As real election results finally supplant polls and predictions tonight, what will all the numbers mean? How soon is the election likely to be called? Here's what to watch for, hour by hour, coast to coast, in the second quadrennial edition of our super-duper, ultrasimple Election Watching Guide.
6 p.m. Eastern: Polls close in parts of Kentucky and most of Indiana. Mitt Romney will carry both states easily. After opening more than 40 field offices across Indiana in 2008, Barack Obama's campaign gave up on the state this time around, and in Kentucky, 42 percent of Democrats voted for "Uncommitted" against Obama in last spring's presidential primary. But even the earliest votes here will hint at the night to come. The regions of Indiana that report first don't include heavily African-American Gary in the northwestern part of the state, so they are a good barometer of where Obama stands with Midwestern Protestants. If Obama is down by fewer than fifften points in the early returns, that's a sign he's likely to lose the state by single digits — and more important, that he's doing well enough among white voters to project a narrow national lead.
On the other hand, the eastern areas of Kentucky that close first include Lexington, headquarters to several coal companies, and coal-mining towns in Appalachia. If Romney posts blowout numbers here, it could be a sign he's going to get traction in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Virginia from attacking Obama for the decline of the coal industry.
Hot Senate Race: After knocking off venerable Senator Richard Lugar in a primary, Richard Mourdock seems to be on the verge of fumbling away an important seat to the Democrats. Though to be fair to Mourdock, his comments on rape were only the second-most offensive by a Republican Senate candidate this cycle.
7 p.m.: Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia, plus the rest of Indiana and Kentucky and most of Florida (60 electoral votes so far). "Why do people believe Florida and Virginia are sure things for Mitt Romney?" Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post asked last week. Well, a lot of people believe it because the Romney campaign keeps saying it. And they keep saying it because of this underappreciated fact: Romney needs Virginia just about as much as he needs Ohio. If Romney loses Virginia, he'll still need to flip another state from Obama's 2008 column, even if he carries Ohio (or Pennsylvania). If Obama wins Virginia, he can afford to drop a Western or Midwestern state, or even two. And Virginia isn't your father's capital of the Confederacy anymore. Upper-middle-income families, federal workers, and Latino immigrants are filling its northern suburbs — and entering Election Day, Obama holds a tiny edge in the polls.
Hot Senate Race: As Obama has ticked upward in just the past few days, former Governor Tim Kaine has opened a small lead over former Senator George "Macaca" Allen in Virginia — a contest that's deeply dreary but pivotal for control of the Senate.
Say Good-bye: Georgia Representative John Barrow is the last white Democrat representing a congressional district in the Deep South. Not for long.
7:30 p.m.: North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia (98 EV so far). As you may have heard, Ohio is the big prize; Nate Silver says there's a 50 percent chance Ohio will cast the decisive Electoral College vote. And since November 1, there have been fifteen polls of the state: Obama has led in thirteen, with two ties, and hit 50 percent in seven. But while the president seems to be holding up well in a state he won by fewer than five points four years ago, the Republicans' get-out-the-vote efforts will be better than in 2008 and the Democrats' will be worse. For a bellwether, keep an eye out for results from Franklin County, home to Columbus, which sits between Democratic Cleveland to the North and Republican Cincinnati to the South. And watch out for announcements from Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, who has not been shy about trying to suppress votes, and whose shenanigans could drag ballot-counting out long past tonight.
Pol to Watch: Remember when Paul Wellstone and Howard Dean talked about "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party"? Whether Obama wins or loses, someone's going to make a national name for himself leading left-liberals against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries. If Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown wins reelection tonight as expected, he's got a very good chance to be that guy.
