Election Day has dawned and there hasn’t been one quite like this before. The national horse race is virtually tied, a slight 48.9 to 48.2 percent edge for President Obama over Mitt Romney. But expectations overwhelmingly favor Obama, who is far better-positioned to clear 270 electoral votes – and maybe even to snag well over 300. Nate Silver’s model now pegs the president’s chances of winning at more than 90 percent.
From the coalition that delivered him 365 electoral votes in 2008, Obama is only sure to lose one state today – Indiana and its 12 electoral votes. It also seems probable, but not certain, that he’ll fall short in the Omaha-based congressional district he carried in Nebraska, which apportions its electoral votes by district. Those losses, combined with the effects of reapportionment, leave Obama with an absolute ceiling of 347 electoral votes today. If he were to reach or approach that number, the political world would probably treat his victory as something approaching a landslide.
And even if he doesn’t, Obama still has a significant margin for error. He could lose North Carolina, where he trails by 3 points in the Real Clear Politics average, and still have 332 electoral votes. Subtract Florida, which Silver now lists as slightly more likely to go for Obama than Romney, and Obama will be at 303. Take away Colorado and Virginia, both of which now show tiny Obama leads in the RCP average, and the president would still have 281.
This underscores the reality of Romney’s position. It wouldn’t take much of a break for him to win the national popular vote today, but it would take a lot of breaks – a lot of big breaks – for him to actually win the presidency. It also creates the possibility of a relatively short election night. To have any realistic path to 270, Romney absolutely must lock down North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and Colorado; from there, he could add several different combinations of states to cross the threshold. But if he falls short in any of those four states, it’s virtually impossible to see him winning.
If there’s a wild card tonight, it’s Pennsylvania. On paper, Obama should carry it without breaking much of a sweat. Not since George H.W. Bush in 1988 has a Republican won the state, and the RCP average indicates an Obama edge of around 4 points. But there is a unique measure of volatility in Pennsylvania, since the state wasn’t treated as part of the national battleground until the final week of the race, when Romney (and pro-Romney groups) suddenly blitzed it with heavy ad spending and campaign appearances. In fact, Romney has added some last-minute stops to his Election Day schedule, and one is in the Keystone State.
This gives the Romney side at least a flicker of hope. For months, the assumption had been that in addition to corralling the four must-win states listed above they’d need to a) win Ohio; or b) win Wisconsin plus some combination of New Hampshire, Iowa and Nevada. But all of the time and money Republicans spent in Ohio and Wisconsin hasn’t made the numbers budge. Romney continues to trail by several points in the Ohio polling average, and Obama is the clear favorite there. And Romney’s position in Wisconsin has deteriorated; he’s now more than 4 points down in RCP’s average. Realistically, the only way for Romney to win either state now would be for all of the polling to have been flawed in some basic, systemic way – which, obviously, isn’t much to latch onto if you’re a Republican.
But the Romney messaging isn’t as tested in Pennsylvania. It’s at least theoretically possible that his late explosion of spending and personal campaign time will move suburban voters near Philadelphia and produce even bigger margins among rural whites in the western part of the state. In a somewhat surprising statement, one of Obama’s top campaign aides said on Monday night that “Pennsylvania has tightened, absolutely. If I were working on the Romney campaign, I would probably be giving it a shot, too.”
Take this with a grain of salt, of course. Complacency among supporters may be the biggest threat to the Obama campaign now, so they have an incentive to make turning out feel like an urgent matter for all of their backers. But Romney has hit Pennsylvania hard, and it was only eight years ago that Republicans came tantalizingly close to stealing it, with George W. Bush losing by 2.5 points to John Kerry.
If somehow Romney were to pick it off tonight, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes would do the job of Ohio and Wisconsin for him; that is, if he nails down Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Colorado, then Pennsylvania alone would out him over the top – even with losses in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Iowa. Alternately, Romney could lose Virginia and still break 270 by taking Pennsylvania along with Iowa. Or he could lose Colorado and claim the presidency with Pennsylvania and Iowa or New Hampshire. A win in Pennsylvania would create a bunch of new electoral possibilities for him.
Not that this is anything but a long shot. Obama should win Pennsylvania, even if it’s uncomfortably close. But his position seems more secure in Ohio and Wisconsin, if only because the campaigns have been duking it out there for months. If Romney hasn’t made up ground in those states yet, there’s really no reason to think he will today. At least in Pennsylvania, there’s some uncertainty. Which means the Keystone State may really be the one to watch tonight. If it’s trending toward Obama, then it’s as good a sign as any that Romney’s White House dream has been extinguished.