An Observer’s Guide to Election Night

Congressional Elections, Politics, Presidential Elections, US Elections, US Politics

Finally, the election campaign is nearing its demise, and its death throes will be televised! But what to watch? And more importantly, how to watch? The presidential election will, of course, attract the most attention, but there are also 435 congressional races, 35 senate races, and 11 gubernatorial contests across the nation. These races merit attention in their own right, but they also may be early indicators of the way the presidential race will turn out, especially in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Missouri, Colorado, and Nevada. Most networks won’t focus on races below the senate level, so the internet (which, as you may have suspected, is a series of tubes) is the best place to follow the local contests. I’ll be checking in with NPR. Here then, is a convenient list of the races that you should be paying attention to as you watch the presidential results come in:

6:00 p.m. ET: Polls close in eastern Indiana and eastern Kentucky. Contrary to what some sites say, I don’t think the networks will call either Indiana or Kentucky for McCain or Obama until the polls close in the parts of these states that are in the central time zone. The networks have gotten into trouble for that before, with complaints that calling the presidential race before all of the polls close depresses turnout in the parts of the state where voting is still ongoing and where there might be other state or local races. That’s a concern in twelve states that have different poll-closing times. Nevertheless, watch for results from IN-3, where GOP incumbent Mike Souder faces a tough reelection fight. If he loses, there’s a good chance that Indiana will go blue.

7:00 p.m. ET: Polls close in Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and the western parts of Indiana and Kentucky and in most of Florida. The networks will start calling states in the presidential election about three seconds after the polls in South Carolina and Kentucky (for McCain) and in Vermont (for Obama). Unless the exit polling shows some clear trend, don’t expect Georgia or Virginia to be called right away. If Virginia goes for Obama, he wins the election. If Indiana goes for Obama, we’re looking at a landslide. If either or both go for McCain, there’s no need to panic. Other races:

  • The race for Virginia senate should be called early for Democrat Mark Warner. No surprise there;
  • Despite a valiant, not to mention expensive, effort by challenger Bruce Lunsford, the Kentucky senate race will probably be called early for senate minority leader Mitch McConnell;
  • The Georgia senate race should be close. The important number to look for here is 50 percent. If neither incumbent Saxby Chambliss nor Democratic challenger Jim Martin receives a majority of the votes cast on Nov. 4, then they’ll go to a runoff election on Dec. 2. It’ll be a long night in Georgia;
  • As returns start coming in from northwestern Indiana, expect the vote totals to tighten in the gubernatorial contest, where Reagan protégé and Iraq War apologist Mitch Daniels is pitted against Democrat Jill Long Thompson. The Democrats are going all out to turn the Hoosier State blue, and much will ride on Obama’s GOTV efforts;
  • VA-11: Expect a Democratic pick-up here as Gerry Connolly takes over from retiring Tom Davis;
  • FL-24: Discredited pal of Jack Abramoff, congressman Tom Feeney, is fighting for his political life against Suzanne Kosmas. Another potential Democratic pick-up;
  • FL-13: Let’s hope they’ve fixed all of the voting machine problems that plagued this district in 2006 and which very likely cost Christine Jennings an upset victory over Vern Buchanan. It’s a rematch now, and this time it’s personal;
  • FL-21 and FL-25: The Diaz-Balart brothers, who are the world’s last representatives of Cuba’s Batista regime, are finally facing some serious challenges from the Democrats. If they lose, then Florida goes for Obama and the nation’s foreign policy can finally shake off its thrall to these South Florida neo-Bourbon revanchists;
  • FL-16: Expect voters in this district to send first-term Democratic incumbent Tim Mahoney back home so that he can focus all of his attentions on his messy personal life. This will be one of the few Republican congressional pick-ups of the election. Savor the moment.

