What to watch for on Election Night

Updated 10:56 PM EST, Tue November 6, 2012

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

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CNN —  

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

CNN national political correspondent Jim Acosta
CNN national political correspondent Jim Acosta

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.

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

CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash
CNN senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash

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.

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

CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger
CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger

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.

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

CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley
CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley

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.

Then, it’s Virginia, Florida and Ohio.

I’ll watch the Virginia suburbs of Washington, particularly the female vote. Romney