For most of the presidential campaign, the focus has been on Ohio. No Republican has ever won the presidency without the Buckeye State, and Barack Obama’s victory there was a crucial factor in determining the 2008 election. The two campaigns have not only poured millions into the battle there this year, but the candidates have also spent more time there than in any other state. Ohio will be crucial, but the real key to understanding whether Obama or Mitt Romney will win tonight may come in Virginia.
It will be difficult, but still possible, for Romney to win without Ohio. He can make up for a defeat there by taking other swing states, such as Colorado or Wisconsin, or by pulling an upset in Michigan or Pennsylvania. Yet the GOP cannot take back the White House without Virginia. Indeed, if after the polls close there at 7 p.m. (EST) tonight the numbers show Obama pilling up a huge lead in the D.C. suburbs, that will be a sign that the long election night most of us are anticipating may be a lot shorter than we thought. On the other hand, if Romney posts competitive totals in northern Virginia, that will be an indication not only that he can take back a state Obama won in 2008, but that the turnout figures there — and perhaps around the country — will conform more with GOP expectations than those of the Democrats. More than anything else mentioned by the pundits, this is the key to the election.
For weeks, if not months, we’ve been discussing the main point of contention about the polls. Those surveys that were based on samples with far more respondents identifying themselves as Democrats than Republicans always showed the president leading the race. Those based on samples that had only a small Democratic edge or even were much better for Romney. Republicans have argued that there is no way Democrats could duplicate the massive advantage they enjoyed in 2008 when a wave of “hope and change” fervor elected Obama. But Democrats and liberal pundits claim that changes in the demographic makeup of the electorate as it gets less white will make up for any diminution of enthusiasm for the president after four generally disappointing years in office.
Virginia is ground zero for those expectations, as there is no doubt that it has become more racially and ethnically diverse. But if Romney can prevail there anyway as a result of lower Democratic turnout and much greater enthusiasm on the part of Republicans, then that will mean more than just a win in the Old Dominion. Good numbers for Romney in Virginia’s upscale suburbs, where Democrats think they have the edge, could mean that the same lesson will apply in other places and foretell disaster for the president.
As with the communities outside of the nation’s capital, a strong GOP showing in the suburbs around Philadelphia could offset the huge plurality that the Democratic machine in that city will manufacture for the president by fair means or foul. And if Romney steals blue Pennsylvania from the Democrats, there is little doubt he will be taking the oath of office in January.
In other words, the true bellwether tonight will be Virginia. Rather than waiting for Ohio, once the networks declare the outcome in Virginia (assuming, that is, that we’ll have a declared winner tonight), we’ll have a very good idea of who will be the next president.