7:30 p.m. ET: Polls close in Ohio and West Virginia. If this year is anything like 2004, Ohio will provide nail-biting drama well into the night. It should be close again this year, but the networks will likely call Ohio before you go to bed. West Virginia, on the other hand, will probably go to McCain. Other races of note:

  • OH-1: Long-time Republican incumbent Steve Chabot faces another tight race. If challenger Tom Driehaus wins here, that means Cincinnati is going blue this year, and as Cincinnati goes, so goes Ohio;
  • OH-15: Republican Deborah Pryce’s close victory against Mary Jo Kilroy in 2006 convinced her to retire this year rather than face another tough reelection campaign. Kilroy’s back again and it’s another close one;
  • OH-16: After eighteen terms, Republican congressman Ralph Regula is retiring. This is another district to watch to see if Obama’s massive get-out-the-vote effort in the Buckeye State will pay dividends for Democratic candidates down the ticket;
  • OH-2: Oh please Jesus, Allah, Vishnu, Santa! Make Jean Schmidt lose this election!

8:00 p.m. ET: Polls close in Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Polls also close in the Florida panhandle and most of Michigan, Texas, and Kansas and the eastern halves of North and South Dakota. Lots of poll closings, but only one that’s really important for the presidential race: Pennsylvania. If Obama wins here, there’s really not much that McCain can do to pull off an upset. If, on the other hand, the networks consider Pennsylvania too close to call, expect a long night. And if they call the Keystone State for McCain, it will be time to start worrying. Missouri will probably be one of the last states that the networks call: by then, however, it won’t matter. Other races of interest:

  • New Hampshire senate: another pick-up opportunity for the Democrats. The polls have been narrowing lately: if Democrat Jeanne Shaheen doesn’t pull out ahead here, then that means McCain has a chance at taking the Granite State;
  • Joe Biden wins! Well, he’ll win his senate seat in Delaware, that’s for sure;
  • The special election for Mississippi senate between GOP incumbent Roger Wicker and Democratic challenger Ronnie Musgrove really depends on the ability of the Democrats to increase black turnout at the polls. If the networks say this is too close to call, it might bode well for Democrats across the south;
  • NH-1: Another potential Republican pick-up, as incumbent Carol Shea-Porter defends her seat for the first time. A lot will depend here on whether McCain has any coattails;
  • CT-4: Chris Shays attempts to hang on as the sole Republican congressman in New England. It’s like waiting for the last passenger pigeon to die;
  • MI-7: Ultra-conservative incumbent Tim Walberg pissed off the Republican establishment by taking this seat in 2006. Unlike last time, he faces a well-funded Democratic challenger this year in Mark Schauer;
  • MI-9: The McCain campaign abandoned Michigan in September, which left Republican congressional candidates like incumbent Joe Knollenberg to fend for themselves. Unfortunately for Knollenberg, this is not a good year for a Republican to be running in a suburban district filled with unemployed auto company executives and white-collar workers;
  • AL-2 and AL-5: Retirements in these districts have created open seats and competitive contests. There’s no other reason to pay attention to Alabama, so sit back and watch these races;
  • IL-10: Another rematch of a 2006 contest. The national Democratic organization has been pouring lots of money into this race to help Dan Seals defeat incumbent Mark Kirk — something it didn’t do in 2006. Obama coattails may prove to be the difference this time around;
  • PA-3: This is one of those guns-and-religion-clinging areas of Pennsylvania that shouldn’t be competitive, and in previous elections GOP incumbent Phil English hasn’t had much trouble here. Both national campaign committees, however, have devoted lots of cash to this race. If the Democrats do well here, they’ll probably do well in the rest of the state;
  • PA-11: Paul Kanjorski is one of perhaps four or five Democratic congressmen nationwide who has a chance of being defeated this election. This one is being fought on largely local issues, so a Republican victory here wouldn’t necessarily portend trouble for Obama in this state, but it bears watching;
  • NJ-3 and NJ-7: Despite some fleeting notions back in the summer that disaffected Clinton supporters would make the Garden State competitive this year, the polls show Obama with a comfortable lead and neither national campaign has spent any time here. GOP enthusiasm is low, and that’s a problem for the state party organization, which is trying to fill these open seats after the Republican incumbents announced their retirements;
  • TX-22: Tom DeLay’s old district, this is where the whole GOP house of cards collapsed in 2006. Freshman congressman Nick Lampson has been running away from the national Democratic Party in this district, which still leans heavily Republican. Another rare pick-up chance for the GOP;
  • KS-2: Nancy Boyda, another member of the 2006 freshman class, is facing a stiff challenge from Republican Lynn Jenkins. This is it for excitement as far as Kansas goes. Enjoy.

