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What to watch for on Election Night

Story highlights

  • Dana Bash: Keep your eye on Senate drama; can GOP regain control?
  • Gloria Borger: How the white vs. nonwhite vote goes could be critical
  • Candy Crowley: It's all about the suburbs -- and one special county in Ohio
  • Peter Hamby: Pasco County will shed light on how the Sunshine State will go

A long and bitter presidential election comes to a close Tuesday when Americans choose between a second term for President Barack Obama and a new direction with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

CNN's reporters, correspondents, analysts and anchors share what they'll be watching for that might tip off how the election will go:

Acosta: Romney's make-or-break state

It's been called Obama's election "firewall." But truth be told, it's looking more and more like Romney's make-or-break state.

CNN national political correspondent Jim Acosta

Consider the day's agenda. Late Monday, the Romney campaign revealed the GOP nominee and running mate Paul Ryan will make public appearances in Cleveland on Election Day in one last push for undecided voters. No other state can make the same claim.

What other state can boast an event in which the Romney campaign plane pulled into an aircraft hangar before thousands of cheering supporters? That bit of grandiose stage crafting was pulled off by the Romney campaign in Columbus on Monday night.

    Romney breaks tradition with Election Day campaigning

    Despite the campaign's confidence in winning Ohio, a Republican source close to Romney's operation in the state said the result there will be "close, very close."

    It might come down to Romney's opposition to the U.S. auto bailout. His "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" op-ed in The New York Times in 2008 (a headline he did not write) may prove to be his downfall in Ohio, where one in eight jobs are tied to the auto industry. Who would have thought a newspaper column, not Romney's business career nor his record as governor of Massachusetts, would have the potential of denying him the White House?

    Romney tried to mitigate the impact of the auto issue by making a discredited claim at an event in Ohio that Chrysler was considering moving all of its Jeep production to China. His campaign then continued to tell that story, in various renditions, in ads in the state to stinging reviews from the state's newspapers.

    Election riddles solved

    Bash: Unexpected GOP struggles in Senate

    The neck-and-neck presidential race might be dominating headlines, but there are a lot of rich dramas playing out across the country in the battle for control of the Senate.

    CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash

    Heading into Election Day, there are nearly a dozen true toss-up races that could go either way.

    Republicans hold 47 seats. To retake control of the Senate, the GOP needs a net gain of four. With 23 Democratic seats up for grabs in a terrible economy, it seemed like a no-brainer that Republicans would be able to flip four. But it's now a struggle for the GOP.

    The central reason is that Republicans are defending several unexpected races on their own turf. Indiana's Senate race is going to be one of the evening's early bellwethers to determine the balance of power in the Senate. GOP candidate Richard Mourdock's poll numbers plummeted in this red state after he awkwardly said a few weeks ago that pregnancy from rape is a gift from God. Polls close at 7 p.m. ET, and if Democrat Joe Donnelly wins, it will set Republicans back -- especially since the GOP already expects to lose the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe in Maine. The state's popular former governor, independent candidate Angus King, is on track to win there.

    Controversies dim GOP hopes to take over Senate

    Here are three other nail-biters I'll be watching:

    Virginia: With more than $80 million spent so far, it's the most expensive Senate race in the country. Former GOP Sen. George Allen is trying to get his seat back after a narrow defeat six years ago. The man who beat him, Jim Webb, is retiring, and former Gov. and Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine hopes to keep the seat in Democratic hands.

    Montana: Neither Republicans nor Democrats will even privately predict which way this one will go. Incumbent Democrat Jon Tester is trying to hold on for a second term in this red state. GOP challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg started out the race about 1% ahead in the polls. Now, $50 million later, they're in the exact same place -- a 1% differential between them.

    Massachusetts: Going into Election Day, Republican strategists were pessimistic about holding onto this red seat in the traditionally blue state. GOP Sen. Scott Brown had fallen behind his well-funded Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren -- a liberal icon who was the president's former consumer advocate.

    Brown's win in the race to fill the late Ted Kennedy's seat stunned the political world, and he insists he'll surprise everyone again. But the president is expected to take Massachusetts by double digits -- and with him at the top of the ticket, it may be hard for Brown to beat back a Warren win.

    Borger: How will the white vs. nonwhite vote split

    One important indicator I will be looking at Election Night is the question of ethnicity -- and how the white vs. the nonwhite population splits. In the 2008 election, 74% of the electorate was white. That percentage has declined recently because of the growth in the Hispanic and voting African-American population.

    CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger

    Given the ongoing Republican trouble with Hispanic voters and the assumption that African-Americans will, once again, vote overwhelmingly for the president, Romney needs a strong white turnout to help propel him to victory.

    In an analysis by Republican pollster Bill McInturff, the question of the white/nonwhite divide is called the most "critical" of the election. His analysis shows that if the white percentage of the electorate drops to 72%, Obama will probably win the election.

    Do the math: CNN racial bloc voting calculator

    One key to watch is how the white vote itself splits between Obama and Romney.

    In the latest national poll CNN/ORC International, taken from Friday to Sunday, Obama received 40% of the white vote, while Romney got 57%. In 2008, Obama received 43% of the white vote, which means he is polling less than that currently.

    Crowley: Virginia suburbs and I-4 corridor

    The first thing I'll watch is the exit polls to see who's voting and where -- in particular, heavy Latino turnout in Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Florida could indicate Obama wins those states.

    CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley

    Then, it's Virginia, Florida and Ohio.

    I'll watch the Virginia suburbs of Washington, particularly the female vote. Romney won't win here, but he has to hold down Obama's numbers while running up his own score in the rural area. Romney has to win Virginia.

