After nearly two years of campaigning, Election Day is finally upon us.
Both President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney have been thoroughly vetted and voters in 13 competitive states have heard their messages over and over again through $825 million in television ads and even more on-the-ground campaigning. Judging from the polls, a vast majority of voters have made up their minds with only a sliver remaining undecided.
Just over one month ago, Obama's reelection was thought to be as close to a sure thing as one can get in politics. But Romney's strong performance boosted his standing among voters and gave him confidence that he can unseat the president. Obama, however, still remains confident he will win with the polls showing a narrow advantage in several key battleground states.
Here are four things you should watch for as the nation picks its next president.
1. What Will the Electorate Look Like?
The winner will ultimately be decided by who wins the Electoral College, but trends within the national popular vote can tell us a lot about the result as well.
In particular, we will be looking at the racial composition of the electorate. In 2008, white voters made up 74 percent of the electorate down from 83 percent in 1992, at The Hotline's Reid Wilson noted this week.
The Obama campaign has made black and Latino voters the centerpiece of their coalition and are counting on turnout from minorities to tick upward in 2012, in line with the 18-year trend of minority turnout going up in every election. Read Ruy Teixeira's column for us yesterday for a breakdown of the numbers. If minority turnout increases just one percentage point to 27 percent, it could make Obama's path to victory much easier. If it ticks up two to 28 percent, Obama could run away with the election. That's because Obama could win 80 percent of minority voters, including a record 73 percent of Latinos, according to political opinion research firm Latino Decisions.
While everyone knows that Florida, Nevada, and Colorado could eventually be decided by Latino voters. Also keep your eye on Virginia, a state that carries 13 electoral votes that Obama flipped from red to blue four years ago for the first time since 1964. If Obama can win it again, it could hamper Romney's chances at winning 270 electoral votes.
Obama's key to success in 2008 was increased turnout from minority voters, particularly from Latinos and first time black voters. Making the stakes even higher this year is that the state is home to a highly competitive Senate race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Tim Kaine.
Making the Obama campaign optimistic is that the Latino voting population there is growing rapidly. Two years ago there were 183,000 eligible Latino voters in Virginia, but now there are 214,000. If Obama and Democrats can increase their share of the minority vote there, they could pull out a victory.
Gaston Araoz, a field coordinator with the Kaine campaign, touted the campaign's Latino outreach efforts, which include bilingual phone banks each night of the week.
"I think the stakes and the clear choices these voters will find here in Virginia. If we look at the Senate race, we have a candidate like Tim Kaine," he said at a recent phone bank in Alexandria. "They know him, they know what he did and what he wants to do for the country and the Latino community."
But Republicans have argued, per Wilson's story, that the racial composition of the electorate could stay the same as 2008, driven by a falling Latino share of voters due to disillusionment over the poor economy and lack of progress on immigration reform.
That would mean Romney's coalition white voters and self-identified independents could pack a greater punch. Romney is winning white voters by 15 percentage points, according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll but other projections have shown a gap as wide as 20 points. The numbers say that Latinos are actually more optimistic about the direction of the country than the rest of the population, but even Democrats have acknowledged it's been tougher to get people out to vote this year.
Kaine volunteer John Hastings said that the jobs situation has rebounded for Latinos in Virginia, particularly in the construction sector. But it's still a tough sell.
"It's a different ballgame," he said. "We have to make sure we get our people to get out and go to the polls. It's going to be harder this year because there is a lot of things in the way ... It's going to be harder to mobilize people because they don't have that original energy."
Whichever party is right about their projection of the electorate will likely be the one that wins.
2. States to Watch
We already mentioned Virginia, but the two big states everyone will have their eyes on Tuesday night is Ohio and Florida. Both candidates view Ohio as a critically important state but in recent days, it's looking like more of an uphill battle for Romney.
Real Clear Politics shows Obama holding a narrow three percentage point advantage in pre-election polls and the GOP candidate has received bad press there recently over a misleading campaign ad on the auto bailout.
The race remains close, however, and Obama can ill afford to lose the state considering its part of his so-called "firewall" of Midwestern states that are able to protect his path to victory in the electoral vote.
Florida, on the other hand, is looking like a must-win for Romney. Without Florida's 29 electoral votes, Romney would have to sweep every other battleground state to win the race. Romney holds a slim lead in most polls and his campaign is confident it can turn out core supporters, including GOP-leaning Cuban-Americans in South Florida.
But as our Cristina Costantini reports from central Florida, the Obama campaign will have an improved shot at Florida if it can motivate its supporters, including Puerto Ricans, who vote only intermittently.
Polls close in Ohio, Virginia, and Florida at 8 PM or sooner, so we could have a picture early in the night of how the contest is trending.
3. Doomsday Scenarios.
Maybe it's the closeness of the horse race. Maybe it's the weariness of the political press. But for one reason or another, a number of doomsday scenarios have cropped up in
In addition to quirky voting rules in Ohio that could delay the final count in the key state, there are multiple paths to a 269-269 electoral vote tie.
ABC News' Jon Karl recently broke down what would happen in such an event. In the event of a tie, the House of Representatives, each state delegation gets a single vote for president and the Senate votes for a vice president. It's almost certain that Republicans will keep the majority of state delegations, so Romney would be elected president.
In the Senate, each member gets a single vote for vice president. Most projections show Democrats keeping control of the Senate, meaning that Biden would likely win.
Could you imagine a Romney-Biden White House? Neither can we.
4. Voter Suppression?
Miami-Dade county's controversial decision this weekend to close then reopen its early voting location shined light on what could be a rocky day at the polls.
ABC News and Univision have also tracked an organization called True the Vote, which claims it is fighting voter fraud. But critics have said that the organization and other similar groups are subtly trying to suppress turnout from minority voters who tend to vote for Democrats.
Also, some concerns have cropped up over election monitors who come from countries that are ranked "not free" by Freedom House. The monitors were sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has monitored American elections since 2002. U.S. civil rights groups have asked the monitors to be placed in states where voter ID laws and early voting restrictions were placed into effect.
We'll keep an eye out for any potential incidents that could happen on Election Day.