What to Look For Tonight

November 4, 2008 12:31 p.m.

I didn’t title this post ‘what to expect’ because I’m too temperamentally cautious, even in the privacy of my own thoughts, to get into predictions. But I wanted to give people a sense of what key moments and events to watch to know where we’re heading as we move into the evening and toward the final result. Think of this as an arm chair guide to watching the election results stating at 6 PM Eastern this evening.

The key dynamic in the presidential contest is that John McCain is on the defensive everywhere. He has a path to victory. But it requires him to win virtually every state that is currently a toss up or in which he is only narrowly behind. Indeed, it requires him to win at least a couple states in which he’s significantly behind. So as we watch the results come in across the country, you can watch for a series of about half a dozen states. And if Obama wins any of those, the race is probably his.

So, first, when do the polls close. If you click here, we’ve created an interactive map with the poll closing times across the country. This is a match for watching returns, not knowing when polls close in your area. So all the times are in Eastern time.

First, the short version, if you don’t want all the details. The first key is Virginia at 7 PM. If Obama takes Virginia, where he’s ahead, he’ll almost certainly take Pennsylvania (at 8 PM) too. And that will pretty much be it for McCain. Between 6PM and 8 PM there are five other states: Indiana, Florida, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina. These are all basically toss-ups with a few slight leads for Obama. If McCain is losing in any of them, he’s probably done.

Now, the longer version.

(If you want to see the final poll results in any of these states, click here.)

So let’s go hour by hour. At 6 PM Eastern, we have Indiana and Kentucky. Indiana is really tight. But McCain is narrowly ahead. If Indiana is trending toward Obama, very bad news for McCain. But figure it goes for McCain.

7 PM is when we’ll get our first real information. Four key states start reporting: New Hampshire, Virginia, Georgia and Florida. The key state to watch here is Virginia. That’s been Obama’s biggest red state beachhead, at least on the east coast. It’s closed at least somewhat over the last week or so. But it’s mainly been McCain regaining some of the people he lost during the heat of the financial crisis. Obama seems to have consolidated his lead at around 51%. If Obama can win Virginia, it’s very bleak for McCain. It’s not the end of the world for Obama if McCain wins Virginia, but it does give McCain some hope. Of course, bad news for McCain out of Georgia or Florida would basically mean it was over too. Georgia still seems likely for McCain though, if close. And I doubt we’ll know what’s happening in Florida until later since that’s really close. So for the early sign, watch Virginia. That could be the early call that predicts the rest of the night.

At 7:30 PM, Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia start reporting. West Virginia almost certainly goes for McCain. Ohio and North Carolina are two more states that McCain has to win. Obama could lose both and still win the election. If McCain loses either, it’s pretty much over — much like Florida or Georgia.

Next up, 8 PM. This is when the real mother-lode of states come in — particularly Pennsylvania and Missouri. Pennsylvania is in many ways the key state in the evening. Almost all of McCain’s paths to victory require him to poach Pennsylvania out of the blue column. But even though he’s closed the gap a bit, Obama’s still about eight points up. And the closing — like in Virginia — is McCain getting back numbers he lost during the financial crisis. Obama has consolidated his lead at a bit over 51%. If Obama holds PA, which seems likely, it’s bleak for McCain. Missouri is dead even — another state McCain has to hold but Obama can afford to lose.

8:30 PM, Arkansas. McCain.

9:00 PM. A number of states report, but only three really seem in play. New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. New Mexico seems very strong for Obama. Colorado, too, but a bit closer. Assume both of those go for Obama. But not a certainty in Colorado. Arizona is actually a toss-up with a thin McCain lead. If Obama’s making a fight of it there it’ll only be the final indignity of a long night for McCain.

10 PM. Nevada, another red state which seems likely to go blue. But it’s not for sure. If McCain’s had a much better night than people expect in the East and Midwest, Nevada could become critical. After ten, it’s mainly states that are sure for one either Obama or McCain.

That’s my basic read. You’ll probably see other things I don’t. If you disagree on a key point, let me know and I’ll revise the post as appropriate.

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