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After 18 months of political combat, $2 billion in combined campaign spending and a skull-softening barrage of campaign ads t...
After 18 months of political combat, $2 billion in combined campaign spending and a skull-softening barrage of campaign ads that left toddler and reporter alike weeping for relief, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney await judgment from the only polls that matter.
The broad story lines of Election Day 2012 are well-known: Obama has the easier path to 270 electoral votes but a tenuous grasp on a handful of must-win Midwestern swing states, with Ohio at the center.
By night's end, America will have chosen a president.
Or not -- according to number four on this (hopefully) final five-things-to-watch list of the 2012 campaign:
1. What if the public polls are wrong?
The 2012 campaign has really been two contests rolled into a one -- a conventional fight between Obama and Romney, and lurking just beneath, a bitter debate over the composition of the American electorate and whether mainstream pollsters are underestimating Romney's support.
Democrats and many of the mainstream pollsters believe that demographic trends from 2004 and 2008 -- increased participation by minority voters and a continued surge in self-described independents chief among them -- will carry through to this year.
The standard-bearer is Nate Silver of The New York Times's FiveThirtyEight blog, who feeds other people's polls into a self-designed formula that has concluded -- to the consternation of critics -- that Obama stands a 92.2 percent chance of winning on Tuesday.
The Romney campaign and some GOP-leaning pollsters think those models skew the results toward Obama -- they weigh Democratic voters too heavily, these critics say -- resulting in a massive, systemic over-estimation of the incumbent's chances at the expense of Romney.
The first chance to see who is right -- and who was wrong -- comes at 7 p.m. when the polls close in Virginia and at 7:30 when all-important Ohio begins to count votes.
On Monday night, the Romney campaign leaked the results of its internal polling, conducted by Neil Newhouse -- a sharp critic of public polling. His findings paint a far more positive picture of the race than the aggregate of the public polling that Silver uses in his models.
By Newhouse's accounting, Romney leads Ohio by a point (the RealClearPolitics.com poll average has Obama up 2.9 percent) and edges Obama in New Hampshire by 3 (RCP has Obama leading by 2 percent). He's also ahead by 2 points in Iowa, which Obama staffers consider to be locked up, thanks to solid early voting among Democrats and a lead in the polls that averages 2.4 percent, according to RCP.
Newhouse also claims Romney is tied with Obama in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states Obama leads by about 4 points in public polling.
A top Obama staffer said his campaign's polling is in line with the public polling -- and Newhouse is working the refs because he doesn't like the call. "If we're wrong about that, then everything we know about polling is wrong," said one aide.
Senior adviser David Axelrod is so confident in his numbers, he's offered to shave off his 1970's-era mustache if proven wrong.
But some Democrats outside the campaign were feeling a little creeped out by the uncertainty, and are eager to see validation of Obama's alleged lead.
Late Monday, one of them shared his fear that "Democrats (like me) keep making methodological excuses whenever we see a poll we don't like (like Gallup and Rasmussen), when in fact they turned out to be accurate."
2. Does GOP turnout surge in swing states?
A lot of attention is being paid to Obama's get-out-the vote operations in Democratic strongholds such as Cleveland, Toledo, Philadelphia and Norfolk, Va. -- and rightly so, considering Obama's loss of independents and white voters this year.
But Romney's campaign has become increasingly reliant on enthusiasm.
"I've watched over the last few months as our campaign has gone from a start to a movement," Romney told supporters in New Hampshire over the weekend.
He'll need a movement-level surge in his best battleground precincts to prove he's part of a wave.
Thus far, the state polls (apart from the campaign's leaked internals) show the former Massachusetts governor hasn't broken through Obama's Midwest citadels of Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Iowa, although he's tightened to within low single digits.
But his crowds at the end have been bigger than at any point during his campaign, and the candidate himself is barnstorming with a verve he's never shown in his career. There has been a dramatic shift of white voters away from the president since the debates, and Obama is flirting with falling below the 40 percent threshold of white support many analysts see as essential for winning.
That has some Democrats worried. They fear the possibility that Romney's troops are so fired up, so eager to finally oust Obama, that they exceed even the most robust predictions of Mitt's muscle in the swing states by anyone on Obama's side.
This isn't about the get-out-the-vote operation -- Obama has an edge in organization -- this is about one side's base being so motivated they get a speeding ticket en route to their polling place.
"What concerns me most," said a Democratic party pollster, "is that the enthusiasm gap we've seen in the polls is actually larger than we anticipated. All the get-out-the-vote planning in the world can't really account for that."
Some other places to watch: The rural belt in southern Ohio that was ground zero for the tea party revolt in 2010. If the GOP exceeds its numbers in 2000, that could tilt the advantage toward Romney.
