” political historian Dave Leip said.
Once reliably Republican-voting, Virginia has undergone demographic changes -- including growing Hispanic and Asian populations -- that turned the state into one of the most competitive. Its first results will be among the night’s most closely analyzed.
“If Virginia comes in for Obama, there’s not much of a path to victory for Romney,” said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland in College Park.
Three counties will provide an early indication of which candidate will win Virginia. Voters in Prince William and Loudoun counties -- outer suburbs in the Washington metropolitan area -- and in Henrico County near the state capital of Richmond backed Obama four years ago after supporting Bush in 2004.
No Republican has ever won the White House without carrying Ohio, where polls close at this time. In this year’s race, one area to watch is Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati. Voters there gave 53 percent of their votes to Bush in 2004 and 53 percent to Obama four years later, thanks to strong support from black voters. It is the largest of the six counties in the state that switched from Bush to Obama.
Polls in North Carolina, which backed Obama in 2008 and hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2012, also close at 7:30 EST. Polling has favored Romney in what looms as a must-win state for him.
“North Carolina is not an essential part of the president’s winning coalition, where it is essential to Romney,” Herrnson said.
Florida and its 29 electoral votes -- the most among the battlegrounds, will be in the spotlight as its last polls close in the panhandle area in the Central Time Zone. Much of the state will have stopped voting an hour earlier.
Obama won Florida in 2008 by 3 percentage points. Bush carried it by five points in his successful 2004 re-election after his 537-vote victory there in 2000 gave him the White House.
A Florida win is critical for Romney -- without it, he would have to win nearly every other battleground to reach 270 electoral votes.
Both campaigns will be poring over the returns as polls close at 8 p.m. EST in Pennsylvania for signs of whether Romney has a chance in the state Obama won by 10 points in 2008. A close vote that prevents a quick projection of the Pennsylvania result could be good news for Romney; an early call for Obama could spell trouble for the Republican’s electoral game plan.
Polls also close at 8 p.m. EST in New Hampshire, the one New England state in play for Romney. Final polls gave Obama a small but steady lead for the four electoral votes at stake.
Romney’s pick of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his running mate ensured a hard-fought battle in the state that Obama won by 14 points in 2008. As Wisconsin’s polls close at 9 p.m. EST, the Republican camp will be looking for an upset. Though no recent poll has given Romney a lead in Wisconsin, his campaign says he will benefit from the political apparatus set up earlier this year to thwart a recall vote against Republican Governor Scott Walker. Obama included a stop in Madison, Wisconsin, yesterday as part of his final campaign blitz.
Polls also close at 9 p.m. EST in Colorado, a battleground that had looked like one of the more promising places for Romney to win a state Obama carried four years ago. Recent polls showed the race tightening.
If Romney has won most of the earlier battlegrounds, he could reach the 270 electoral-vote number with wins in either Colorado or Arizona, where polls also close at 9 p.m. EST.
In an effort to expand the electoral map, Republicans began a late advertising campaign in Michigan and Minnesota, where polls close at 9 p.m. EST. A surprise Romney victory in either of these traditionally Democratic states would indicate that he will be the one being sworn in as president in January.
Polls close at this hour in the last of the battleground states -- Iowa and Nevada. Each state has six electoral votes, and each has figured prominently in the Obama camp’s math for a re-election win.
The Des Moines Register newspaper’s Iowa poll conducted Oct. 30 to Nov. 2 showed the president ahead, 47 percent to 42 percent among likely voters. Romney, though, received a boost when the paper endorsed him after having supported Obama four years ago.
In Nevada, early voting data favored the Democrat. In a sign that both sides believe Obama may have locked it down, neither the president nor Romney visited Nevada during their final weekend of campaigning.
California has the biggest trove of electoral votes -- 55. If Obama has prevailed in most of the swing states where the final polls showed him ahead of Romney, the expected call that he has won California shortly after its polls close could be when he officially passes the 270 mark.