Election Day Roadmap: How the Swing State Results Will Roll in on the Way to 270

U.S. President Barack Obam
U.S. President Barack Obam

Well, here we are: Election Day.

After $2 billion in total campaign spending, three presidential debates, hundreds of campaign ads, and thousands of campaign appearances, the presidential race is ... wait for it ... a tossup.

Now, if Barack Obama wins tonight, it will be in part because the American people believe he understands their problems and those facing everyday Americans -- and because he spent months defining Mitt Romney with brutal advertising in Ohio. It will also be because the Romney campaign made several fundamental errors, including not doing enough to define their candidate earlier in the process and failing to reach out more effectively to women in their 30s and 40s, and Hispanics.

If Mitt Romney wins, it will be in part because he convinced enough people that he could solve Americans' day-to-day economic problems -- and because he crushed Obama in their first debate. It will also be because the Obama campaign believed that negatively defining their opponent was even more important than effectively explaining what Obama would do if he was reelected. And it will mean that Mitt Romney made a stronger case than Obama to independent voters that he could do a better job on the economy.

But enough campaign analysis.

You want to know who's going to win, so here's your hour-by-hour election roadmap. We're going to take you through the key states as they are decided, from East to West ... as they unfold. But before we get to the fun part, a word to the wise: Beware of early exit polls. They got it wrong in both 2000 and 2004, so be patient and wait for the actual votes to be counted before rejoicing or drowning your tears.

(Please Note: all times are EST, states with an * have multiple closing times, and the times listed below are the latest closing time and the earliest the networks will project an outcome)

6 P.M./7 P.M.: Indiana*

Indiana: The Hoosier state will be the first state to be called, Romney will win it, and will be the first state President Obama will lose that he won in 2008.

7 P.M.: Georgia, Kentucky*, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia

Virginia: The polls close early here, but don't expect a decision until after 11 p.m. Last election, Virginia went blue (by 6%) for the first time in 40 years. Frank thinks Virginia ends up in the GOP camp this time -- but don't expect an early call. We both think this state leans ever so slightly to Romney, but Chris believes Obama has the late momentum and may just eke out a win. Virginians who live in the D.C. suburbs count their votes first, so the initial margin in favor of Obama should shrink as the night wears on. This is a state Romney must win if he's to be inaugurated in January. There isn't a realistic path for the Romney campaign to 270 without the Old Dominion in their column.

7:30 P.M.: North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia

Ohio: No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. Obama's campaign understood this, and he blanketed the state early with blistering ads against Romney that went largely unchallenged and unanswered. The result: Romney's favorability in Ohio was among the lowest of all the swing states, and that's why he is tied with Obama nationally but still behind in Ohio.

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All that being said, polling Ohio -- not to mention the rest of the battleground states -- has proven difficult because no one can agree what the likely voter turnout will look like on Election Day. It's complicated by Obama's unusual strength in the Cleveland suburbs and in northeastern Ohio, where some of the auto plants reside. Romney is expected to do well for a Republican in Coal Country (southeastern Ohio). And if voting is super close, the race may not be called at all, because of thousands of provisional ballots that won't be counted for ten days.

Here's the bottom line: The Democratic areas report before the Republican areas, so be patient. Whomever is up after 80% is counted should be the winner -- just don't expect the answer until well after midnight. Oh, by the way, most people have forgotten that the exit polling in Ohio in 2004 incorrectly predicted a John Kerry victory. So, be careful about early celebration one way or another.

North Carolina. This should be the first of nine key swing states to declare, and we both believe Romney is poised to win here. He's been ahead in almost every poll, and he has a good ground game in the state. Even though the Dems held their convention in Charlotte, high unemployment and an unpopular Democratic governor have held Obama back.

8 P.M.: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Colombia, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee*.

This is a make or break hour. Florida is another must-win for Romney, and, if Obama wins Ohio, New Hampshire will be crucial to Romney as well. All eyes will also be on Pennsylvania to see whether Romney's claims of a surge in his support there are accurate.

Florida: We believe Florida will go Romney. In the critical Orlando/Tampa I-4 corridor, recent polls show Romney leading, and since 1992, the I-4 corridor has correctly predicted the winner. Efforts to paint Romney as a threat to Medicare and Social Security have failed. Obama bet on Ohio to make his stand -- and it looks like a good bet.

