The table below lays out the Electoral College landscape based on the state win probabilities generated by the latest run of our election forecast model. It presents what our model suggests are the most likely paths that either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will need to take in order to get to the to the 270 Electoral Votes necessary to win the presidency.
The states are arranged in order of the probability that the model predicts that they will be won by President Obama. Based on these results, it is easy to see that Mitt Romney's path to 270 is a little more challenging than that for the President. The model suggests that Ohio is the key tipping point state, the state that will put either candidate over the top in the Electoral College. The good news for President Obama is that the model suggests he has a 70.4% probability of winning that state. The model suggests that he can win the White House even while losing the key battleground states of Colorado, Florida, and Virginia.
For Romney, however, his options are a bit more limited. Not only does he need to win all the states that the model projects he will win, including Florida which the model suggests is a virtual toss-up, but also Virginia, Colorado and Ohio, which the model projects that the President will win. If Romney loses just one of these states, his chances of winning become substantially more difficult. To win the election, then, he would have to pick off states that the model suggests are more firmly in Obama's column.
States to Watch, and When
7:00 PM EST
One of the keys to look for early on election night will be Virginia. The model projects that President Obama will win this state, but only barely so. With the model setting Obama's win probability for Virginia at 50.9% it is a virtual tossup. Should Obama manage a win there, as the model suggests, the night will become substantially more difficult for Romney. He will pretty much NEED to score a victory in Ohio to have a chance.
7:30 PM EST
The polls in both Ohio and North Carolina close at this time. The model has considered North Carolina to be fairly firmly in Governor Romney's column throughout the fall campaign and he will likely win there, but if President Obama manages another upset win there, the night will pretty much be over for Romney because there simply aren't enough states that the model truly considers "in play."
It is possible for Romney to win without Ohio, but not very probable. If he fails to win Ohio, he won't have many plausible options available to him to get the Electoral Votes he needs in order to get to 270, especially if he doesn't manage to win Virginia.
8:00 PM EST
All of the polls in Florida and New Hampshire will be closed at this time. Florida is absolutely critical for Governor Romney. Our model says that he will win there, but that he only has a 50.9% probability of doing so. Without its 29 Electoral Votes there is very little chance that he will be able to amass enough Electoral Votes to be able to win.
While New Hampshire only has 4 Electoral Votes at stake, it is a key piece for Governor Romney's "Plan B" in the case that he doesn't win Ohio. Assuming he wins Virginia and Florida, New Hampshire can help him get to the 270 threshhold without Ohio, but it would mean he'd have to win other states that the model suggests are even more firmly in President Obama's column, like Wisconsin, Nevada, or Iowa.
Pennyslvania is a real long-shot for Governor Romney. Our model sets the probability that Obama will win Pennsylvania at 88%. If Romney manages to pull off an unlikely upset there, it would be a tell-tale sign that the forecast wasn't just wrong, but completely missed the mark. It would signal that a huge Romney wave was about to sweep across the country.
9:00 PM EST Colorado is pretty much a "must-win" state for Romney, especially if he doesn't win Virginia and/or Ohio. Obama can win if he loses either Ohio and Colorado, provided the rest of the forecast projections hold up. Romney, however, pretty much needs both.
Wisconsin is also another state that could factor into Romney's "Without Ohio Plan B." If he wins Virginia, Florida and New Hampshire but loses Ohio, Wisconsin could be one of those states that could help him get past 270. But again, our model has it pretty solidly in Obama's column with a 85.6% probability. Chances are, if Wisconsin is truly in play, then Pennsylvania probably is too and we will have already seen that wave coming ashore.
10:00 PM EST
If things are still in doubt by this point, Nevada and Iowa could be critical to Romney. Both are projected to go to Obama (probabilities of 76.8 and 77.0, respectively), but could be part of Romney's last hope this late in the evening.
In the end, the path to 270 is a bit more straightforward for President Obama than it is for Governor Romney. The model suggests that the President has a lot more options to get him past the magic 270 mark than the Governor does, and it's likely that we would know by 9:00 or 10:00 EST. If not, it might indicate that it isn't just one state we're waiting on, but perhaps two or three.