JUNEAU: And Down The Stretch They Come

November 6 is almost here. It likely will be quite a horse race carrying on well into the evening election night. Like antsy thoroughbreds in their final warm-ups, Obama and Romney are pawing the dirt and waiting for the starting gate to open Tuesday. It has been a bruising battle, ebbing and flowing with consultants, campaign managers, get out the vote coordinators and the candidates themselves pushing to the end for the ultimate stakes win: the presidency.

Now on the Friday morning before the election, no one can say who will win and those who say their prediction is a lock are braggarts, fools–or both. As in the Kentucky Derby, there are definitely some things to watch out for as the race develops Tuesday evening. The “first turn” is often a critical juncture in a horse race and it will be election night as well. When the earliest polls close, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio will have a major impact on deciding the election once their votes are recorded. Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa will follow soon after. If the Eastern Standard Time zone states mentioned above haven’t decided the race, those states in the upper Midwest are likely to do so. In the unlikely event that the winner is still up in the air as the polls start closing in the mountain states, Colorado and Nevada will decide the issue.

Here are a few keys to keep in mind as the returns come in. If Romney loses either Florida or Virginia–especially Florida–you can turn in early because it is very likely that he is going to lose the election. If Romney wins those two states and New Hampshire, look forward to an interesting night. A New Hampshire win would be a good indication that moderates and independents–two key groups–are breaking his way.

Pennsylvania and Ohio then take center stage. If Romney is sustaining a lead in Pennsylvania, once again you can turn in early because he is likely to win the presidency. That isn’t likely to happen but if it does, Obama will not have a good night. Don’t expect Ohio to be anything but grueling. The heavily Democratic northeastern part of the state anchored in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) will battle it out with the southeastern region anchored in Cincinnati. Due to a quirk in the state’s election law, it may be numerous days after the election–even without a recount–to find out who wins Ohio. Every voter is mailed a mail-in ballot application in Ohio. Many may send in the request for the ballot, but not mark it and return it, and instead show up at their polling station to vote. In that event, they will be given a provisional ballot to fill out so election official can determine whether they have voted via the mail-in route. The provisional ballots cannot be counted until 10 days after the election. Some officials estimate there may be as many as 250,000 of these ballots–definitely enough to decide a close election.

Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa will share the spotlight next on election night. While polls have tightened in Michigan, it would be a huge upset if Romney wins that state. Don’t look for that to happen. Wisconsin is another story. The GOP in the Badger State has a well-oiled and effective turn out the vote operation that they recently used to help Governor Scott Walker win a huge recall election foisted on him by the Democrats and the unions. With native son Paul Ryan as his running mate, Romney stands an excellent chance to win Wisconsin and perhaps keep his hopes alive if he loses Ohio or the decision is delayed there. Iowa is a tougher nut to crack for Romney but possible.

More to the west, Colorado is an excellent pick up opportunity for Romney and a state he will definitely need if he doesn’t win Ohio. Nevada is likely to remain in the Obama’s column due to the strong union presence in Las Vegas and a growing Hispanic registration.

The election factors in Obama’s favor are the Democrats tried and true early voting operation and his strong lead among Hispanics and African-Americans. Romney’s plusses include a slightly more motivated base, a tightening of the “gender gap” and the inroads he has made with moderates and independents.

I can hear the iconic voice of former Triple Crown Announcer Dave Johnson now as the “horses” round the last turn and head for home: “And down the stretch they come!” This in all likelihood is going to be a photo finish and we may see the lawyers and the media in Ohio for 10 days waiting for the winner to go up on the board. Please hold all tickets until the race is official.

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