The presidential election has become as much a viewing experience as an electoral one. We watch on TV as states turn blue or red, deciding whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be president come January. Here is a viewers' guide to the proceedings, pointing out what to look for as the polls close.
Most polls point to nine battleground states. However, some recent data has also included Pennsylvania and Michigan among the swing states. They remain in the Obama camp, but his lead has narrowed lately, possibly putting them into play.
Here is the schedule of poll closings for the battleground states:
7 PM ET - Virginia
7:30 PM ET - Ohio, North Carolina
8 PM ET - Florida, New Hampshire, [Pennsylvania]
9 PM ET - Colorado, Wisconsin, [Michigan]
10 PM ET - Iowa, Nevada
Remember, a presidential candidate requires 270 electoral votes to win. Each state has a different number of electoral votes based on population. Polls in most states show a clear victory is likely for one candidate or the other - leaving the presidential election to be decided by the so-called battleground or swing states.
Here is what to watch as the polls close Tuesday night:
7:00 PM ET
There's not much to be told by Virginia alone at 7 PM ET. However, it might be an indication of how things are leaning in the swing states, especially North Carolina.
Virginia and North Carolina have voted for the same candidate in every presidential election going back to 1976, when Virginia went for the Republican Gerald Ford and North Carolina voted with the rest of the South for Georgian Jimmy Carter.
So the last eight elections have seen these two states line up together in the presidential contest - meaning that where Virginia lands is likely a good indication of where North Carolina might end up.
7:30 PM ET
The first key test will come at 7:30 PM ET, when polls close in both Ohio and North Carolina.
If Obama takes Ohio and North Carolina, he pretty much has the election won, barring any surprises in other states that are considered locks for his camp. Even a loss in Florida at this point - considered by many to be the most important swing state - would not be a debilitating defeat.
However, if Romney wins both North Carolina and Ohio, the momentum shifts decidedly toward the Republican. Presumably, if Romney wins North Carolina, he would have already secured Virginia as well. This makes Florida - a state that seems to be leaning towards the Republican camp - almost all important for Obama to take.
Meanwhile, a split of the 7:30 PM ET swing states keeps Florida in the spotlight.
8:00 PM ET
Any split would make Florida the key - an Obama win there would secure the election for him. If Obama takes Ohio, but loses North Carolina (and probably Virginia), then the attention shifts to Florida, but momentum would still seem to favor Obama.
Florida polls close at 8 PM. If Obama wins the Sunshine State, he's basically won the election. He needs only to hold the states he is expected to win and secure one other swing state to lock up the number of electoral votes he needs.
If Obama loses Florida, then it is important what happened before. If Romney has swept the swing states up to this point - Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida - then the former Massachusetts governor will need just one other swing state to reach the key electoral vote total.
However, if the early swing states have split, Obama will have a number of paths open for a second presidential term. If he has lost Ohio, but picked up North Carolina and Virginia, the president will just need to secure one other swing state to win. If he won in Ohio, but lost in the states of the upper South, then he would basically need two more swing states further west to fall into his camp.
The tone of the election will likely be decided by Florida. A close vote might keep the state undecided until late into the evening (with visions of 2000 playing in everyone's minds). The later poll closings - in places like Colorado, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin - could either sew up the election, or keep things interesting while Florida is in limbo.
by RTT Staff Writer
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