WASHINGTON – In two days we will (probably) know the identity of the man who will be president of the United States for the next four years.
Even though the end of this long, strange trip is nearly here, questions remain about the size and shape of the electorate, the true swing-state battlefield on which President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will fight over down to the finish and the factors that will ultimately push the sliver of undecided voters to make up their minds.
We lay out five of the most pressing questions.
Enthusiasm or organization?
Most polls suggest that Republican voters are more amped to vote in this election than are Democrats.
But even the most loyal Romney allies acknowledge privately that the ground operation Obama has built over the past six years – and honed over the past four – is superior to what the Republican presidential nominee has been able to put together since emerging as his party’s pick in April.
What Tuesday will prove is what matters more: an enthusiasm advantage or an organizational edge.
Conventional wisdom dictates that either could boost a candidate’s showing by a point or two.
But if organization and enthusiasm cancel each other out, then who wins?
Is the playing field expanding?
In the past 10 days of the campaign, Romney and his allies have made investments of time and money in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota amid polling that suggests all three are single-digit contests. Without Pennsylvania, Romney faces a narrow path to 270 electoral votes – he all but has to win Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio. A win in Pennsylvania broadens that path considerably.
Where do independents end up?
The story of the past several elections has been the wide swings among independent voters. In 2004, President George W. Bush lost independents by 1 point to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Four years later, Obama carried unaffiliated voters by 8 points over Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
In Washington Post-ABC News tracking polls over the past 10 days, Obama has regularly trailed Romney among independents by double digits. But in Saturday’s tracking, the incumbent had pulled into a tie with these voters.
If independents do move to Obama in the race’s final hours, expect much focus to fall on Hurricane Sandy and Obama’s handling of the disaster. Independents love the idea of politicians working together to solve problems, and Obama’s trip to New Jersey to tour the devastation with Republican Gov. Chris Christie could have moved some unaffiliated voters to his side.
Will young people support Obama again ?
One of the biggest myths of the 2008 election was that Obama drastically increased the number of 18- to-29-year-olds who voted. In 2004, 18-to-29-year-olds constituted 17 percent of the electorate. They made up 18 percent of it in 2008. The difference? Kerry won that youthful age group by 9 points nationally; Obama won it by 34 points.
Given that, the key for Obama on Tuesday is not to expand the share of the electorate that 18- to-29-year-olds make up but rather to ensure that it doesn’t dip significantly, with the young people who vote doing so in something close to the percentages they did four years ago. Polling suggests enthusiasm (as measured by likelihood to vote) among 18-to-29-year-olds has drifted off from four years ago.
How big is the gender gap?
National polling suggests that Romney is trailing Obama by mid- to high single digits among women – a margin that would rank among the smallest gender gaps in modern presidential history if it holds. McCain lost women by 13 points in 2008, George W. Bush lost them by 11 points in 2000, and Bob Dole lost the female vote by a whopping 16 points in 1996.
Democrats insist – and some polling data confirm – that Romney is having more trouble among female voters in targeted swing states where the effect of the Obama advertising onslaught on Romney’s record has been focused.