Cincinnati's Hamilton County is an even bigger bellwether: If Romney can replicate George W. Bush's 225,000-to-200,000 margin of victory over Al Gore in 2000, that could augur a bigger wave across the state.
The same holds true for Romney-friendly towns like Waukesha, Wis. -- adjacent to Paul Ryan's congressional district -- or the conservative rural and coal counties in western Pennsylvania.
There are indications, however, that a Romney turnout wave may not be in the offing. For one thing, his campaign-long edge in voter enthusiasm seems to be fading in the stretch, with a Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this week showing the Republican nominee actually trailing the president by a few points on a measure of base enthusiasm.
3. Does Obama repeat in Virginia?
If Obama can capture the commonwealth's 13 electoral votes, it will be virtually impossible for Romney to find a path to 270 even if he can pull out victory in Ohio, operatives on both sides say.
Republicans had hoped to close out Virginia earlier this fall, or at least put it out of Obama's reach, as they have done with North Carolina. A variety of factors have blocked Romney from doing that, most notably the state's changing demographics and the leftward tilt of the rapidly expanding Northern Virginia suburbs.
Mitch Stewart, Obama's chief field organizer, oversaw a top-notch 2008 Virginia operation that delivered the state by a 7-point margin. This year, Stewart has intervened personally, helping to build big turnout operations in the Norfolk area and in Richmond, places with large African-American populations.
As a result, Obama holds a slim but steady lead in most polls here, within the margin of error.
His supporters are banking on two outside factors: the strength of Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine, Obama's former national party chairman, and the presence on the ballot of third-party candidate Virgil Goode, who could siphon off votes from Romney.
For his part, the GOP nominee is hoping to piece together the coalition that delivered Virginia to George W. Bush twice -- conservatives from the rural southern part of the state, the Shenandoah Valley and the coal-mining west.
Romney is also making a pitch for women voters in the outer, more conservative D.C. burbs.
"Are we going to be neighbors soon?" Ann Romney asked a crowd of 8,500 in Fairfax on Monday, during a joint appearance with her husband.
4. Can Obama beat Romney in Ohio by more than 100,000 votes?
If Election Day goes according to script, it will all come down to Ohio and its 18 electoral votes.
The problem is that the outcome in the Buckeye State could be delayed for days by -- you guessed it -- an arcane set of election laws enforced by a Republican election official who is already being accused of partisan chicanery by Democrats.
Obama has led in Ohio from start to finish but his margin, however durable, has shrunk to the 1-to-3-point range recently. If the race turns out to be a real squeaker, look for the possibility of an ugly Florida 2000-type fight brewing over Republican Secretary of State Scott Husted's intention to throw out provisional ballots that haven't been properly filled out.
Husted insists that all voters who are required to fill out provisionals -- and there could be as many as 300,000 or more of them -- fill them out properly and reserves the right to chuck out the ones that don't pass muster. Democrats are having hanging-chad flashbacks, and argue that the strict enforcement is a ruse to deprive Obama backers, many of them black, from voting.
Lawyers on both sides are already lining up. But Obama could avoid the fate of Gore in 2000 by winning the state by a margin of about 2 percentage points, which would render the provisional question mostly moot, according to experts.
"If we've got a margin that's over 100,000 votes [in Ohio], none of this stuff will matter," said Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University. "Over 50,000 votes, it probably won't matter. But if we've got an election margin in the low tens of thousands on election night, especially with Romney ahead by the low tens of thousands, then in that situation provisional ballots will matter and these fights could make a difference in terms of who's president."
5. Do young people show up?
Obama's base has held up pretty well in 2012 with one exception: voters between the ages of 18 and 29, the symbolic and electoral bedrock of his optimistic, energetic 2008 campaign.
No group has been as resistant to Obama's overtures or as assiduously courted by the incumbent this time around. Obama kicked off his general election bid in May at Ohio State University's basketball arena -- with several thousand seats empty -- and has been a fixture on campuses ever since.
Obama's Chicago-based operation downplays the importance of the youth demographic, but they have been expending tens of millions of dollars to get their numbers back up, so valuable is youth enthusiasm in battlegrounds such as Ohio, Michigan, Virginia and Colorado, which are brimming with colleges and universities.
"Young voters are one of my biggest worries," emails a veteran Democratic strategist. "African-Americans and Latinos will vote, but I'm worried about reports that declining enthusiasm and new barriers to voting will drive down participation among young people."
Young voters made up 17 percent of the electorate in 2008, and Obama won them by 34 points.
In one recent poll by the Obama-allied Democracy Corps, he leads Romney by a mere 4 points -- with youth voters making up just 15 percent of the electorate. Hence all the time on ESPN, the student loan relief proposals, the Katy Perry appearances.
"If that number sinks any lower, Obama is in big trouble," the operative added. "Let's hope their much-vaunted turnout machine is real."
Josh Gerstein contributed to this report.