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It's all over but the voting

After seven weeks of debates, promises, accusations and apologies, the spotlight now turns to Massachusetts' voters. They will make history today -- either by electing the state's first black chief executive or the first woman. Pundits say most signs favor the Democrat: Deval Patrick, surging from a sweeping victory in the Sept. 19 primary, never relinquished a double-digit lead in most polls. Republicans, however, have fought hard to keep their 16-year hold on the corner office and say the race is much closer than the polls indicate. Here are some key factors that will determine who takes the oath as the state's 71st governor on Jan. 4.

Turnout: The September contest drew the most voters in a primary since 1990, a surge that political watchers say is the sign of an energized electorate. Early voters will be encouraged by a forecast calling for sunshine and above-average temperatures in the upper 50s. By mid-afternoon, scattered showers are predicted across the state, but nothing significant enough to dampen democracy. MassVOTE, a civic advocacy group, has estimated nearly 2.4 million citizens will cast ballots today, or almost 60 percent of registered voters, which would be roughly 200,000 higher than the turnout in the last gubernatorial election.

Pundits say a high turnout could be good for Healey, the perceived underdog, who needs to attract unenrolled voters who may not be as committed to going to the polls. For the lieutenant governor to pull an upset, she would need a high turnout in Republican strongholds in Plymouth County, Merrimack Valley, parts of Cape Cod and the belt of independent voters that ring Boston near Interstate 495 -- the same voters who helped Governor Mitt Romney win in 2002. “Anything can happen,” said Dominick Ianno, Republican strategist, who downplayed the lopsided polls. “Things can change.”

While high turnout in big cities such as Boston and Worcester and liberal enclaves such as Brookline would be a boon for Patrick, analysts say his base is much broader. The former federal civil rights prosecutor won 321 of 351 towns in the primary. This widespread support makes a Healey victory difficult, but not impossible, said Gregory Payne, a communications professor at Emerson College, evoking the great upset in the 1948 presidential campaign. "It would be the modern day Truman-Dewey scenario," said Payne of a Healey win. "But stranger things have happened."

The Apparatus: Patrick's camp boasts of a grassroots campaign with 34 regional field offices spread across the state. Thousands of volunteers have been going door-to-door and making tens of thousands of calls at phone banks. Unions have bolstered the ranks, leafleting neighborhoods and coordinating their own get-out-the-vote efforts for the Democrat.

Healey has her own cadre of volunteers, but the GOP campaign admittedly can't match the Democrat's numbers. Instead, Republicans have used a computer-based method called “micro-targeting” to hone in on the homes of individual voters whose backgrounds, voting records, and consumer habits may make them potential supporters. The data has allowed the Healey camp to ignore households the Republican could never win. But critics say the technology can also cause canvassers to miss some critical undecided voters.

No donkeys or elephants: The Republican-leaning Christy Mihos financed his independent campaign with more than $3 million of his own money and took aim at Healey. His support, however, has never climbed above single digits in polls and most don't believe his presence on the ballot will tip the race. "Mihos had a chance to be a spoiler, but he fell so far behind and Patrick's margin over Healey is just too large," said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. Polls showing Healey trailing could prompt some Republican-leaning voters to throw their support to Mihos, Berry said.

Whither the Grand Old Party: Though the Democrats have long dominated the Legislature, the governor's office has given the party a bully pulpit to voice opposition on Beacon Hill. If the corner office falls into Democratic hands as expected, some Republicans are wondering how they party will remain a force in the state. In the last session, Republicans held just 27 out of 200 in the House and Senate, which ties an all-time low for the party dating to at least 1867, according to state library records available online.

“We always had somebody that could be the titular head and be the spokesman and get some things done for the party,” said outgoing Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees of East Longmeadow, who said he remains optimistic about Healey's chances. Still, Lees acknowledged: “This could be different.” With Lees' retirement, the number could conceivably dip to 26, unless Republicans pick up seats elsewhere. The GOP has also targeted the seat being vacated by Democratic Senator Andrea Nuciforo and the Framingham seat of Democrat Representative Deborah Blumer, who recently died.

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