(MCT) — WASHINGTON — After a final cross-country campaign whirl by both candidates, President Barack Obama heads into Election Day riding a slim lead in enough key states to secure a second term, while Mitt Romney remains competitive and could yet unseat him.
National polling showed late voter movement toward Obama, raising the possibility that the election might not drag out for days and weeks of wrangling over disputed ballots, as some feared. The president continued to maintain a slight edge in the vast majority of swing-state opinion polls, though his advantage typically remained within the surveys’ margins of error.
An Obama re-election win would mean continued divided government in Washington. If Romney prevails, 2012 would become the fourth national change election in a row, including the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, Obama’s 2008 victory and the Republican return to power in the House in 2010.
“I actually think the question of this election comes down to this: Do you want four more years like the last four years. Or do you want real change?” Romney said Monday to chants of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” at a rally in the Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington. The Republican asserted, as he has throughout a six-year quest for the presidency, that his record as a successful businessman, Winter Olympics chief and one-term governor of Massachusetts qualified him for the nation’s highest office.
Obama answered back, telling supporters on what he said would be his last day as a candidate, “I know what real change looks like” and “we’ve got more change to make.”
Tuesday’s vote, the president said in Madison, Wis., on Monday, comes down to “a choice between returning to the top-down policies that crashed our economy, or a future that’s built on providing opportunity to everybody and growing a strong middle class.”
More than 30 million Americans already have voted and by the time all polling places close, more than 130 million are expected to have cast ballots across the country. Most will be in places, including California, Illinois, Texas and New York, where the presidential election is not in doubt, because most states reliably favor the nominee of one major party or the other.
Insiders in both campaigns say they will be closely watching three states—Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia—for clues to the outcome of the election.
On Monday, as the sun set on their prolonged and bitter campaign battle, Obama and Romney converged on Columbus, Ohio, the key swing area of the nation’s most celebrated battleground state, which has gotten more candidate attention than any other.
Obama also campaigned in Wisconsin and Iowa, while Romney appeared in Florida, Virginia and New Hampshire.
Romney has sought to add Pennsylvania to that mix, scheduling an Election Day stop in Pittsburgh, along with another in Cleveland. Obama planned to spend Tuesday in his hometown of Chicago, where he cast an early ballot last month.
Carrying Ohio—which he won four years ago—would open up a clear path to 270 electoral votes for the president. To win re-election, Obama would need to add only Wisconsin, assuming his advantage holds in Nevada and other states regarded as likely to go Democratic. But Wisconsin, the home state of Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, is not a given. Recent polling shows Obama ahead by three or more points, though a recent campaign poll had his lead down to a single percentage point. Another had him ahead by five.
If Obama loses Ohio, he’ll need to make up the difference by carrying Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire; late polling showed him with at least a marginal lead in all three. A Virginia win would give him breathing room and could be an early sign that he is headed for victory.
Romney’s electoral math is more complicated, but almost certainly requires winning Ohio. A loss there would force him to pick up other states, including Wisconsin, Colorado and New Hampshire. He’d also have to carry Virginia and Florida.
Under the system laid out in the 1700s by the framers of the Constitution, a presidential election is actually a series of separate elections, rather than a single national one. The 538 electoral votes represent the sum of winner-take-all results in 48 states and the District of Columbia; also included are individual electoral votes from districts in Maine and Nebraska, which may differ from the statewide result under laws in those states. As recently as 2000, the winner of the nationwide popular vote (Al Gore) lost the electoral vote.
In the battlegrounds with the most electoral votes this time, demographics, local issues and competing voter-turnout operations could make the difference.
—OHIO (18 electoral votes): Polls indicate that Obama leads by about 3 percentage points in the state that decided the 2004 election. Since mid-October, Romney has led in just one of past 30 Ohio surveys.
“This election reminds me very much of 2004 in Ohio,” said John Green, who directs the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “We had the incumbent president, George W. Bush, coming in with a lead, a small lead, and he ended up being able to sustain that and he ended up winning.”
Early voting appears to favor Obama in the state, though not by the same margins he built four years ago, when he carried it by 5 percentage points. Across the Midwest, the 2009 auto bailout has given Obama an advantage, but nowhere more than Ohio.
—FLORIDA (29 electoral votes): Florida, the decisive state in 2000, has shown more divergence in recent public polling than any other major state. One survey put Romney ahead by 6 percentage points; others showed Obama leading by a point or two. Obama carried the state by less than 3 percentage points four years ago, and it might be a surprise if he won by even that much again. Democrats won’t be shocked if he loses it.
Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist, said the result could come down to generational politics: if voters over the age of 50, who favor Romney, turn out more heavily than the younger voters who put Obama over the top in 2008, the Republican ticket will prevail.
The Latino vote is a wild card in Florda. Projections by the nonpartisan survey firm Latino Decisions are that Obama will carry the Latino vote by at least 40 percentage points over Romney nationwide. Co-founder Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist, said that if Latinos turn out at the high rates his firm is expecting, they could help Obama carry Florida and three other states, Nevada, Colorado and Virginia.
—VIRGINIA (13 electoral votes): Romney put more personal campaign time into Virginia than any other state in the final five days of the campaign, including two rallies on Monday.
This will be the first battleground state to close statewide and it is relatively efficient at counting votes. It has been shifting away from its Republican leanings in presidential elections, a result of growth in the northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington that are home to moderate, independent voters.
In 2008, Obama became the first Democrat in 44 years to carry Virginia, and recent polling has shown him with a lead of 1 to 4 percentage points. Suburban women have been a prime target for both campaigns in a state where abortion rights is also a major issue in a high-profile U.S. Senate race between two former governors.
The ultimate key to the outcome here is the voter turnout efforts that can be worth a point or two in a tight race. Obama is thought to have the superior operation, but Republicans are expected to narrow the turnout gap from four years ago.
For months, Romney strategists have argued that tracking polls are the best measures of where the campaign stands, and two election-eve polls contained worrisome news for their candidate. An ABC/Washington Post survey showed Obama gaining ground in the final days of the campaign. He reached 50 percent for the first time since July in ABC/Post polling and led Romney by 3 points, with Sunday his best single day in the tracking survey.
A Gallup poll showed the president closing a 6-point gap with Romney over the last week, though the Republican still led by one.