8:30 p.m. ET: Polls close in North Carolina and Arkansas. North Carolina will be tight. If the networks call it for Obama, then bring out the brooms because it’ll be a sweep for the Democrats. Other races:

  • The North Carolina senate race between incumbent Elizabeth “Thank God for Viagra” Dole and Kay Hagan still looks close. The networks will probably call this one at the same time that they call the state in the presidential race;
  • NC-8: Robin “Liberals Hate America” Hayes is in a very tight reelection rematch against Larry Kissell. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is helping out with advertising this year, which is a welcome change from 2006 and should level the playing field against millionaire Hayes.

9:00 p.m. ET: Polls close in New York, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming, as well as in the remaining parts of Michigan, Texas, Kansas, and the Dakotas. Keep your eyes on New Mexico and Colorado. If the presidential election is still close by this point in the evening, these two states may be the key. The polls have placed them in the Obama column for a while now: if they drift over to the McCain side, then we might be looking at a historic upset. If they go blue, then McCain better start rehearsing his concession speech. Other races to watch:

  • Colorado and New Mexico senate: The Udall cousins should easily win election to these seats being vacated by Republican incumbents. Expect the networks to call these right away;
  • It’s unlikely that the networks will be so quick to call the Minnesota senate race between GOP incumbent Norm Coleman and upstart comedian Al Franken. This race is complicated by the presence of Jesse-Venturacrat Dean Barkley and Minnesota’s infuriating unpredictability;
  • The GOP thought they might be able to pick up the Louisiana senate seat held by Mary Landrieu, who faces an uphill fight to win reelection in this conservative state. It probably didn’t help Republican chances, however, to pick a candidate named John Kennedy. Expect Landrieu to win this one;
  • NY-13: The wild ride finally ends for Staten Island’s Republicans;
  • NY-25: Republican Jim Walsh, first elected to this district in 1988, almost lost to Dan Maffei in 2006. With Maffei running again this year, Walsh decided to retire, and the GOP had a hard time finding a replacement. Maffei looks to take the seat, as upstate New York is swamped by a blue tidal wave;
  • NY-29: Erik Massa nearly beat GOP incumbent Randy Kuhl in 2006. Massa’s back for a rematch, and just as in the neighboring NY-25, expect this district to go from red to blue;
  • NE-2: This has more academic interest than anything else. The Democrats have poured resources into the Omaha area in order to grab one of Nebraska’s five electoral votes. A win here by underdog Democratic challenger Jim Esch would be good news for Obama as well;
  • MN-6: In one monumentally disastrous interview with Chris Matthews, Republican incumbent Michele “Anti-American” Bachmann effectively sabotaged her reelection chances against Elwyn Tinklenberg. A Democratic win here can put a nail into the coffin of Republican neo-McCarthyism;
  • MN-3: Quite possibly the most expensive congressional contest in the nation, this one pits Republican Erick Paulsen against Democrat Ashwin Madia in a race to fill retiring GOP congressman Jim Ramsted’s seat. McCain abandoned this state early in the campaign, so any coattails will come from the Obama camp;
  • WY-AL: Is this possible? A Democrat with a chance to win Dick Cheney’s old house seat? Gary Trauner, who came within a hair of defeating Republican incumbent Barbara “Slappy” Cubin in 2006, is back again this year to take on Cynthia Lummis in a bid to fill the discredited Cubin’s place. Trauner has more money and support from the national party this year, so it might be another close one, even though the state will give its three electoral votes to McCain;
  • AZ-3: McCain should be able to give a boost to downticket races in his home state, but it has looked much closer in the presidential contest lately, so incumbent John Shadegg shouldn’t expect much help from any McCain coattails. The Democrats would dearly love to see Shadegg go down in flames, and they’ve poured significant resources into the campaign of Bob Lord. This race may presage an Obama surge in Arizona;
  • NM-1: The entire New Mexico congressional delegation retired this year in order to run for the senate. Three congressmen but only two senate slots: somebody had to be left with the proverbial rubber pickle. That was Republican Heather Wilson, whose Albuquerque-area seat is now being contested by Darren White (R) and Martin Heinrich (D). The deciding difference in this close race may be Obama’s ground operation, which has already put the state in the blue column.

