After a punishing race, judgment day is here for the U.S. presidential candidates. As millions of Americans go to the polls in what both leading candidates call a crucial election, here are five things to watch for:
The influence of the swing states is so outsized that Democratic candidate Barack Obama joked about it last month at a charity dinner attended by both candidates, quipping in New York, "What are we doing here?" It's a reality acknowledged by the candidates' many visits to a handful of battlegrounds. The biggest prize is Ohio, which is why the Democratic campaign keeps hitting Republican candidate Mitt Romney on his stated willingness to let the auto industry go bankrupt. And it's why the Republicans level dire warnings about Mr. Obama killing the coal industry. The path to the presidency runs through Ohio and its 18 Electoral College votes. It's increasingly seen as a must-win for Mr. Romney, who will have a difficult time assembling the necessary Electoral College votes without Ohio. The state is less crucial for Mr. Obama, but he will probably be victorious overall if he wins there.
Poll after poll shows a tight race among likely voters. But the key is whether those people actually go to cast their ballots. This is where get-out-the-vote efforts – the so-called "ground game" – is crucial. The Obama campaign is known to have built a huge network of campaign offices in key states and will be helped in their efforts Tuesday by having made a big push to get supporters to vote early, freeing up resources for election day. And those early voters may already have swung the election. Michael McDonald, an associate professor of government and politics at George Mason University, told the BBC last month that early voting in some battleground states will exceed half the electorate. Early numbers from pre-voting indicated that the results were favouring the Democrats, though not to the extent that Mr. Obama bested Republican candidate John McCain four years ago.
The Obama coalition
In 2008 Mr. Obama benefitted from building a big electoral tent and bringing to the polls a lot of first-time voters. But it will be harder this time – after four years of a bruising presidency – and he can't expect to generate the same soaring hope and optimism. Among white working class voters, a prescient New York Times analysis from a year ago noted, the campaign is ready to accept a poor showing that they hope is offset by support elsewhere. Losses among his other constituencies will hurt and analysts will be looking Tuesday to see if he has held support among minorities (especially blacks and Hispanics), educated professionals, secular people, youth from the generation dubbed the Millennials and, particularly, women.
The Romney coalition
Until recent weeks, the Republican ticket had been banking on limiting its damage among women while counting on strong showings among the elderly and blue-collar workers. But in a surprise development that could bode very poorly for the Democrats, a poll showed their lead among women had vanished. The result was an outlier among polls but it sparked a round of concerns among Democrats, who have gone to great lengths to paint their opponents as hostile to women. If Mr. Romney can hold even some of those gains among women while carrying the white working class and the elderly – among which he holds a commanding lead, respectively – he will have taken a big stride toward victory.
The instant the election result appears clear – and that might not be Tuesday night – supporters of the losing ticket will join pundits in looking for a culprit. In the case of a Democratic loss, Mr. Obama's lacklustre performance in the first debate is sure to come in for criticism, along with an unemployment rate largely unchanged since he took office and continuing fallout from the attack in Benghazi. Should the Republicans fall short, expect discussion of Hurricane Sandy for giving their opponent the chance to appear presidential and criticism that Mr. Romney's dismissal of 47 per cent of Americans put him beyond the pale. And there may also be voices among the true believers that Mr. Romney lacked proper ideological bona fides and the party, by choosing someone willing to move toward the middle, undercut enthusiasm on the right.