8 p.m.: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, plus the rest of Florida, most of Michigan and Texas, and part of South Dakota (270 EV so far). Yes, Romney has made big ad buys and drawn large crowds in Pennsylvania over the past week — just like John McCain made a sortie into the Keystone State in the final days of the 2008 race, though nobody remembers that now. With the pool of undecideds shriveling and battleground states so saturated with commercials that campaigns almost literally can't purchase any more ad time, it's very tempting to try to drum up some excitement among voters nobody has bombarded yet. And Romney really is better suited than most recent Republican nominees to appeal to affluent suburbanites outside Philadelphia. But he's started to focus on them very late in the game — unlike Bill Clinton in 1996 or George W. Bush in 2000, who won by aiming their entire campaigns at the suburbs. If Romney pulls off Pennsylvania, it's almost certainly evidence that the polls were wrong in the first place, and that he's headed for more than 300 electoral votes.
In Florida, give Romney this much: Putting Paul Ryan on the ticket didn't kill him there, as Democrats gleefully anticipated last summer. Indeed, attacking Obama on Medicare has kept Romney competitive in a state he must win, even as its demographics keep tinting bluer. But not much more than that; despite the popular perception that Florida is leaning Republican, Romney leads by an average of less than one point in polls taken since November 1. More openly than almost anywhere else, tribal turnout will decide this race — and we may not have final results until deep into the night.
As for New Hampshire, the smallest swing state, here's how it could matter: If Obama does well in the Southwest and Upper Midwest but Romney manages to pick off an industrial state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, both candidates will have from 266 to 268 electoral votes. Then everything would hinge on the Granite State — as it did in 2000.
Hot Senate Race No. 1: Republican Scott Brown was always going to have trouble running for a full term in Massachusetts during a presidential election year. But he's made things harder on himself by letting Elizabeth Warren play the role of outraged granny to the hilt; he started sliding in the polls as soon as he turned nasty.
Hot Senate Race No. 2: It briefly seemed like Linda McMahon might, uh, pin Chris Murphy in Connecticut. But if you're a Republican and you're putting up this poster just before Election Day, things aren't going too well.
Hot Senate Race No. 3: It's not all bad news for Missouri Representative Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin; once he's done handing Democrats a Senate seat they never should have retained, he'll have more time for trespassing at abortion clinics.
On the Ballot: Initiatives in Maine, Maryland and Washington would legalize gay marriage. (And a referendum in Minnesota would ban it.) If any of them pass, it would mark the first time that voters, as opposed to lawmakers or judges, have approved gay marriage.
Pol to Watch: As Democrat Jay Nixon quietly cruises to reelection as governor of Missouri, consider: He's a nationally unknown but memorably named, highly popular, moderate leader of a Midwestern state that might, under the right conditions, swerve back from red to blue. You got anyone better to be Hillary's running mate next time around?
8:30 p.m.: Arkansas (276 EV so far). Won’t get back in play until 2016 — or maybe ever.
9 p.m.: Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, plus the rest of Michigan, South Dakota, and Texas, and part of Kansas (423 EV so far). This is the crucial hour for Obama: The latest polls show him right around 50 percent with leads of about five points in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. And if those numbers hold up, he will be very hard to beat. Indeed, if Obama has already carried Ohio (or Virginia plus New Hampshire), these three states would give him the 270 electoral votes necessary to win. This is tough ground for Romney. His opposition to the auto bailout has crushed him in Michigan. Neither Paul Ryan's favorite-son status nor his Randian Catholicism has charmed a decisive bloc of Wisconsin voters. And though the Romney campaign has talked up Minnesota as a possible surprise, Obama's lead there has inched up, not down, over the past week.
Meanwhile, Colorado is very different demographically from Virginia — more Latinos, a much more pronounced split between very liberal big cities and very conservative suburbs — but will play a similar role tonight. As in Virginia, Republicans are talking as though Romney's got things wrapped up, but public polls show a very small Obama edge. And even if Romney carries Ohio (or Pennsylvania), he will still need Colorado or Virginia to go over the top.
Say Good-bye: If you thought Bob Kerrey had a rough time running the New School, check out his Senate campaign. The Nebraska he returned home to doesn't elect Democrats anymore.
Hot Senate Race: Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, one of a string of underperforming "The 1990s Are Calling" Republican candidates, is in a dead heat with Representative Tammy Baldwin, who would be the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate.