    Florida is all about the Interstate 4 corridor. North of it votes Republican, south of it Democratic. The I-4 corridor decides.

    Everyone will tell you to watch Lake, Stark and Hamilton counties in Ohio. There are good reasons to watch all of them, reasons no doubt delineated by my colleagues. But for me, it's all about Ottawa County, which has correctly picked the presidential winner in Ohio since 1944. That's a better record than pollsters. I'll watch Ottawa.

    Hamby: How goes Pasco?  

    Polls begin to close in Florida at 7 p.m. ET, and a handful of counties will report their absentee and early vote tallies immediately.

    CNN political reporter Peter Hamby

    Once that happens, political pros in Florida will be anxiously refreshing election board websites in a handful of those counties -- Pinellas, Duval, Orange -- in search of early clues about which way the state is trending.

    Track county-by-county results: Florida

    One of them is Pasco County, outside Tampa. Officials there are diligent about posting returns as quickly as possible. The county has a slight Republican tilt, but Obama won the early and absentee vote there in 2008 despite losing the county on Election Night. For Democrats, it was a promising sign that Obama was well on his way to being competitive statewide, even in GOP-leaning areas.

    In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry in the Pasco early/absentee vote by eight points. Bush ended up winning the county by 10 points. In a shift four years later, Obama beat John McCain by five points in the early absentee vote. He ultimately lost the county -- but only by 3.5 points, thanks to the votes the campaign banked early.

    If Obama is losing Pasco by more than that Bush/Kerry margin by the time the first returns are posted, it could be a tough night for Obama in Florida.

    "If you are looking for good news for Romney out of Pasco, if they have a 10- to 12-point lead in the absentee and early vote, that probably portends that they are going to have a really good night in suburban counties," said one top Florida Democrat.

    King: The suburban vote and who votes in the swing states

    A narrow and then a more global point:

    CNN chief national correspondent John King

    • Watch the vote in the suburbs around Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio, and in northern Virginia. These are two early-closing states; if Romney is holding his own in the suburbs, we have a competitive night. If not, it could be effectively over before we get to the Central Time zone.

    • Who votes determines who wins: The composition of the electorate in the swing states is the first and best clue. Does the electorate look like 2008?

    If so, then Obama is likely on a path to victory. But if the percentage of African-American, Latino and younger voters is down just a bit -- and the electorate looks, say, more like the 2004 presidential election -- then Romney has a shot.

    Preston: What happens afterward?

    It goes without saying that we are all looking at turnout in the key battleground states -- can Romney and Obama get their respective bases to show up at the polls and at the same time, convincing the independent voters to vote for them?

    CNN political director Mark Preston

    What is piquing my interest is not only what happens in the next few hours but what will be the political climate for the next president-elect. Washington is already polarized, and there are great challenges facing Congress before the end of the year.

    Whoever wins the presidency and the parties that control the House and the Senate need to put the bitterness of this election behind them and work together.

    The big question: Can they do that?

    Steinhauser: Can Romney broaden the electoral map?

    This election will be won or lost in the battleground states. Or will it?

    CNN political editor Paul Steinhauser

    Romney's presidential campaign is making a last-minute push in two states that should be safe for Obama: Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

    Romney campaigned in Pennsylvania on Sunday and goes back to the Keystone State on Election Day. Running mate Ryan campaigned in Pennsylvania on Saturday and in Minnesota on Sunday, and the campaign's up with ads in both states.

    Is this a head fake by the Romney campaign, or does it see the tightening public opinion polls in both states as evidence it might be able to turn Pennsylvania and Minnesota from blue to red?

    The Romney campaign says it's playing offense. The Obama campaign says the move is a sign of desperation by the Romney camp. We'll find out who's right on Election Night.

    Yellin: Will voters send a clear message?

    Have you heard? The early voter was this year's soccer mom -- the must-have vote both sides fought over.

    CNN chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin

    Obama appears to have won most of the early vote but not at the same margins as 2008, leaving Team Romney a window it says it can pry open. Now it's about who turns out: Will the president recreate the same coalition as he did in 2008? This is a euphemism for how white the voters will be on Election Day. If enough Latinos and African-Americans vote, Obama gets a second term. If they don't, it's President Romney.

    I'm not a fan of reading tea leaves to guess where this will end. Can't we wait till the votes are counted?

    I'll be watching for what voters are saying at the ballot box. I know -- so old-fashioned. Will whoever becomes president have a mandate? And to do what?

    In 2008, it was pretty clear that Americans wanted change -- a change from the Bush years. In 2010 -- the tea party midterms -- they wanted less spending, smaller government.

    It's not clear what the mandate might be after this campaign. Do Americans want the government to do more or less to help with tough economic times?

    The next president will confront tax reform and deficit reduction and changes to our health care system. These are huge issues that could prompt more gridlock in Washington -- unless there's a clear message from voters.

    Do voters want compromise in Washington? If so, when it gets right down to it, are they willing to compromise on the issues that matter most to them -- debt or taxes or reforming Medicare? There's the rub.

    Results: See the races as they are projected

      Election 2012

    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage with first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden after his victory speech on election night at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage after his victory speech at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      The 2012 presidential election shattered spending records, further polarized a divided country and launched a thousand hashtags.
    • Even though voters indicated to pollsters that their financial situation is the same or worse than it was four years ago, they put their trust in the president.
    • US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. President Barack Obama swept to re-election Tuesday, forging history again by transcending a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

      The president faces a long and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to victory.
    • Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama and the Senate from the Democrats.