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First Thoughts: All comes down to turnout and racial composition

All about turnout and racial composition… National NBC/WSJ poll: Late momentum appears to favor Obama… Shades of 2004?... Romney up with independents, ahead on economy… But is the undecided vote breaking in Obama’s direction?... NBC/WSJ/Marist poll of VA: Obama 48%, Romney 47% -- same as our national poll… Closing time: Obama (in WI, OH, IA) and Romney (FL, VA, OH, NH) spend their final day on the trail in the states they HAVE to win… And welcome Kate Montanaro!

*** All about turnout -- and racial composition: Our final national NBC/WSJ poll has it Obama 48%, Romney 47% among likely voters. If anything is likely to decide this very close presidential contest, it probably comes down to turnout (duh!), as well as the racial composition of the electorate. Since the campaign began, Team Obama has assumed that whites would make up 72% of voters, down from 74% in 2008. (The logic: This percentage has decreased in every U.S. election, and the minority population continues to grow.) On the other hand, Republicans counter that due to greater GOP enthusiasm, the white percentage could very well stay the same as in 2008 -- or even be a tick higher. And according to our NBC/WSJ pollsters, the final outcome here could sway the election. If you assume that both sides maximize their margins (Romney wins whites by 20 percentage points and Obama wins minority voters by 60 percentage points), whites making up 75% of the electorate would give Romney the edge with the popular vote by a fraction of a point. But if the white percentage is 74%, Obama would win the popular vote by a fraction of a point. And if it’s 73%, Obama wins by one point. Bottom line: Watch the white percentage in tomorrow night’s exit polls; it will tell you more about where Virginia or Iowa or Colorado or Wisconsin will go. 

With polls showing a neck-and-neck presidential race, NBC's Chuck Todd runs through some potential paths to presidential victory, including how it might go if President Obama won the Electoral College vote and Governor Romney won the popular vote.

*** Late momentum appears to favor Obama: The national NBC/WSJ poll provides good news for both Obama and Romney. For Obama, the past couple of weeks have been kind to the president: 41% of likely voters say that what they have read, heard, and seen over the past couple of weeks have given them a more favorable impression of Obama, compared to 40% who said it had given them a less favorable impression -- which is up from his 38%-43% score on this question two weeks ago. Part of that more favorable impression is due to his handling of Hurricane Sandy, of which 67% of likely voters approve. By comparison, 45% of voters say they have a less favorable impression of Romney from what they have read, heard and seen over the past couple of weeks, versus 40% who have a more favorable view. But two weeks ago -- fresh off his debate performances -- Romney’s score here was tied, 44% more favorable, and 44% less favorable. So if there’s been a bump, it’s been in Obama’s direction. The caveat for Team Obama: Al Gore in 2000 and Gerald Ford in 1976 had the momentum in the closing days, and they ended up losing (both were representing the incumbent party). 

Keith Srakocic / AP

*** But is this 1976 or 2004?: In other good news for Obama, his numbers in this national poll look almost identical to George W. Bush’s in the final NBC/WSJ survey before the 2004 presidential election, which Bush ended up winning 51%-48%. Obama’s approval rating among likely voters stands at 49 percent -- exactly matching Bush’s 49% approval in the final ’04 NBC/WSJ poll. What’s more, 42% say the country is headed in the right direction, versus 41% who said the same thing in late Oct. 2004. And the head-to-head score between Obama and Romney -- 48% to 47% -- is identical to what it was in the final NBC/WSJ poll before the 2004 election: Bush 48%, Democrat John Kerry 47%. 

*** Romney up with independents, on economy: The good news for Romney in this national poll is that 53% of likely voters are comfortable with the idea of him as president, which ties Obama’s percentage on this question (although 39% are “very comfortable” with Obama versus 26% who are “very comfortable” with Romney). Also, Romney is ahead of Obama among independents, 47% to 40%. And the former Massachusetts governor leads Obama by five points on which candidate is better prepared to create jobs and grow the economy, 47%-42%. However, a majority of voters -- 52% -- say the economy is recovering. 

*** Undecided vote breaking in Obama’s direction? Here’s one last point we want to make about our national poll: The survey found that 9% of the likely voters are up for grabs (meaning they’re undecided or just leaning to a candidate), and these folks have more positive feelings toward Obama than Romney. Obama’s job approval with them is 48% approve, 41% disapprove. What’s more, Obama’s fav/unfav with them is 46%/29%, vs. Romney’s upside down 22%-49%. Bottom line: Our pollsters see more of an opportunity for Obama among these voters and more of an uphill climb for Romney. 

*** Breaking down the NBC/WSJ/Marist Virginia poll: Meanwhile, our final NBC/WSJ/Marist state poll before the election shows the race extremely close in Virginia, which makes sense since Virginia most closely mirrored the national popular vote in 2008. Our Virginia numbers are identical to our national numbers, where Obama gets support from 48% of likely voters and Romney gets 47%. The other findings pretty much mirror what our other state polls have shown: Obama’s approval rating (48%) matches his ballot percentage (48%); Romney has a slight lead on which candidate would better handle the economy; and a whopping 71% approve of Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy. But the Virginia survey has a narrower gender gap than elsewhere – Obama wins women by six points, 51%-45%, and Romney is up by five with men, 50%-45%. And in the Senate contest, Tim Kaine (D) leads George Allen (R) by three points among likely voters, 49%-46%. 

*** Closing time: One striking thing about today is that both Obama and Romney are in states they HAVE to win rather than WANT to win. Obama is in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa -- the firewall states. And Romney hits Florida, Virginia, Ohio, and New Hampshire. Yesterday was about luxury (Obama in Florida, Romney in Pennsylvania); today is about necessity. By the way, as NBC’s Justin Kirschner observes, both Obama and Romney will conclude their 2012 campaigns where it all began for them. For Obama, his final rally is in Iowa the state that launched his 2012 presidential bid. And for Romney, his last rally will be in New Hampshire, where he launched his 2012 campaign and where he owns a home. 

*** Final ad-spending numbers in the battleground states by all the campaigns and outside groups: OH: $189 million; FL: $185 million; VA: $146 million; CO: $79 million; IA: $72 million; NC: $69 million; NV: $56 million; WI: $40 million; NH: $40 million; PA: $22 million. 

*** On the trail: The final day of campaigning: Obama campaigns in Madison, WI at 11:45 am ET (with Bruce Springsteen), in Columbus, OH at 2:25 pm ET (with Springsteen and Jay-Z), and in Des Moines, IA at 10:30 pm ET (with Springsteen and wife Michelle)…. Romney holds rallies in Sanford, FL at 9:00 am ET, Lynchburg, VA at 12:35 pm ET, Fairfax, VA at 2:45 pm ET, Columbus, OH at 6:25 pm, and Manchester, NH at 11:00 pm ET (with wife Ann)… Biden stumps in Virginia… Ryan hits Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, and Wisconsin… And Michelle Obama makes stops in North Carolina and Florida. 

*** And welcome Kate Montanaro! Congratulations to Domenico and Beth Montanaro on the birth of their baby daughter, Katherine Elizabeth Montanaro. Kate was born yesterday on Nov 4 -- two days from Election Day! -- and she checked in at 7 pounds, 2 ounces and 19.25 inches. Mom, dad, Jack, and Kate are all doing well. 

Countdown to Election Day: 1 day

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