An Election Night Guide


Unless the polls are off like they haven't been since 1948, tonight should bring America's first relatively early election night in 12 years. What we might not know early: the makeup of the new Senate, the fate of California's gay marriage initiative, and whether the Libertarian Party reaches an all-time record vote total.

There are plenty of ways to watch the election as a horse race. Jonathan Martin lists the most important counties in the swing states. John Tabin points out the close races and the signals that would hint at an Obama landslide or a McCain upset. Here's a relatively brief rundown on what will close when, and what tea leaves to read, as well as a list of notable ballot measures.

Oh, for what it's worth: I expect Obama to win with 52 percent of the vote and 341-197 in the Electoral College, nabbing all the Kerry states plus (in order of victory margins) Iowa, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Florida… and Montana. That's my crazy pick, that Ron Paul and Bob Barr voters will hold McCain far enough under 50 percent for the Democrats to eke out a win. I'd bet on 57 Democratic senators at the end of the night, not including independents Bernie Sanders (VT) and Joe "What Was I Thinking?" Lieberman (Conn.), 251 Democratic House members, and a net gain of one Democratic governor as they pick up Missouri.

6PM: Poll closings: Indiana, Kentucky

Presidential horse race: Both states went solidly for Bush in 2000 and 2004, but Obama has poured resources into Indiana, and McCain spent part of Monday visiting the state to shore it up. It should be too close to call. If it goes immediately for either candidate, that candidate is likely to win.

Local races: Most of the precincts in these states are on eastern standard time, including all of the precincts in Indiana-09, a southeast district held by Democrat Baron Hill. He's being challenged by former Rep. Mike Sodrel (who was elected in 2004 on Bush's coattails) and Libertarian Eric Schansberg, a college professor who's running one of the strongest LP races in the country. The race for Indiana governor should be a blowout for Republican incumbent Mitch Daniels, whose comeback from an unpopular period after he privatized toll roads is one of the minor small government success stories of the year.

In the Kentucky U.S. Senate race, Republican Mitch McConnell is slightly favored to defeat businessman Bruce Lunsford. But if he does so, it'll be thanks to a campaign of bragging about the pork he brings home. If McConnell comes back to Washington, it'll be as a weakened figure with a shrunken majority. If you want a bellwether of how the race for the House is going, watch the fight for Indiana-03 (Fort Wayne) and Kentucky-02 (Bowling Green). Both are held by Republicans, and both were targeted by the Democrats.

7PM: Georgia, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and the rest of Indiana and Kentucky.

Horse race: South Carolina will go McCain, and Vermont will go Obama. If New Hampshire is called for him, it's a good sign. If Virginia is called, it's an excellent sign, and means that late polls showing a closer race were invalidated by an Obama turnout machine that swamped the GOP. If Georgia is called for McCain right away, it says the exact opposite.

Local races: Republican Saxby Chambliss is suddenly in a tight race for the Georgia U.S. Senate seat, thanks to his pro-bailout vote and strong challenges from the Democrats and the LP. Republican John Sununu, one of the most principled, libertarian-minded pols in Washington, has stayed close in the race for the New Hampshire U.S. Senate seat. Accidental New Hampshire-01 Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter has come back from a polling deficit in a rematch against the Republican she unseated, Jeb Bradley. It's likely that the same party will win both races.

Republican Lindsay Graham should easily retain the South Carolina U.S. Senate seat, but his opponent is interesting: Bob Conley, a former Republican who voted for Ron Paul in the primary. Democrat Mark Warner will provide the Democrats with a Virginia U.S. Senate seat in a massive landslide, an outcome in so little doubt that it could benefit Libertarian candidate Bill Redpath. How easily the Democrats take the D.C. suburbs of Virginia-11 will be more illustrative: a novice Republican spent a lot of money to hold it.

7:30PM: North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia

Horse race: Obama made a late push in West Virginia, but it should be called early for McCain. North Carolina and Ohio will take a while—if McCain quickly wins one of them, it augers poorly for Obama's machine.

Local races: The Democrats are battling for rural North Carolina-08, Columbus-area Ohio-15, and Canton-area Ohio-16. Any other seat that flips, or looks close, like the D.C. exurban West Virginia-02, means it's a good Democratic night. Watch the race for North Carolina governor to see how many votes Libertarian candidate Michael Munger pulls, and watch North Carolina-04 to see if B.J. Lawson can at least beat the Obama-McCain spread.

8:00PM: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee

Horse race: The one to watch is Pennsylvania: There's virtually no chance for a McCain victory without it. This has been a close state every year since 1988, so a "too close to call" report at 8 p.m. will only mean that Obama didn't run away with it.

Local races: The GOP and Democrats will start trading seats. Pennsylvania-11, a northeastern district that includes part of Scranton, will almost certainly flip to immigration restrictionist Republican Lou Barletta. Republican Tom Rooney will easily win the Florida-14 seat once held by Mark Foley. The fate of self-punishing Democratic Rep. John Murtha in Pennsylvania-12 is up in the air.

