Slate’s Election Day Viewer’s Guide
What to look for as the votes come rolling in.
North Carolina: Before Obama won North Carolina's 15 electoral votes in 2008, a Democrat had not won the state since Carter won in 1976. Obama beat McCain by 14,000 votes. His 49.9 percent of the vote was below his national percentage of 52.9 percent. (North Carolina is one of five red zone states—also, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida—in which Obama's 2008 percentage was below his national percentage.)
North Carolina is Romney’s most likely victory from the Obama 2008 map, and the state, like Virginia, that will test the durability of Obama’s coalition of young voters, urban professionals, minorities. The theory of the “new south” is that explosive population growth, particularly from out-of-state college-educated voters, could push states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida into the Democratic column. This election may prove whether this theory has real merit or whether Obama winning those states last time was an anomaly.
For the president to win in North Carolina, he’ll need to have fantastic numbers with African-Americans—21 percent of the population—and young voters. Obama will need to run up his margins in the cities. His strong counties are Wake (Raleigh), Mecklenburg (Charlotte), and Durham.* If Obama doesn’t get 60 percent in those counties, he’s in trouble. Republicans have to do well in Union and Gaston, where if Obama can get 34 percent or more of the vote, he’ll have eaten into Romney’s chance to run up his margin. Buncombe, Forsyth, and Wake counties all went for Obama after twice going for President Bush.
8 p.m.: Polls close in Florida (29), New Hampshire (4), and Pennsylvania(20)
Polls start to close in Florida at 7 p.m. Eastern time, but a portion of the state is in the Central time zone, so they close at 8 EST. If Florida goes for the president, it could be an early night. If Obama wins Florida, Romney has only one path to the presidency: winning every other battleground state.
One Florida political strategist described Florida as three states and two countries. In the north, they vote for Republicans. Duval County (Jacksonville) and all the way through the panhandle is a Republican stronghold, along with Brevard County on the eastern coast. In the southeast, they vote for Democrats (Miami-Dade County and Broward County). The middle, along the I-4 corridor, both parties fight for swing voters. (Forty-three percent of all registered voters live in the Tampa Bay media market or the Orlando media market, the two ends of the I-4 corridor.) The two countries the strategist talked about are made up of Cubans, who tend to vote for Republicans, and the non-Cuban Hispanics who vote for Democrats. There are now more non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida than Cubans. Just over 42 percent of the state’s citizens are minorities, a key part of Obama’s coalition.
To win, a candidate must run up the margins in their strong counties (Obama won by 140,000 in Miami-Dade in 2008; McCain won by 30,000 votes in Brevard) and try to hold their opponents to small margins in their strong areas (Obama held McCain to a 7,000 vote victory in Duval through a big turnout of African-American voters). Then, they have to win enough of the I-4 swing counties.
How close is the state? Since 1992, there have been five presidential elections. In Florida, the GOP won 2, Democrats won 2, and there is one everyone will always fight over. In total over those races, 32.5 million people have voted—and the overall difference in votes is 60,000, or 0.017 percent.
Things to look for in the 8 p.m. exit polls: Did Romney do well among women, because the older voters Republicans traditionally capture tend to be disproportionately female? What percentage of voters say they were contacted by the campaign? Florida is a ground-game-intensive state.
New Hampshire is important mostly because Romney shouldn’t lose it. He was governor of a neighboring state, he’s got a home near lake Winnipesaukee, and he won the primary there after a concerted campaign. The key area is Hillsborough County around Manchester and Rockingham County around Brentwood. Obama won them both in 2008 after George Bush won them in 2000 and 2004.
Also, at this hour we’ll start to get returns from Pennsylvania, and we will see if Romney’s last-minute gambit in the Keystone State paid off. We should also begin to hear noises about Maine’s odd electoral-vote split at this point. Two votes go to the statewide winner and one goes to the top vote-getter inside each congressional district.
And of course it’s a big hour for the Senate: Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, and Missouri all close at this hour. In Maine, if Angus King wins, he’ll be elected as an independent. Depending on how the other Senate races go, which party he decides to caucus with will determine control of the Senate. Missouri is the second state of the year where a conservative—in this case Todd Akin—may lose the race because of comments about rape. If Elizabeth Warren defeats incumbent Scott Brown, she will slow the GOP march to control of the Senate by stealing a vote from their column. Former wrestling executive Linda McMahon would flip the Connecticut seat to the Republican column from independent, but she has been losing in the polls.
9 p.m.: Polls close in Wisconsin (10) and Colorado (9)
By this hour the map on your television screens will be filled with lots of states clearly likely to go to each of the candidates—New York, Texas, and Georgia.
Wisconsin is a key part of the Obama Midwestern firewall. Minorities aren’t as important here. Labor support is. The president’s two big counties are Milwaukee, where he won with 68 percent of the vote in 2008, and Dane County, home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s had monster rallies at Madison, including after the first debate when he fell asleep onstage. Look to see if there is a lot of same-day registration in Dane County on Election Day. Ten percent of Wisconsin voters registered on Election Day in 2008, according to the Obama campaign. They’re banking on that again. (Iowa and New Hampshire are two other battleground states with same-day registration.)