Nov. 4, 2008— -- With the last polls in Indiana, Virginia and Georgia closing at 7 p.m. Eastern tonight, those states will be the first battlegrounds to watch this evening as voters decide whether Barack Obama or John McCain will become the next president of the United States.
After spending millions of dollars and investing countless time and energy in the states perceived to be most crucial to victory, the presidential contenders will return to their home states on Election Day. In doing so, they'll complete a sprint that's brought them through the most critical states of the 2008 race in the final days of the campaign.
Frenzied Finales in the Battlegrounds
In the final three days of the election, the Obama and McCain camps have dashed across the country, making their final plugs in battleground states they'll need to win to secure the White House. In the home stretch this weekend and Monday, both campaigns visited hotly contested states, such as Ohio, Missouri and Florida. On Monday alone, McCain touched down at airports in seven states -- including Florida, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona -- for rallies on the eve of decision day.
With an expected record number of voters lined up at the polls today, both candidates are still campaigning. McCain is appearing in New Mexico and Colorado after voting in Arizona Tuesday morning and Obama visits battleground Indiana Tuesday, not far from his hometown of Chicago.
Their final pushes top off far more extensive efforts in the battlegrounds. The campaigns have held a staggering number of events in those states since wrapping up their respective party nominations this spring and summer. According to ABC News' count, Ohio ranks first on that list, hosting 145 events between the two tickets through Nov. 4. Florida takes a close second, with 113 events, and Pennsylvania ranks third with 101 events through Tuesday.
Still, that effort may pay off tonight more for Obama than McCain, according to ABC News' analysis based on reporting with the campaigns themselves, national party officials, outside groups, House and Senate party committees, state parties, state polls and early and absentee vote returns.
Obama leads McCain by 53-44 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post tracking poll released Monday evening.
"We've learned not to be surprised by anything in politics in recent years, but what's been remarkable about the polls, a welter of national polls over the last month, is just how steady they are," ABC News' George Stephanopoulos said Monday on "Good Morning America." "They all show a steady Obama lead over the last several weeks, and in our ABC News poll, he's been above 50 percent for most of the month of October."
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ABC News' analysis also reveals that every state won by John Kerry in 2004 is safe, likely or leaning in favor of Democrats. Five states that George Bush won four years ago are also tilting towards Obama. If that indeed holds this Election Day, Obama will secure more than the 270 electoral votes to win the White House.
But a McCain victory is also within the realm of possibility. ABC News' analysis calculates that McCain needs to secure wins in five toss-up states, all of which went to President Bush in 2004, to win. In addition to taking Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Indiana and North Carolina, McCain will also need to pick up some states now leaning in Obama's direction, such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Still, Monday afternoon, McCain pollster Bill McInturff warned that exit polls could exaggerate Obama's lead.
"We would discourage a rush to judgment based on the exit polls and wait until there has been a representative sampling of actual tabulated results from a variety of counties and precincts in a state," he said in a statement.
He added, "It is not just the national exit poll that skews Democratic, but each of the state exit polls also suffers from the same Democratic leanings."
On "Good Morning America" this morning, NPR's senior political analyst Juan Williams said suburban white women in the Midwest will be critical to McCain's effort.
"John McCain needs those women in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri to come out in big numbers and support him and they've gotta break his way if he has a chance today," Williams said.
The Places to Watch
According to ABC News' analysis, 18 battleground states with a total of 194 electoral votes are the states to watch this Election Day.
Four of those 18 battlegrounds were leaning Republican heading into Tuesday: Georgia, West Virginia, North Dakota and Montana.
That leaves another five, worth a total of 84 electoral votes, deemed true toss-ups, according to ABC News' assessment.
INDIANA: 11 Electoral Votes
Of those critical states, Indiana's polls close first. Most of the polls in Indiana close at 6 p.m. Eastern time, and the last of them close at 7 p.m. Eastern.
Indiana has not gone to a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964. But polls released Thursday show a dead heat between Obama and McCain in the Hoosier state at 47-47, according to a Research 2000/WISH-TV poll. Another Thursday poll from Selzer & Co./Indianapolis Star/WTHR has Obama leading by one point among likely voters, 46-45.
Signaling Indiana's importance to the race, Obama plans to visit the state today in his 49th campaign trip there.
Strategists say the key area to watch in Indiana is Indianapolis and its suburbs. For Obama, pockets of opportunity may be found in the northwest corner of Indiana, close to Chicago, where towns like Gary and South Bend tend to vote Democratic. He also hopes to find support in Perry County in the south, as well as in Bloomington and West Lafayette, home to Indiana and Purdue universities.
