2012 election comes down to the wire
Early returns and exit polls showed close contests in two battleground states as America's voters decided whether to give President Barack Obama a second term or turn over the White House to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
An exit poll in Virginia showed a 49 percent to 49 percent dead heat between the two candidates, according to CNN. In Florida, another key contest, popular vote returns showed Obama ahead 51 percent to 48 percent with less than half of the vote reported. The race was too close to call.
Both states went for Obama in 2008 -- and figure in possible Romney victory scenarios this time.
Elsewhere, the candidates won where they were expected to prevail.
Obama was the victor in Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to the projections. In Maine, which has an unusual system for awarding its four electoral votes, Obama was projected to win at least three, according to CNN.
Romney won Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Indiana, the networks said.
At 8 p.m., the count began in four more battleground states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Hampshire.
All sides were awaiting a verdict from the nine states in all that were most hotly contested in the $2 billion-plus campaign and whose votes will determine which man can piece together the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Early exit polls showed, not surprisingly, that the economy was the most important issue for Americans who have lived through a devastating recession. They told pollsters that they were slightly more positive about the country's direction than when they chose Obama four years ago. But their interest in a more activist federal government has been dampened.
The polls also suggest a slightly more Republican electorate than in 2008.
Much of the country enjoyed dry weather on Election Day. But the closing days of the campaign played out against the disaster recovery efforts after superstorm Sandy.
Election officials in New York and New Jersey scrambled to marshal generators, move voting locations, shuttle storm victims to polling places and take other steps to ensure everyone who wanted to vote could do so. Both states were regarded, before and since the storm, as strong favorites for Obama.
The campaign's final hours were as intense as any. Vice President Joe Biden flew unannounced to counter Romney in Ohio. Obama stayed in hometown Chicago, reaching out to swing-state voters on the phones and via satellite while the other three candidates had a high noon showdown along the shore of Lake Erie.
Romney and running mate Paul Ryan had scheduled the stop together just Monday, and Biden flew in to play defense as Romney waited on his plane for Ryan's arrival.
The rush for Ohio and its 18 electoral votes highlighted the importance of the state. Polls going into Election Day showed Obama with a narrow lead there, and Romney said the eleventh-hour campaigning was meant to leave him with no regrets.
"I can't imagine an election being won or lost by, let's say, a few hundred votes and you spent your day sitting around," Romney told Richmond radio station WRVA earlier in the day. "I mean, you'd say to yourself, 'Holy cow, why didn't I keep working?' And so I'm going to make sure I never have to look back with anything other than the greatest degree of satisfaction on this whole campaign."
Obama visited a campaign office close to his home in Chicago and was met by applause and tears from volunteers before he picked up a phone to call voters in neighboring Wisconsin. He told reporters that the election comes down to which side can get the most supporters to turn out.
"I also want to say to Gov. Romney, 'Congratulations on a spirited campaign.' I know his supporters are just as engaged, just as enthusiastic and working just as hard today," the president said. The tightness of the race didn't keep Obama from winding down with his traditional Election Day basketball game with friends.
Romney also congratulated the president for running a "strong campaign." "I believe he's a good man and I wish him well," Romney said at a campaign call center near Pittsburgh that was crowded with volunteers. He added that Obama is a "good father," but said it's just time for a change at the White House.
As he flew home to Massachusetts to await the results, Romney said, "We fought to the very end, and I think that's why we'll be successful," adding that he had finished writing a speech anticipating victory.
Asked earlier in the day on WTAM radio in Cleveland whether he agreed that voters always get it right, Romney said: "I won't guarantee that they'll get it right, but I think they will," Romney replied.
Election Day came early for more than a third of Americans, who cast ballots days or even weeks in advance. An estimated 46 million ballots, or 35 percent of the 133 million expected to be cast, were projected to be early ballots, according to Michael McDonald, an early voting expert at George Mason University who tallies voting statistics for the United States Elections Project. None of those ballots were being counted until Tuesday.
Both sides cast the Election Day choice as one with far-reaching repercussions for a nation still recovering from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and at odds over how big a role government should play in solving the country's problems.
"We can make sure that we make even greater progress going forward in putting folks back to work and making sure that they've got decent take-home pay, making sure that they have the health insurance that they need, making sure we're protecting Medicare and Social Security," Obama said in an interview broadcast Tuesday on "The Steve Harvey Morning Show." "All those issues are on the ballot, and so I'm hoping that everybody takes this seriously."
Romney argued that Obama had his chance to help Americans financially and blew it.
"If it comes down to economics and jobs, this is an election I should win," Romney told Cleveland station WTAM.
With both sides keeping up the onslaught of political ads in battleground states right into Election Day, on one thing, at least, there was broad agreement: "I am ready for it to be over," said nurse Jennifer Walker in Columbus, Ohio.
(With The Associated Press and The Washington Post)
Where to vote:
Polling sites can be found via the Board of Elections' home page at vote.nyc.ny.us. Voters can plug in their home address and get the most up-to-date information on their polling site.
They can also call 866-868-3692 or download the BOE's app for iOS, Android and BlackBerry devices to get information on where to vote and how to work the digital voting machines.