There are all sorts of systematic “viewing guides” for following the returns out there this morning (here, here, here and here), but frankly, if you’re paying attention to any major news network (with the possible exception of Fox) or web-site, they’ll let you know what’s happening at any given moment.
But since things could start happening fast early, there are a few major things to be aware of in order to plan your evening.
First, let’s get the exit polls out of the way.
Gone are the days when you could count on spending Election Day shirking work and obsessively trading bootlegged exit poll data. The media consortium running the exits at present has definitely increased security over the last couple of cycles, and doesn’t even distribute the data to its paying clients until 5:00 EST. So if someone gives you the “first wave exits from Ohio” this morning, either it’s bad information, or the system has unaccountably broken down. Either way, I wouldn’t spend time fretting over it; exit polls are only meaningful when a day’s worth has been banked.
Another thing to keep in mind is that for budget reasons, exit polling is only being done in 31 states (the excluded 19 are Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming). This could lead to some imprecision in national popular vote estimates, and also means media projections of competitive down-ballot races in the 19 excluded states will be slower than usual (this will affect some House races of interest, but the only close gubernatorial or Senate race in these states is the Berg/Heitkamp contest in North Dakota).
Exit polls become relevant at 5:00 PM EST, when they are released to clients (with an embargo), and the real leaks begin. Shortly after that, news networks (presumably beginning with CNN, MSNBC and Fox; the broadcast networks are not beginning coverage until 7:00) will start using exit poll data for analysis but not projections. Instantly, and particularly on Twitter, you’ll find hundreds of people trying to guess the presidential outcome from these “hints.” Those everyone will be looking for involve the racial composition of the electorate, and the two candidates’ performances among white and non-white voters. It’s generally assumed that if Obama wins 40% of the white vote, and if the white vote is no more than the 74% of the electorate it represented in 2008, he’s home free. Beyond that it gets tricky.
Polls close first at 6:00 p.m. EST in Eastern Kentucky and most of Indiana. The thing to look for in Indiana is the Senate race; although it may not be called until all the polls in the state have closed at 7:00 p.m., signs that the crazy dude Mourdock is doing well would be a good sign for Republicans.
At 7:00 EST, polls close in Virginia and the non-panhandle parts of Florida. Virginia has a history of fast counts, but it’s unclear whether Sandy-related infrastructure problems and/or voter qualification issues could slow it down. But obviously, this is the first battleground state where media “calls” are possible (assuming they wait to call Florida at least until all polls are closed at 8:00), and one of those very close Senate races is also in play (Kaine/Allen).
At 7:30 EST polls close in North Carolina and Ohio (and also West Virginia), adding two more battleground states to the mix. I wouldn’t be shocked by a relatively quick call for Romney in NC; if it’s “too close to call” for an extended period, that’s a good sign for Obama. No one expects Ohio to be called right away, but the interesting thing to remember is that counties have been instructed to report their early voting totals right off the bat, so we’ll finally find out how big the reported Democratic margin is in that category of Ohio voters (it’s been difficult up until now because Ohio does not have partisan voter registration).
At 8:00, the floodgates open with seventeen states closing polls, among them the battleground states of Florida, New Hampshire and (so some believe) Pennsylvania. There are also quite a few Senate elections that could be called shortly after 8:00, with the ones most important to watch being Massachusetts (Warren/Brown), Connecticut (Murphy McMahon) and Missouri (McCaskill/Akin). At the presidential level, a quick call of Pennsylvania for Obama means Mitt’s road to 270 through the Keystone State has failed. If he’s also already lost Virginia and/or Florida, it’s probably over.
At 9:00 we’re well beyond early evening, thirteen more states close polls (including battlegrounds Colorado and Wisconsin), leaving polls open in just two presidential battlegrounds, Iowa and Nevada. If there’s going to be a decisive victory, it could be called in this hour.
After Iowa and Nevada close polls at 10:00, we’re into the period when a combination of very close states could drag things on into the wee hours or beyond. In terms of the Senate, three close races are in states where polls close at 10:00 (Montana and Nevada) and 11:00 (North Dakota).
That’s enough to chew on for the moment. Get your munchies and beverages lined up accordingly.