Hot Local Senate Races: By slamming into conservative areas represented by Democrats, Hurricane Sandy has thrown a monkey wrench into local GOP plans to pick up seats in the New York State Senate. So if a couple of Republican senators go down, the chamber could lurch back to the Dems, who won a majority in 2008 but threw it away almost immediately. But do you think Andrew Cuomo would prefer sharing control with the dysfunctional Democratic caucus, or with the Republicans who played so nicely with him during his first year in office? To follow the drama, Google "George Amedore," the name of the Republican running in a newly created Hudson Valley district that could tip the balance of the whole Senate. (You can also search for Cecilia Tkaczyk, the Democrat, but her name is harder to spell.)
On the Ballot: Amendment 64 in Colorado would go far beyond current medical-marijuana laws and actually legalize and tax pot. Whether it passes or not — and the last polls were too close to call — expect a lot more where this came from. Many state legislators are starting to question the costs of locking up casual, non-violent drug users, and are hungering for new revenues, too. State Measure 80 in Oregon and Initiative 502 in Washington would also legalize the possession and sale of marijuana.
Pol to Watch: Despite a campaign that has turned nasty in its final days, Arizona's Senate race features two highly engaging candidates, and whoever wins will emerge as a national star: either Republican Representative Jeff Flake, who puts a smiling face on budget-cutting, or Democrat Richard Carmona, a former Special Forces medic and U.S. Surgeon General.
10 p.m.: Iowa, Montana, Nevada, and Utah, plus the rest of Kansas and parts of Idaho and North Dakota and most of Oregon (450 EV so far). Obama has always run well in Iowa, with its capital-P Progressive political traditions, dovish tilt, and lack of racial antagonism. It's likely to break the same way as the rest of the Midwest, but he will need the state urgently if Romney picks off one of its neighbors.
Nevada has the highest unemployment rate and the third-most Mormons of any state in the country. Yet Obama is right at 50 percent, with a lead of about five points, and Republicans have given up. Seems weird — except that in a tight national race, local organization really matters, and since 2008, Nevada Republicans have collapsed amid scandal and incompetence while Democratic Senator Harry Reid was bolting down every voter the party could find to fend off a tea-party challenger.
Pol to Watch: Mia Love was born in Brooklyn to Haitian immigrants. She earned a performing arts degree in college, has worked as a flight attendant, and is now the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah. She's pro-life and pro-gun, and against federal funding for special education and school lunches. She happens to be attractive, black, and Mormon. In every way, she is a fantasy candidate for the Republican right. She's about to knock off Representative Jim Matheson, a well-known Democrat whom Republicans have targeted for years — and there's going to be lots of money behind whatever she decides to do next.
11 p.m.: California, Hawaii, and Washington, plus the rest of Idaho, North Dakota, and Oregon (535 EV so far), are all predictable, mostly blue states, where the national popular vote, wherever it lands, will finally move toward Obama. Obama needs to be over 192 electoral votes for the West Coast to put him over the top, Romney at 260.
Hot Senate Race: Former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp is battling Representative Rick Berg for an open seat. (Out here, the candidate who's a director of Dakota Gas is the Democrat.) It's one more tossup the Republicans didn't expect, and one that could decide the fate of the Senate.
On the Ballot: Californians are bombarded by ballot initiatives every election year. But this time around, a truly titanic fight has taken shape over Proposition 30, which would hike taxes on incomes of more than $250,000 for seven years and increase the state sales tax by one quarter of a percentage point for four years to avoid huge mandatory cuts to education. The measure faces complicated competition from Proposition 38, backed by liberal gazillionaire Molly Munger, which would raise income taxes more broadly to fund schools. And it's at just below 50 percent in the polls. But Governor Jerry Brown is staking the last stage of his amazing career on fixing the state budget, and he's all in on Prop 30.
Midnight: Alaska (538 total EV). It's all over but the counting.
Fun fact: In 2008, with Sarah Palin on the ticket, John McCain carried Alaska with 59.4 percent of the vote — less than George W. Bush got (61.1 percent) in 2004.