First Thoughts: Decision Day

First Thoughts: Decision Day

It's Decision Day... How to watch tonight, especially the states with early closing times... What's at stake in this election... The state of play... The final ad spending... The first results -- Dixville Notch, NH: Obama 5, Romney 5... Hart's Landing, NH: Obama 23, Romney 9... And Obama holds his Election Night festivities in Chicago, while Romney holds his in Boston.
It's Decision Day... How to watch tonight, especially the states with early closing times... What's at stake in this election... The state of play... The final ad spending... The first results -- Dixville Notch, NH: Obama 5, Romney 5... Hart's Landing, NH: Obama 23, Romney 9... And Obama holds his Election Night festivities in Chicago, while Romney holds his in Boston.

*** Decision Day: After nearly $1 billion spent on TV ads, a wild GOP primary season, 20 primary debates and four general-election ones, endless campaign stops to the battleground states, and a hurricane on the final full week, the 2012 presidential election comes to an end today. Or at least we think it will. And tonight will help answer so many of the questions we've posed over the past two years: Can an incumbent president win when the unemployment rate is just below 8%? Or is an incumbent who doesn't face a primary challenge tough to beat? Did Mitt Romney's opposition to the auto bailout prove fatal to his chances, especially in Ohio? Or was his overall economic messaging successful? Did the Super PACs -- including the $53 million Sheldon Adelson donated -- move the needle? What segment of the electorate proved more decisive, white voters or Latinos? Was there a significant gender gap? Were the polls right? And given that both candidates have thrived when their backs have been against the wall, which man will ultimately prevail? We'll find out tonight. 

*** How to watch tonight: With several battleground states having poll-closing times at 8:00 pm ET or earlier (Virginia, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania), we're going to know a lot about how the race is breaking fairly early in the evening. How long does it take to call North Carolina (a state Romney probably wants to put away early) and Pennsylvania (ditto Obama)? Will Florida and Virginia take hours to call? (Remember, no state better matched the 2008 popular than Virginia did four years ago.) Here are all the final poll closing times in ET (NBC News will not call a race until all polls have closed in that state):

7:00 pm: GA, IN, KY, SC, VT, VA
7:30 pm: NC, OH, WV
8:00 pm: AL, CT, DE, DC, FL, IL, ME, MD, MA, MS, MO, NH, NJ, OK, PA, RI, TN
8:30 pm: AR
9:00 pm: AZ, CO, KS, LA, MI, MN, NE, NM, NY, ND, SD, TX, WI, WY
10:00 pm: IA, MT, NV, UT
11:00 pm: CA, HI, ID, OR, WA
1:00 am: AK

*** What's at stake: This year's elections might not have the same huge rallies of four years ago. Or the unbridled energy and enthusiasm. Or even Sarah Palin. But it could very well be a more consequential election -- with so much at stake. The winner of the presidential contest between Obama and Romney could determine the fate of the Bush tax cuts. The outcome also could decide the future of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid. And the race could impact the implementation of the 2010 federal health-care law. What's more, the winner could potentially fill as many as two or three Supreme Court vacancies -- with Ruth Bader Ginsburg at age 79, Anthony Kennedy and Antonin Scalia at 76, and Stephen Breyer at 74 -- which could change the court's political composition for decades. Furthermore, whichever party wins the presidential contest will likely hold the upper hand in the "fiscal cliff" negotiations, which will begin immediately after the ballots are counted. And speaking of that last point, it raised our eyebrows that House Speaker John Boehner's office last night released this quote from Boehner in a Politico piece: "We're not raising taxes on small-business people," he said. "Ernst and Young has made this clear: It's going to cost our economy 700,000 jobs. Why in the world would we want to do that?" Would Boehner's office have released this hours before the end of the campaign if it was confident Romney was going to win? Remember what state Boehner is from: Ohio.

*** State of play: The presidential contest is a race to 270 electoral votes. Throughout the race, Obama has enjoyed more paths to 270 than Romney. A note: If there is a 269-269 tie, which has never happened before, the new House of Representatives would determine the presidential election's outcome, while the U.S. Senate would elect the vice president. In the battle for control of the U.S. Senate, Democrats (and the independents who caucus with them) hold a 53-47 majority in the chamber. To win back control, Republicans must net four seats if Obama wins re-election or three seats if he doesn't. The reason: The vice president gets to break a 50-50 tie. And in the House, Republicans hold a 240-190 majority in the chamber (with five vacancies). This means Democrats must pick up a net of 25 seats to win back control -- a doable but unlikely feat due in part to redistricting.

*** The final ad spending in the presidential contest:

Overall ad spending: $984 million
Team Romney (includes outside groups): $583 million
Team Obama (includes outside groups): $401 million
Total ad spending by the campaigns: $549 million
Obama campaign: $336 million
Romney campaign: $213 million
Total outside ad spending: $435 million (44% of total)
Outside spending supporting Obama: $65 million
Outside spending supporting Romney: $370 million
Per state: Ohio  $197 million, Florida $192 million, Virginia $152 million, Colorado   $81 million, Iowa $74 million, North Carolina $70 million, Nevada $60 million, Wisconsin $45 million, New Hampshire $44 million, Pennsylvania $35 million, Michigan $19 million, Minnesota $11 million, New Mexico $3 million, Maine $400,000

*** The first results: And we have already received our first election results from New Hampshire: In Dixville Notch, Obama and Romney both received five votes, and in Hart's Landing, the president won 23 votes, Romney nine, and Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson 1.

*** On the trail: Obama spends his Election Day in Chicago, where he conducts a dozen satellite interviews in battleground states and where he holds his Election Night event in McCormick Place... Romney casts his vote in Belmont, MA at 8:35 am ET before heading to Cleveland at 11:40 am ET and Pittsburgh at 2:55 pm ET, and he holds his evening event in Boston... Biden already voted in Delaware... And Ryan votes in Wisconsin before visiting Cleveland and Richmond, VA.
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