Barack Obama's aides say that he doesn't like to watch the election returns on television because he doesn't want to hear all the cable-TV chatter. (On the stump, he's been calling on politicians to stop going on cable news to reduce the bickering and acrimony in Washington.) But not everyone has Obama's equilibrium. So here's a partial guide of things to look for on Election Day. (Note: All times are ET.)
Sunrise to 6 p.m.: Look for reports of voter turnout. Throughout the day, watch the crowds in any of the battleground states. Analysts generally agree that a big turnout helps Obama. For McCain, who has to make up deficits in early voting, watch to see if turnout equals or exceeds the turnout President Bush got in 2004. To win, McCain needs more than just his base, of course—but he really needs his base. Some places to keep an eye on:
- In Florida, there is the I-4 corridor from Tampa to Daytona Beach as well as the counties in the panhandle.
- In Ohio, look to turnout in Franklin County (home to Columbus) for McCain. For Obama, look at Hamilton County (home to Cincinnati) and other big, urban counties such as Cuyahoga (Cleveland), where new registrations and black voters should boost Obama's numbers. Watch northwestern Ohio, a solidly Republican corner of the state where Obama led in two October polls.
- In Pennsylvania, look to Allegheny, Butler, and Westmoreland counties (Pittsburgh and its suburbs) for McCain, and the inner suburbs around Philadelphia (Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester) for Obama.
6 p.m.: Polls start to close in Indiana. This traditionally Republican state is at the outer edge of Obama's raids into McCain's territory. If Obama wins, it might very well mean he's won the whole election, because it will ratify the Obama strategy that has been employed throughout the battleground states. If McCain wins, we'll get a feeling for the contours of his defensive line. A McCain win in Indiana may mean that states like Missouri and North Carolina might not flip into the Obama category.
The polls in Kentucky also start to close at 6. (The Western part of the state closes at 7:00). For those watching to see whether Democrats will have 60 votes in the Senate, a win by Democrat Bruce Lunsford against Mitch McConnell will suggest it's possible.
7 p.m.: Polls close in Virginia and start to close in Florida (the Western part of the state closes at 8:00). If Obama wins Florida's 27 electoral votes, he'll have a big night. Watch the I-4 corridor, the area between Tampa and Orlando where both campaigns have been working hard in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, and Osceola counties. In early voting in the state, Democrats have an edge of more than 300,000 votes. Upon seeing this, some Republicans may head into the root cellar. That's a big margin for McCain to make up on Election Day. His team has to hope that the early voting came from reliable Democratic base voters, which would mean they've just gotten their usual Election Day support—just earlier than usual. Obama aides say lots of their early vote comes from new and sporadic voters. If they're right—and evidence suggests they may be—then Florida could go blue.
Virginia may be the Bush state where Obama has put in the most effort. If he wins the commonwealth and holds the states John Kerry won (as expected), then he'll need only five more electoral votes to get to 270. Virginia also matters because it will give us the first hints about which campaign is winning the turnout battle. The big question is whether those new and young voters turn out for Obama the way his aides say they will.
For those looking for 60 Democrats in the Senate, Georgia and Mississippi polls also close at this hour. To hit the magic number, Democrats will need a win in one of those states to add to the races they're more likely to win.
7:30 p.m.: Polls close in Ohio. Perhaps you've heard of this state, with 20 electoral votes. Like Florida, it has been a part of the drama of recent close presidential races. In 2004, Democrats won the big population centers, but Bush won the state by picking up lots of rural districts. Look to western counties like Auglaize, Darke, Mercer, Putnam, and Shelby to see if McCain is matching Bush's turnout. Watch enormous Hamilton County, a swing county Republicans think Obama might win. Bush won it last time. On the southeastern edge of West Virginia, look to Jefferson, Belmont, and Monroe to see how Obama performs with white working-class voters.
Polls also close in North Carolina at 7:30 *. Like Indiana, an Obama victory here will suggest a rout. Look for Mecklenburg County around Charlotte, where Obama stopped before Election Day and where he needs to run up a big margin. He'll also need to swing Wake (Raleigh), Cumberland, or Buncombecounties, which went for Bush in '04.