10:00 p.m. ET: Polls close in Iowa, Montana, Utah, Nevada, eastern Oregon, and southern Idaho. If Florida and either North Carolina or Missouri have been called for Obama, then the election is already over by this point. Nevada has been trending blue this election but has remained close: a quick call by the networks here will mean that the rout is on for Obama. Montana, a reliably red state, has tipped toward the Democrats in recent polls: if it goes for Obama, it will be part of a nationwide sweep for the Democratic candidate. In NV-3, Democrat Dina Titus is back after a bruising gubernatorial election loss in 2006, this time challenging third-term incumbent Jon Porter. This has been another target by the DCCC, and Porter is viewed as vulnerable after his near-loss experience in the last election.

11:00 pm. ET: Polls close in California, Washington, Hawaii, and western Oregon, and the networks will call them all almost immediately for Obama. By this point in the evening, the presidential race should already have been over for at least an hour. If it is still undecided at this point, then that either means the networks are being extraordinarily cautious or else McCain has staged an unprecedented comeback. More likely, the losing candidate will make his concession speech shortly after 11:00 p.m., followed by the winning candidate’s victory rally. Alaska is still voting at this point, but nobody cares.

  • Oregon senate: Republican incumbent Gordon Smith has all but tattooed a picture of Barack Obama on his chest this year, as he has distanced himself as far as possible from the national Republican Party. That may not be enough, though, as Jeff Merkely actually has Obama’s endorsement and most Oregonians have already voted;
  • ID-1: If anyone in the House of Representatives has a bigger case of the crazy than Jean Schmidt, it’s Idaho Republican Bill Sali. Like Tim Walberg of MI-7, Sali bucked the party establishment in 2006 and is now paying the price for his apostasy. It probably didn’t help that Sali heckled his opponent, Walt Minnick, at a recent debate;
  • WA-8: Another rematch from 2006 and another extremely expensive race, this one pits Republican incumbent Dave Reichert against Democrat Darcy Burner. Last time Reichert won by a margin of two percentage points. Neither presidential campaign has spent any time here, so coattails shouldn’t play a big part in this contest;
  • CA-4: Democrat Charlie Brown is taking another run at kicking the political football in this northern California district. This time, it’s against Tom McClintock, who has about as good a chance of seeing CA-4 from his home in Ventura County as Sarah Palin does of seeing Russia from her front steps in Wasilla. There are 53 congressional districts in California, and this is the only one with a competitive race. Good grief!

12 midnight ET: Polls close in most of Alaska. Polls in the Aleutians will remain open for another hour so that the dozen or so who live there can drop their sealskin ballots into their polar-bear-carcass ballot boxes. For those staying up this late, it will be worth it to see future federal inmates Ted Stevens and Don Young lose their jobs to Mark Begich and Ethan Berkowitz respectively.



