By Jonathan Allen and James Hohmann
LYNCHBURG, VA. — As President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and their surrogates barnstorm across electoral battlegrounds on this final day of campaigning, pollsters and analysts are drilling down beyond national and state surveys to look at the bellwether towns and counties that insiders will obsess over as results come in tomorrow.
Enter Suffolk University's poll of Lake County, Ohio, and a pair of towns in New Hampshire — Milford and Epping — that have reflected statewide voting trends in recent elections. In the latest little data point of an election that remains far too close to call in the last day before balloting begins in earnest, Suffolk's survey finds Romney leading Obama in all three places. The Republican nominee is up 47 percent to 43 percent in Lake County, which has shown itself to lean just a hair more in the GOP's direction than the state, and he holds edges of 51 percent to 46 percent in Milford and 49 percent to 47 percent in Epping.
Lake is one of four Ohio counties that favored George W. Bush in 2004, Obama in 2008 and Republican Gov. John Kasich in 2010. The other three: Cincinnati-based Hamilton County, Sandusky County and Tuscarawas County.
Of course, it's all so close that neither campaign is ceding any ground anywhere. The candidates are fighting over some of the very same turf today, with Obama and Romney both appearing in Columbus, Ohio, Romney and Vice President Joe Biden stumping about 165 miles apart in Virginia, and Obama and Rep. Paul Ryan both campaigning in Wisconsin and Des Moines, Iowa. All together, the presidential and vice presidential candidates are slated to make stops today in Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia and New Hampshire. Romney, according to a campaign official, will keep campaigning on Election Day, adding stops in Democratic-heavy Cleveland and Pittsburgh.
"Are you gonna help us win this thing Nevada?" Ryan asked at a 1,000-person morning rally in Reno. "We're doing a barn burner today. We are crisscrossing the country Mitt and I are because we are asking you to work with us, to stand with us to get our country back on the right track. We know the kind of choice that's facing us."
Romney traveled here to the middle of mostly rural Southside Virginia to court evangelical Christians. Among the folks in the VIP section for his rally: Jonathan and Jerry Falwell Jr., sons of the evangelist who founded nearby Liberty University.
Borrowing from Hillary Clinton's famous jab at Obama, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell said Romney has what it takes to make tough decisions in the middle of the night.
"You need to elect somebody that's got the heart and the character and the fortitude to make those tough decisions in the lonely confines of the Oval Office, that'll take that 3 o'clock call, that 3 o'clock in the morning call, and know what to do," McDonnell said.
Meanwhile in Virginia's Washington suburbs, Biden urged voters in Sterling to show up and give the president another four years. He reminded them of Tip O'Neill's oft-told story about a woman in Boston who told him she hadn't voted for him because he hadn't asked for her support.
"I'm here to ask you Virginia – please give us your vote," he said.
Virginia is more integral to Romney's path to 270 electoral votes, but it's important enough to the Obama campaign that Biden had two stops planned here today — in Sterling and Richmond.
Obama's team has taunted Romney for spending time in states like Florida and Virginia that are considered more critical to him winning 270 electoral votes.
"The numbers we've seen in Florida and obviously they think so too because Gov. Romney is spending an awful lot of time in states that they say they have won. So we, we're looking forward to tomorrow," Obama adviser David Axelrod said in Wisconsin. "We see many different paths to 270 and all those paths are attacked today. … We think that there are myriad ways for us to get there. We're not throwing Hail Marys in states that we're never going to win to try to get to 270. That's the difference between the campaigns."
To listen to the rhetoric from the two campaigns, one would think both have the election in the bag. Romney insisted he was eager for Election Day, riffing on a "tomorrow" theme in Sanford, Fla., Monday morning, repeating the word so often as to beg for attention, and even more repetition, from late-night comedians.
"Tomorrow, we begin a new tomorrow. Tomorrow, we begin a better tomorrow," he said. "This nation is going to begin to change for the better tomorrow. Your work is making a difference. The people of the world are watching. The people of America are watching. We can begin a better tomorrow tomorrow, and with the help of the people in Florida, that's exactly what's going to happen."
His team was upbeat, too. Press Secretary Rick Gorka told reporters "we're very, very optimistic about our chances tomorrow," as senior strategist Stu Stevens fired projectiles at him from a small toy pig from the Machine Shed in Iowa.
