Looking for some shortcuts when it comes to projecting which candidate has the edge Tuesday night? Once returns start coming in, turn your focus to these seven counties—they will be small scale indicators of that state and national results:

Prince William County, VA
Virginia will be one of the first states to report results on Tuesday night, and Prince William County is the most important county there. Romney needs to win the county to win Virginia. George W. Bush and Bob McDonnell were able to win the county rather solidly. There has been an influx of immigrants in the past decade, and as a consequence it has a somewhat more Democratic lean than before. This will also be a good check to see if the Romney and Obama campaigns’ assumptions about the demographics of the electorate are correct.

Lake County, OH
This is the closest county in the most important state. Lake County is the eastern suburbs of Cleveland and the best gauge for how the entire state will vote. In 2004, Bush won the county by the same margin as he won the state. Obama ran a bit worse than his state percentages in 2008 but was able to win.  Watching Lake County is the best shortcut for projecting Ohio results on election night.

Bucks County, PA
In the critical suburban Philadelphia area, Chester County is most likely going for Romney and Montgomery and Delaware Counties will go for Obama. The swingiest of them all is Bucks County, north of Philadelphia.  Monday’s Romney rally that garnered some 30,000 supporters was held here for exactly that reason.  

In 2004, Bucks went for John Kerry by three percentage points, the exact same margin as the rest of the state. It has trended right in the past few years, as Republican Pat Toomey won the county 53 percent to 47 percent in his 2010 Senate race. Romney has to keep the margins close in suburban Philadelphia, and he has to win Bucks to do so.

Jefferson County, CO
In a heavily polarized state, the Denver suburbs hold the balance of power. Jefferson County, along with its suburban neighbors, voted for Bush in 2004 by small margins and then flipped to Obama in 2008. Romney had one of his most memorable campaign rallies at Red Rocks Amphitheater, which is in Jefferson County. Whichever candidate wins this county is going to win Colorado.

Washoe County, NV
The dynamic of Nevada politics is Democratic Clark County against Republican outstate areas, with Reno in the middle. For Romney to win Nevada, he has to win Washoe County. In 2004 and 2008, it matched the state percentages for Bush and Obama. A win here doesn’t guarantee Romney a victory in Nevada, but it is a necessary component.

Racine County, WI
Racine County is slightly more Republican than Wisconsin as a whole. Bush narrowly won it in 2004, while he barely lost the state overall.  Even so, anything more than a narrow Romney victory would augur well for him in a county that is a representative blend of urban, suburban and rural areas. It’s also worth watching due to the potential gains in Southern Wisconsin that could accrue with Paul Ryan, their congressman on the ticket. The potential for adding independents and some Democrats, who have voted for Ryan for years, to the Romney column could be decisive in a close state.

Oakland County, MI
The county that Mitt Romney grew up in is worth watching for a few reasons. First, if Romney wants to pull an upset in Michigan, he must win Oakland County. Second, it is precisely the sort of northern affluent suburb Republicans have had problems with at the presidential level for the past 20 years. Gains here would be indicative of Romney strength in other affluent suburbs in key states and a significant difference between a winning Romney coalition and the previous winning coalition that George W. Bush assembled.

Chris Palko works as an assistant media analyst at Smart Media Group, a Republican political media buying agency in Alexandria, Va. He is a graduate of American University and George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

A version of this post was also published on Smart Media Group’s blog, Smart Blog.