  1. sozobe  •  Nov 2, 2008 @5:31 pm

    One thing about Ohio — we’re getting emails reminding people that if you’re in line when the polls close, you get to vote. No matter how long it takes.

    Since turnout is expected to be stupendously high with extremely long lines and long waits, polls might not actually “close” — in the sense of “people have finished voting” — until hours after 7:30.

  2. Jo  •  Nov 2, 2008 @5:59 pm

    Great summary, JoefromChicago! Very useful.

  3. joefromchicago  •  Nov 2, 2008 @9:09 pm

    Sozobe: that’s a very good point, and I’m sure the same rule applies everywhere else as well. But that won’t affect how the networks report on the election. If there are still people in line to vote three hours after the polls officially close in Ohio, then my guess is that they’ll be casting their ballots after the networks have already called the election in that state.

  4. nimh  •  Nov 2, 2008 @9:46 pm

    What about the official publication of results? If polling stations in, say, Cleveland are kept open an extra two hours, is the Ohio Secretary of whatever-the-responsible-department-is-called allowed to already release the results of other counties, on its website or to the media?

    Cracking guide, btw!

  5. chijoe999  •  Nov 2, 2008 @10:56 pm

    Votes are counted at the precinct level, so it all depends on what’s happening at each precinct. There’s no counting until all the ballots have been cast. If the polls have closed and there’s nobody in line, then the votes get counted at that precinct and reported to the state election authority and to the media. If there’s still somebody in line, then the counting will be delayed. The results, therefore, come in at various times throughout the night. Usually, rural precincts, with fewer voters, report before urban precincts. The news media, however, don’t rely exclusively on actual vote counts when they decide to call a particular election. They rely primarily on exit polls and other statistical methods to arrive at an estimate.

  6. engineer  •  Nov 3, 2008 @7:00 am


    Also, there are some states that truly do appear to be “must-wins” for McCain. In each and every one of the 624 victory scenarios that the simulation found for him this afternoon, McCain won Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Indiana and Montana. He also picked up Ohio in 621 out of the 624 simulations, and North Carolina in 622 out of 624. If McCain drops any of those states, it’s pretty much over.

  7. nimh  •  Nov 3, 2008 @10:39 am

    Thanks Joe. So we’ll have, say, the Virginia state election authority publish the results from precincts that have already finished voting, even as in other precincts people might still be voting.

    I’m very intent on approaching the early exit polls extremely sceptically. The last two elections obviously had preliminary exit polls that turned out to diverge rather significantly from the eventual outcome.

    Now as actual results come in, the exit poll people use the results (or rather, the shift in results from previous elections) from representative counties and precincts to adjust the exit poll data. So in the course of the evening, the exit poll data will become more reliable. I’m guessing that if a race is anywhere near close, the networks will wait with calling it until such updates are being implemented.

    The only problem for us onlookers might be that while the exit poll data is continuously adjusted, that doesnt necessarily mean that the networks and other media will update the exit poll data they show on their websites very regularly. In the primaries, the online numbers would basically only be updated two or three times over a night.

    All in all good reasons to keep a keen eye on the actual results coming in from the state election authorities. They usually all have webpages that they continually update.

    I’ll tell you how much of a geek I am: I already prepared Excel sheets with the outcome of the 2004 elections by county for the battleground states that report first. Basically, all I need to do is plug in the results for any county that’s fully reported, and the sheet will tell me how much better Obama did than Kerry – and how much that swing falls short or goes over the swing he needs statewide to win the state.

    Yes, I know…

  8. Thomas  •  Nov 3, 2008 @11:11 am

    That’s a very useful summary, Joe, but I think I’m too old, too feeble-minded, and too easily stressed-out to follow so many races at once. I think I’ll take a sleeping pill around 6pm tomorrow, and get the result from NPR Morning Edition the next morning.

    If the race isn’t decided by then, I plan to turn off the TV and the radio until the Supreme Court’s vote is in sometime in January.

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