"Some of the states that close early -- Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida -- we've certainly targeted," said Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe on Tuesday on "Good Morning America." "But we think we've got a lot of different ways to get there."
Meantime, Monday, McCain told an Indianapolis crowd, "Indiana is now a battleground state, but it's a battle that we're going to win."
NORTH CAROLINA: 15 Electoral Votes
North Carolina voters have until 7:30 p.m. EST to cast their votes.
According to an NBC/Mason-Dixon poll released Sunday, McCain leads 49-46 in the Tarheel State. North Carolina has not voted for a Democrat for president since 1976.
Still, the state's large college communities, growing cities and large black population suggest there's hope for Obama this evening. Even before Tuesday, black voters' turnout in North Carolina had exceeded the 2004 total. Ballots cast by the state's black voters in 2008 prior to Tuesday amounted to 694,490; ballots cast by the state's black voters in the 2004 amounted to 665,392.
North Carolina has also seen a surge of new voters registering as Democrats this year, far outnumbering newly registered Republicans.
As of Oct. 29, Obama had spent $9.7 million on TV advertising in North Carolina, compared with $5.2 million spent by McCain and the RNC.
OHIO: 20 Electoral Votes
Today, voters have until 7:30 p.m. EST to cast their votes in the Buckeye State.
In 2004, much of the election seemed to hinge on the results in Ohio, and the latest Quinnipiac poll, released Monday, indicate it could be another tight race. In that poll, Obama leads 50-43 among likely voters. Another poll released Monday from the University of Cincinnati showed Obama leading 52-46. An NBC/Mason-Dixon poll released Sunday night revealed a different assessment of the horserace, with McCain leading 47-45.
Still, since the last presidential election, there are indications Ohio voters have grown increasingly wary of Republican leadership. In 2006, the election of Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland ended a 16-year Republican hold on the governor's mansion and Democrats won races for U.S. Senate, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer.
Obama could find support in Ohio from voters in the state's hard-hit industrial belt in the northeast, as well as in the heavily Democratic Cleveland metropolis. McCain has been working to secure the Republican strongholds of southeastern and southwestern Ohio.
To help secure their votes, both candidates shelled out millions for TV ads in Ohio. Obama's camp spent $19.8 million on Ohio tv ads while McCain and the RNC spent a combined total of $19 million.
Stark County, home to Canton, and Franklin County, with more than 50,000 students at Ohio State University in Columbus, are key counties to watch.
Voters in Ohio have selected the winner in the past 11 presidential elections, and no Republican has ever won a presidential election without carrying the state.
FLORIDA: 27 Electoral Votes
Polls close at 8 p.m. EST Tuesday night in Florida, the highly contentious battleground of the 2000 presidential race.
The latest Florida polls, released Monday by Quinnipiac University, shows Obama leading 47-45 in Florida.
In an effort to secure the battleground, the McCain campaign devoted millions of dollars to the state in the past few weeks, and McCain recently stormed the Sunshine State with a series of rallies. Independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman has also been working Florida extensively for McCain, and the campaign is hoping to secure votes from the state's older population and a large number of veterans.
At a Monday rally in Tampa, McCain told supporters, "With this kind of enthusiasm and this kind of intensity, we will win Florida."
Meanwhile, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe has estimated that the campaign will spend $39 million on its effort there. Obama is especially trying to energize black voters whose participation in Florida elections usually lags behind.
Florida Republicans say Tampa and Orlando hold the key to a McCain victory this evening. The Florida Panhandle will also be critical including the cities of Tallahassee, Pensacola and Panama City. Obama is counting on a big turnout in Miami-Dade County.
Spending on Florida TV ads swelled to $33.3 million for the Obama campaign as of Oct. 29, compared with $10.6 spent by McCain and the RNC.
MISSOURI: 11 Electoral Votes
Polls close in Missouri at 8 p.m. EST Tuesday night.
Seen as a true bellwether, Missouri has backed the winner in every presidential election since 1900, with one exception: Adlai Stevenson won the state in 1956 but lost the presidential race to Dwight Eisenhower.
Now, the latest NBC/Mason-Dixon poll, released Sunday night, shows a nailbiting race in the Show-Me State, with McCain up 47-46 over Obama.
A strong Obama supporter, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, has been advising Democrats on how to increase support in Greene and St. Charles counties, both critical to McCaskill's win in 2006, as well as in other rural areas. McCaskill introduced Biden at a Monday rally in Lee's Summit at the same time Palin appeared at a rally in Jefferson City.
The office of Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan anticipates that voter turnout could be half a million more than in the 2004 election.
ABC News' Bret Hovell, Karen Travers, Teddy Davis, Tahman Bradley, David Chalian and Gary Langer contributed to this report.