The races that the Democrats are trying to win are more heterodox. Southeastern Alabama-02 pits the culturally conservative Democratic mayor of Montgomery against a Republican trying to hold the seat. Democrat Jimes is trying to take wealthy, liberal Connecticut-04 from incumbent liberal Republican Chris Shays. Maryland-01, on the Chesapeake shoreline, wasn't on the map until Club for Growth-backed Republican Andy Harris beat Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in the primary. Gilchrest got revenge by backing the Democrat, who could win in an upset. In Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey and Pennsylvania Democrats are trying to peel away suburban districts that they lost in the 1990s or that used to be peopled with more liberal Republicans.

The Mississippi U.S. Senate race isn't quite a bellwhether, as incumbent Republican Roger Wicker has consistently been ahead in the polls. But if it's close we'll have a sign of high black turnout.

Down the ballot: For the second time this decade, Massachusetts voters will have a chance to abolish their income tax with Question One. Last time it came close to passage. This time a constellation of interests are aligned to block it. The state will decide whether to decriminalize possession of an ounce, and Michigan will also vote on a medical marijuana initiative. Illinois and Connecticut voters will decide whether they want a Constitutional convention.

8:30PM: Arkansas

Horse race: McCain should win easily.

Local races: None that will change party control.

Down the ballot: Initiative One would prevent gay couples from fostering or adopting children. It's expected to pass.

9:00PM: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming

Horse race: Theoretically, this is the earliest hour when the election could be called. That would be if Obama romped so convincingly in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio that they'd be called already. I doubt it'll happen, but he will get 56 electoral votes here without even trying, McCain will get 66, and the results of New Mexico, Colorado, and Nebraska-02 – the district that covers Omaha – will probably be too close to call. If Arizona can't be called, it's another nail in McCain's coffin.

Local races: The results in Arizona-01 (Flagstaff and the northeast), Colorado-04, all three New Mexico districts and the Colorado and New Mexico U.S. Senate seats will give us a sense of just how badly Republicans not named "Lou Barletta" have been screwed by Hispanic voters' move to the Democrats. (Republicans will probably win back Tom DeLay's old seat in Texas-22.) Democrat Tim Johnson had a stroke in early 2007 that scared off serious Republican opponents, so he should hold the South Dakota U.S. Senate seat, as should Democrat Mary Landrieu hold the Louisiana U.S. Senate seat. This is the hour when we'll have a sense of whether Al Franken is elected to the Minnesota U.S. Senate seat.

Down the ballot: Colorado, Arizona, and Nebraska voter all get to decide on Ward Connerly-led anti-racial preferences initiatives. All will vote for them. Arizonans will also vote on Proposition 101, a "health care freedom" initiative that supporters of public health care see as a threat. Colorado voters will also decide on a right to work law. South Dakota voters will get a chance to ban the use of public funds on lobbying.

10:00PM: Iowa, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah

Horse race: In past years, this hour gave an easy three-state gain to the GOP candidate. But of these five, only Utah is now a non-competitive state. Obama is favored in Iowa and Nevada, McCain in Montana and North Dakota, but watch for the Ron Paul votes in Montana. If the man's poll numbers hold at 5 percent, Obama could nab the state.

Local races: The Democrats are gunning for Nevada-03, a suburban Las Vegas district that's home to Wayne Allyn Root. To a lesser extent, they hope to win Iowa-04 in the center of the state and Nevada-02 in the rural area that includes Reno.

Down the ballot: North Dakota voters will get a chance to cut their income tax in half with Measure One and to lock up their oil revenue in a trust fund with Measure 2.

11:00PM: California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Washington

Horse race: Obama will pick up 77 electoral votes at this hour, so if he's only won the Kerry states plus Iowa and Virginia, for example, this will be the hour the networks call the election.

Local races: Republicans have a shot at taking the Washington governor's office for the first time in a generation in a rematch between Democratic incumbent Christine Gregoire and Republican Dino Rossi (who is trying to mitigate anger at his party by appearing on the ballot a "GOP"). Democrats are attacking Idaho-01 (the northwest of the state, Butch Otter's old district), the Seattle burbs of Washington-04, and California-04, a rural district that opened up when disgraced Rep. John Doolittle retired. Libertarian-leaning Republican Tom McClintock is making what could be his final bid for major office here, and he's been buffeted by attacks on his residency on the other side of the state.

Down the ballot: California's the state to watch. Proposition Five would reduce marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction. Proposition Eight would rewrite the Constitution to eliminate gay marriage. A San Francisco measure would decriminalize prostitution. Washington voters will decide on I-895, a measure to build more HOV lanes and concentrate on reducing congestion.

1:00AM: Alaska

Horse race: I'm going to hazard a guess that McCain will win.

Local races: Two of the worst Republicans in Washington, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, will probably go down to defeat. But the totals for Alaska Independence Party Senate candidate Bob Bird will be worth watching.