If he wins them all, he gets to 296. So Kerry can lock up the election by taking any 28 electoral votes from that group. Here are the combinations that will do the job for Kerry:
1) Florida and any other state.
2) Ohio and Wisconsin.
3) Ohio and any two of the little three: Nevada, New Mexico, and Iowa.
Two other variables could be in play. If Kerry takes Colorado, he can wrap up the election by taking a combination of Wisconsin and two of the little three. He won't have to win Ohio or Florida. But if Bush stages an upset in Hawaii, Kerry will have to take one of the little three in addition to Ohio and Wisconsin—or he'll have to take Ohio, Iowa, and either Nevada or New Mexico.
Those are the scenarios for now. I'll revisit them as the returns come in and the options narrow.
6:08 p.m. PT: We can't be sure how far tonight's returns will ultimately vary from the late-afternoon exit-poll numbers (see this "Press Box"). But with that understood, let's talk about what the numbers mean, if true, for the electoral map.
Bush gets to 189 electoral votes with no problem. Assuming he takes Virginia, he's at 202. With Missouri, where he's 5 points up in the exit polls, he's at 213. Now he needs Colorado. I never took this state seriously as a problem for him, but the afternoon numbers suggest it might be: He's up just a point there. Let's assume he takes it. Now he's at 222.
At this point, he has run out of states where he's leading in the exit polls, and he's still looking for a combination of 47 electoral votes to get him to 269. (He wins in the House if it's a tie.) The next best shots are Nevada and Iowa, where he's down a point. Let's say he takes them, too. Now he's at 234, still 35 electoral votes away—and he has run out of states where he's trailing by a single point. He'll have to start winning in places where he's trailing by two.
How about New Mexico? Let's give him that. Now he's at 239, but that's still not enough to win the election even if Florida comes around. He'll have to capture the other state where he's down two in the exit polls: Ohio. It seems a bit unfair, making him win a state with 20 electoral votes just to get the three he needs for a tie. Wouldn't it be easier to package Florida or Ohio with Wisconsin? Either combination gets him to 269 or beyond, so let's try that. Colorado plus Nevada plus Iowa plus New Mexico plus Wisconsin plus either Ohio or Florida.
For those of you doing the math at home, that's a Bush sweep of five states where the exit polls have him trailing, without losing a single state in which he leads. In three of those states, Bush's winning scenario requires the exit polls to be at least two points off. In Wisconsin, it requires the exit polls to be at least three points off.