With Republican Mitt Romney and President Obama locked in a statistical tie just days before Election Day, here's a look at ten factors that could determine whether Obama or Romney emerges victorious on Nov. 6.
1 FlOhiVa: Three states are key for Romney: Florida, Ohio and Virginia. If he wins all three, there is a clear path to victory. If he loses Florida, that path becomes much more challenging. If he fails in either Ohio or Virginia, he can lose no more than one of the following states: Nevada, Colorado, Iowa and New Hampshire.
2 Enthusiasm: The election will be decided by who shows up at the polls and who doesn't. Young voters are overwhelmingly for Obama but are less enthusiastic than four years ago. Obama has a lead of about 50 percentage points among Latinos and 90 points among blacks. But a drop in their turnout could cost Obama in Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada. Likewise, Romney must generate a large turnout among anti-Obama social conservatives and libertarian-leaning supporters of Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
3 Women: Four years ago, Obama led Republican John McCain by 13 percentage points among women and 1 point among men. The latest tracking poll showed Obama ahead of Romney by an identical 13 points among women, but the challenger led by a massive 18 point margin among men. With little hope of improvement among males, the president can't afford many defections among female voters. Among women targeted by both campaigns: suburban women, independents, non-college-educated women and rural women.
4 Swing-state suburbs: This election could be decided by voters in the suburbs of Denver, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Columbus, Tampa and Orlando. All six areas are up for grabs, but polls show Romney gaining. Obama has little chance to win Virginia without an overwhelming majority in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. And Romney has no chance of carrying Pennsylvania or Michigan without scoring well in suburbs of Philadelphia and Detroit that favored Obama four years ago.
5 Independents: Romney has surged among independents since the first debate. The GOP nominee leads the president, 58 percent to 38 percent, among unaligned voters, the Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll found. "That reflects a move toward Romney among lower-income white independents and among independent men," said ABC News polling analyst Gary Langer. Timothy M. Hagle, a University of Iowa political scientist, said the Obama campaign has focused more on mobilizing his core supporters than reaching out to economically distressed independents.
6 Social-media skills: Obama had a huge advantage over John McCain in social media four years ago and used it to mobilize his supporters and maximize turnout. But Romney has closed the gap, experts said, and has developed a large group of engaged followers.
7Message discipline: With nine days to go, it's important for both candidates to avoid distractions and to stick to a message. Neither candidate wants is a day playing defense.
8Major news: It's getting late for an "October surprise," Ronald Reagan's phrase used to describe a major international news story that could shake up the election. Possible candidates: Friday's release of unemployment statistics and the East coast superstorm.
9 The third-party factor: There's no Ralph Nader this year. But in Virginia, where the race is dead-even, two third-party candidates have been registering 1 percent or more in the polls: Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, and anti-immigrant independent Virgil Goode, a former Virginia congressman. Both of them take more votes from Romney than from Obama. Other swing states where Johnson could hurt Romney: Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire.
0 A major, major gaffe: We're not talking run-of-the-mill tongue twister. We're talking the kind of gaffe that could prove deadly is something like Texas Gov. Bill Clements' ill-timed reaction when the Texas unemployment rate ticked upward the Friday before his 1982 re-election race and he declared that "good economic news" had greeted Texas.