Our Super-duper, Ultrasimple Election-Watching Guide

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Waiting to vote in D.C. Photo: Getty Images

Want to stay on top of the numbers as they come in tonight? Here’s what to look for as you surf the Net and wonder whether it’s okay to like Pat Buchanan.

6 p.m.: Polls close in most of Indiana and part of Kentucky. While news organizations probably won’t call these states until they have completely finished voting, you’ll be able to tell a lot from the early returns. Indiana is traditionally deep red, but Barack Obama has targeted it for months; he resonates with its middle-western mainline Protestants, and he has more than 40 field offices throughout the state. The areas that report first don’t include Lake County, which adjoins Illinois and is home to heavily African-American Gary, so if Obama is within striking distance — say, five points — early on, he could pull an upset, and John McCain would already be in deep trouble.

Obama won’t win Kentucky, but if he beats his poll numbers there, it’s a sign he will also do well in neighboring southern Ohio. The precincts reporting first are in the relatively Democratic eastern part of the state, near Louisville; if Obama is within single digits of McCain in the early returns, he’ll probably be down by less than fifteen points overall, and that’s excellent news for the Dems.

Local race to watch: If Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell, a chief architect of what used to be the Republican money machine, goes down, the Democrats will be within reach of a filibuster-proof 60 Senate seats.

7 p.m.: Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia, as well as the rest of Indiana and Kentucky, part of Florida and most of New Hampshire; 58 total electoral votes so far. Virginia’s the big one: If Obama carries it, he can put together 270 electoral votes even without larger swing states such as Ohio or Florida. If McCain prevails, it will be a sign he’s seriously outperforming his poll numbers and could hold on to the states George W. Bush carried in 2004. Meanwhile, Georgia is an extreme test case for Obama; if black turnout swamps all expectations, he could eke out a huge win in the Deep South.

Local race to watch: In South Carolina’s First Congressional District, Democrat Linda Ketner could become just the second openly lesbian member of Congress.

7:30 p.m.: Ohio, North Carolina, and West Virginia; 98 total electoral votes so far. This shows the state of the race: If Obama pulls out North Carolina, he will be on his way to rewriting the electoral map. If McCain loses Ohio (and especially if he also loses Virginia), it will be nearly impossible for him to win the election. Both will be close, so it could take hours to get definitive results.

Local race to watch: Good riddance to Senator Elizabeth Dole, on her way to losing after running the single worst ad by any candidate in 2008; Dole used a vocal impersonator to pretend her opponent, State Senator Kay Hagan, had spoken the words, “There is no God.”

8 p.m.: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, as well as the rest of Florida and New Hampshire and most of Michigan; 269 total electoral votes so far. Give McCain this much: By camping out in Pennsylvania over the last week of the campaign, he created genuine suspense and threw dread into the hearts of easily spooked Democrats. If McCain’s Pennsylvania gambit does pay off, every remaining state will become critical, for he will still have to win all the battlegrounds to edge over 270 electoral votes.

Missouri is a bellwether state, similar to the nation as a whole but a couple of points more Republican. Unfortunately, it’s a lagging indicator because St. Louis is a notoriously late-reporting city; it was about 3 a.m. before Obama emerged as the winner of the Democratic primary back in February. If Obama is close early tonight, it’s great news for the Dems.

Local race to watch: Connecticut representative Chris Shays, the last Republican member of Congress from New England, has been walking a political tightrope for years; he may not survive this time.

More local races to watch: In Pennsylvania, Representatives Jack Murtha and Paul Kanjorski, powerful pork-barrel Democrats, each with a penchant for saying stupid things, could both lose. Maybe all the time McCain spent there won’t have been in vain.

On the ballot: Proposition 2 in Massachusetts would decriminalize marijuana — which could become pretty important if your side loses tonight.

Bar bet: Will McCain break single digits in D.C.?

8:30 p.m.: Arkansas; 275 total electoral votes so far. Time to raise a glass to Hillary Clinton; Arkansas is one of only three or four states where she probably would have done better than Obama.

9 p.m.: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, as well as the rest of Michigan; 431 total electoral votes so far. Obama is counting on New Mexico and Colorado, and if things are going well for him, getting them will put him over 200 electoral votes and essentially clinch the election, since he is sure to pick up another 77 in far western states. If instead McCain is pulling a big-time upset with wins in Ohio, Florida, Missouri, and either Pennsylvania or Virginia, he will also need Colorado to keep his inside straight going. For what it’s worth, Colorado Democrats are likely to pick up a Senate and a House seat.

Local race to watch: Call your friends on Long Island and ask them to put on News 12 and keep track of the State Senate contest between Paleozoic incumbent Republican Caesar Trunzo, a true throwback to the old Suffolk and Nassau County GOP machines, and Democrat Brian Foley, whose father lost a race to Trunzo decades ago. Whatever happens upstate, if the Republicans lose even this one suburban seat, the Senate will switch hands.

More local races to watch: Minnesota has the craziest Senate race in the country, with incumbent Republican Norm Coleman struggling against Al Franken. It’s also home to wacko Representative Michelle Bachmann, in trouble after the Hardball appearance where she called for a “penetrating exposé” to find out which members of Congress are “anti-America.”

On the ballot: Two years after South Dakota residents defeated a proposal to outlaw all abortions, Measure 11 would ban abortion with only narrow exceptions — which could trigger a challenge to Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court.

10 p.m.: Iowa, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, and Utah; 451 total electoral votes so far. If it’s an Obama wave, Montana and even North Dakota could go Democratic. If it’s a close election, the entire result could hinge on Nevada. (Go to 270towin.com, fool around with likely results, and see for yourself.) And that would probably be bad news for McCain, who may love Vegas but who has been badly outplayed in the field. Republican governor Jim Gibbons is probably the most disastrous state-level executive in the country, while, as Chuck Todd puts it, “the Obama campaign has organized the heck out of this state.”

11 p.m.: California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington; 535 total electoral votes so far. No surprises here. A chance for all the commentators to fill in their maps while nail-biters are resolved in other states.

On the ballot: Proposition 8 in California, the focus of titanic political and legal battles, would eliminate the right of same-sex couples to get married in that state. Polls show a tight race, but the ballot contest has made one thing clear: Bill Clinton, who recorded a message urging a “No” vote, must believe Obama has the presidential election in the bag. The man who signed the Defense of Marriage Act never would have engaged this controversial issue if he thought Hillary still had a shot in 2012.

Bar bet: If you get an over-under of three on the number of incumbent Republican congressmen who will be wiped out by Obama’s coattails in California, take the over.

Midnight: Alaska; 538 total electoral votes. Finally, a state where Sarah Palin will help McCain.

Local races to watch: Say good-bye to Republicans senator Ted Stevens and representative Don Young, as corrupt a congressional duo as any state has produced in this, or the last, millennium.