In 2000 and 2004, the outcome of the presidential race was unknown into the wee hours of the morning (and indeed for several weeks thereafter in 2000). This time, it is possible that we will be able to guess the winner of the presidential race relatively early in the evening. Regardless, there will be plenty to watch Tuesday night, particularly for those who can appreciate a good slugfest in the Senate. And lest we count John McCain out, we need only remember the polling disasters that befell states like New Hampshire in this year's primaries. Here, then, is what I will be watching each hour on election night.
6 PM EST. Polls close in portions of Indiana and Kentucky.
Traditionally, these are the first states to get called by the networks, spotting the Republicans a quick 19 points in the Electoral College. This year, however, is liable to be a little bit different. Indiana is far more competitive than usual, and is probably the state with the greatest disparity in ground games: the Obama campaign has 42 field offices open there, whereas McCain neglected the state entirely until recently.
The responsible thing to do would be for the networks to hold off until at least 7 PM to project Indiana, when polls have closed in Gary and the northwestern part of the state just across the border from Chicago—where Obama hopes to rack up huge margins among black and working-class voters. If for some reason the state is called before 7 PM for John McCain, that probably means we're in for a long night. If, on the other hand, the state is called for Obama in the first hour after the polls close, that could indicate that the force of Obama's field operation has been underestimated, and that McCain is in for a catastrophically poor evening. (Speaking of which, Indiana's equivalent on the Senate side of things might in fact be Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell remains the favorite but where he could be vulnerable in the event of an anti-incumbent wave.)
7 PM EST. Polls close in Virginia and Georgia, as well as most of Florida and most of New Hampshire.
Virginia, for my money, is the most important state in this election. If John McCain loses it, his path to victory is exceptionally narrow—he would need to pull out an upset in Pennsylvania, while holding on to Florida and Ohio, and avoiding a sweep out West. Barack Obama has considerably more ways to win without Virginia, but a failure to close out the state would suggest at best a more circuitous route to victory. As Obama remains about five points ahead in most polls of Virginia, what we're really looking for is a quick call on anything before 8 PM that would indicate that the map has indeed changed from 2004, and not in McCain's favor.
Georgia and New Hampshire are a bit less essential electorally, but they may tell us the most about whether the polls are off in this election. If there's one state where Obama is likely to overperform his polls, it's in Georgia, where 35 percent of early voters are African-American, and where almost 30 percent of them did not vote in 2004. These are the sorts of voters that may erroneously be screened out by "likely voter" models that rely on past voting history. Obama could not only carry the state, but he might help boost Jim Martin to victory in the U.S. Senate race there—giving the Democrats a plausible path to a 60-seat caucus.
On the other hand, if there is any state where the polls might overestimate Obama's numbers, it's in New Hampshire, where nearly the entirely electorate is white and where Obama was famously upset by Hillary Clinton during the primaries. If McCain holds Obama to within about five points in New Hampshire—closer than any current polls—we may need to be worried about some sort of Bradley Effect.
7:30 PM EST. Polls close in Ohio and North Carolina.
The dynamic to look for in these states involves early voting: more than twice as many people have voted early in North Carolina as did in 2004, and nearly three times as many in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio. Recent polling indicates that Obama may have a lead of 20-30 points among early voters in Ohio and a 10-20 point lead in North Carolina. If Republican turnout is at all depressed on Election Day—because of anything from bad weather to low morale—that may be too large a deficit for McCain to make up.
8 PM EST. Polls close in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Missouri.
Use caution when interpreting the results from these three states; Missouri in particular is notorious for nearly having been called prematurely both in the 2006 senate race and in this year's Democratic primary. In each state, Barack Obama will rack up huge vote totals in the cities (Philadelphia, Detroit and St. Louis respectively) while trying to hold his own in the rest of the state. If the city numbers come in first, Obama's margins will be exaggerated. If the rural numbers come in first, Obama's prospects will be much better than they appear.
But Pennsylvania in particular is the one to watch. If Barack Obama holds onto Pennsylvania—the only state where John McCain seems to have been closing the gap over the last week of the campaign—then winning virtually any red state (Virginia, Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Missouri) would probably clinch the election for him.
9 PM EST. Polls close in Colorado, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Wisconsin and Minnesota should be called fairly quickly for Obama; if they aren't, that's a sign that something has gone truly wrong for the Democratic ticket. New Mexico looks like a safe Obama-state too, but since its vote-counting is notoriously slow, it may take longer to call. The key number to watch in Minnesota should be the difference between Obama's margin of victory and Al Franken's tally in his Senate race against Norm Coleman. If Franken is staying within 5-7 points of Obama as the vote begins to roll in—say, for example, Franken leads by 2 while Obama leads by 7—then Obama's coattails should carry Franken into the Senate. If not, the race may be Norm Coleman's to lose.
Colorado, meanwhile, is the last of what I'd characterize as this year's "Big Three" states (the others are Pennsylvania and Virginia). If Pennsylvania and Virginia have split their votes (and Obama hasn't picked up Ohio or Florida), then Obama probably wins if he wins Colorado, and loses if he doesn't.
10 PM EST. Polls close in Nevada, Iowa, Montana and New York.
This is the earliest point at which the race might be officially called for Barack Obama—there just aren't enough electoral votes out there, even if he's swept every swing state, to get him to 270 until New York's 31 come in. But assuming that we don't know the outcome of the election by this time, Nevada, where Obama has expanded his lead and where much of the state has already voted, could be Obama's ace in the hole—possibly offsetting a loss in Pennsylvania if paired with other pickups like Colorado and Virginia. The key area to watch in Nevada is Washoe County (Reno), which John Kerry lost by 4 points in 2004 but where the Obama campaign has registered thousands of new voters. If Obama wins Washoe, that means the state—and probably the country—is his.
11 PM EST. Polls close in California, Oregon and Washington.
None of these states are in play in the presidential contest this year. The status of the race, however, could have a potential impact on California's Proposition 8, which seeks to strike down same-sex marriage. If Obama appears as though he's headed toward a landslide victory, crestfallen conservatives might not bother heading for the polls to vote for Prop 8.
Finally, even if the presidential race has been called by that point, Democrats looking for a little schadenfreude may want to stay up late until the midnight poll close in Alaska, where Ted Stevens is almost certain to be bounced from his Senate seat by Democratic challenger Mark Begich. Should the Democrats pull out an upset in Georgia or Kentucky, it may be Stevens' seat that gets them over the top to a 60-man majority.