New Hampshire: Mitt Romney will make his final stop of the campaign in Manchester, New Hampshire. That shouldn't be shocking -- Romney's roots run deep in New Hampshire -- yet the last poll there has the race tied. New Hampshire voters pride themselves on their independent-thinking. George W. Bush won it in 2000, but lost in 2004. His father won in 1988, but lost in 1992. This is a swing state that really swings. And it also counts votes fast. Expect the Granite State to be the second of the key swing states to be called. President Obama appears to have the upper hand there, but just barely.

Pennsylvania: The Keystone State often seems tantalizingly within reach for the GOP in September but always votes Democratic in November. It's like a siren temptress for Republicans. Romney is doing unusually well in blue-collar southwestern coal country and holding his own in the increasingly Democratic Philly suburbs. And his current positive ad blitz is being well received. One recent poll showed this race tied, and a few others have Obama up by only 3 points. Others show a wider spread. If turnout in Philadelphia is down, it is a bad omen for Obama. Realistically, we expect it to be closer than usual, but we both give the edge to Obama. But, if there is one surprise on election night, this may be the one.

8:30 P.M.: Arkansas

9 P.M.: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas*, Louisiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota*, Texas*, Wisconsin, Wyoming

The Romney path to victory -- in the event of an Ohio loss -- has been dubbed "Wisconsin, Plus One." The "plus one" includes Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, or Colorado -- but it all starts with Wisconsin.

Wisconsin. A Republican hasn't won the presidential vote in Wisconsin since Reagan in 1984. This year, Obama leads by around 5% in most of the media polls, but the campaigns have the race closer. Word to the wise: Wisconsin polling has notoriously underestimated GOP turnout, and it's possible Wisconsin could surprise everyone on Election Day. They count really fast, so we'll have a pretty good idea of how close this race is. Just remember: if Romney loses Ohio, he has no shot if he doesn't win Wisconsin.

Colorado. Yet another must-win for Romney. Republican presidential candidates have won this state in 8 of the past 10 elections, though it has trended Democrat in recent years thanks to the influx of transported Californians. Polls show a dead heat, but in the early voting, Romney has the advantage. This state should break Romney's way, but his weakness with Latinos has made it very close.

Minnesota. This state is included on our run-down because the Romney campaign decided to spend money late here, and because the Romney-Ryan ticket visited the state in the crucial final 48 hours. But Minnesota has not voted for a Republican president since 1972 and isn't likely to break that pattern this year. Obama will win here.

10 P.M.: Iowa, Montana, Nevada , Utah.

Not many electoral votes here, but lots of important races. Stay in your seats. In this hour you'll have major announcements from several states, and you should have about 25% of the popular vote counted. But all eyes will be on Iowa and Nevada.

Nevada. At first look, Obama should be at a severe disadvantage in this battleground state whose economy is still suffering. But Romney has failed to overcome his terrible numbers among Latino voters, and the GOP's get-out-the-vote efforts in the state are notoriously weak. Frankly, close observers will be shocked if Romney wins here.

Iowa. Iowa's six electoral votes might not seem like a huge prize, but the Obama campaign considers them a crucial part of their Electoral College insurance policy should Romney pick off Wisconsin or Ohio. That's why Obama has been to the state 11 times this year and will wrap up his reelection campaign with a rally in Des Moines. (How ironic that Obama chose Iowa and Romney New Hampshire as their final campaign stops.) The president is protecting a small lead, but Romney has been gaining in the last month -- buttressed by a surprising endorsement from the Des Moines Register. Just remember: This state has voted Republican just once since 1984.

11 P.M.: California, Idaho*, North Dakota*, Oregon*

Hawaii closes at midnight and Alaska at 1 a.m. But if this race is close, don't expect to know whom the next president is by then. In fact, because there are a half dozen states that will be decided by 2% or less, we're expecting the first network election projection to come well after midnight -- and perhaps as late as around dawn Wednesday.

But no matter who emerges as our next President, let us all give thanks that our nation's transfer of power continues to be done peacefully, under the rule of law. And, regardless of whether Romney or Obama wins, let us hope that the next four years bring prosperity and civility back to America.

We need it ... badly.

Chris Kofinis is a Democratic strategist. Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and strategist. AOL has an elections content partnership with Chris Kofinis and Luntz Global.