The mood could hardly be more similar Aboard Air Force One, where Obama's team is certain that he will be reliving his "Glory Days" of 2008 come Tuesday. In case he needed a reminder, blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen, one of several celebrities who have punctuated the end of the campaign with performances at Obama events, traveled with the president for an itinerary including Madison, Wis., Columbus, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa.
"It was pretty cool," Springsteen said of his ride on Air Force One. He said he and Obama talked about the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the rocker's native New Jersey. "I'm feeling pretty hopeful" about recovery efforts, he said.
The story of this last day before the election is one of two competing campaigns that look at the same numbers, the same variables and the same maps and come to opposite conclusions about where the race stands. What it likely speaks to is a return to the narrowly divided presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 after Obama redrew the electoral map in 2008. No matter who is sworn in at the Capitol in January, he now seems likely certain to have to lead a polarized country with a split Congress — Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House.
Two national surveys released in the past few days — the POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground poll and the CNN/Opinion Research poll — have shown a dead-even race. The biggest gap in any recent survey: Pew Research had Obama up 50 percent to 47 percent on Nov. 3. But not all voters are created equal in the race to 270 electoral votes.
"The polls that matter are the polls that are happening in the states," Obama Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" Monday. "You know, it's a close race, there is no doubt about that, but we have the advantage in critical states like Ohio. You know, no Republican's ever won the White House without going through Ohio. And we feel pretty good about where we are right now."
The nightmare scenario, for both campaigns and the electorate: Ohio isn't decided on election night and the presidency hangs in the balance. If it's close, the Buckeye State's 18 electoral votes could be decided in a count of provisional ballots, a tally that by law wouldn't start until 10 days after the polls close. Both candidates will spend part of the last campaign day in Columbus, where swing voters in the Franklin County suburbs have historically been an important constituency in close elections. Obama is almost sure to win the city and the county overall, but will he match the 100,000-vote advantage he racked up there in 2008? Romney's hope is to keep the margin closer to the roughly 50,000-vote edge John Kerry had over George W. Bush there in 2004.
To listen to Obama's team, the nation will have an early evening on Tuesday. Axelrod has wagered his trademark mustache on a victory, White House senior adviser David Plouffe said Sunday on NBC'S Meet the Press that he is "very confident" the president will win re-election, and Axelrod, Plouffe and Cutter have termed Romney's efforts to swing Democratic-leaning states such as Minnesota and Pennsylvania "laughable," "ludicrous" and "not based in reality."
But while Obama is making a swing through the Midwest on his final day on the trail, former President Bill Clinton is hitting the hustings for him in suburban Philadelphia, a region where Democrats need to pile up a big edge to win statewide elections in Pennsylvania. Obama has leaned on Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, who connect better with working-class whites, to work the state for him.
The two campaigns even disagree on the analysis of ballots cast in states where early voting is allowed. Millions of Americans already have made their decisions. In Ohio, for example, 1.6 million votes have been cast — 29 percent from registered Democrats and 23 percent from registered Republicans — according to the last count from the Associated Press. In Florida, with 29 electoral votes up for grabs, 4.3 million people have voted, with 43 percent of the ballots coming from Democrats and 40 percent from Republicans. If Obama were to win Florida, where he has trailed in most polling, Romney would have to sweep the rest of the swing states, including Virginia, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Colorado and Nevada, to win.
Republicans say that Democrats are pulling a fast one on the electorate when they claim an advantage in early voting this year.
"The Obama camp has been firing off a number of memos in desperate attempt to convince the media [and themselves] that they're not losing. What they aren't telling you is this isn't 2008; the numbers show we're doing much better in early voting, and they are doing much worse," Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley wrote in a memo to the media on Monday. "[M]ore importantly we are poised to blow the Obama campaign out on Election Day thanks to a superior GOTV program and a historical GOP Election Day advantage."
Each candidate will end the day close to home: Obama's last stop is in Iowa, next door to his home state of Illinois, and Romney wraps up in New Hampshire, not far from his Boston headquarters.
Soon, it will be all over but the voting — and the counting.
— Reid J. Epstein contributed to this story from, Madison, Wis., aboard Air Force One and Columbus, Ohio; Hohmann reported from Sanford, Fla., and Lynchburg, Va.; Jennifer Epstein reported from Sterling, Va.; Juana Summers reported from Reno, Nev., and Allen reported from Arlington, Virginia.