Slate’s Election Day Viewer’s Guide: What To Watch as the Votes Come Rolling In.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 6 2012 3:49 PM

Slate’s Election Day Viewer’s Guide

What to look for as the votes come rolling in.

President Barack Obama in Concord, New Hampshire on Sunday and Gov. Mitt Romney on Monday in Fairfax, Virginia.
President Barack Obama in Concord, N.H., on Sunday, and Gov. Mitt Romney on Monday in Fairfax, Va.

Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images and Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Let the voting begin. If we use the nine battleground states most people agree are in play, Barack Obama has 431 routes to the presidency, and Mitt Romney has 79. There are five possibilities for a 269 to 269 tie, which would throw the election to the House of Representatives and most likely lead to a Romney victory because the GOP will control the House. But let’s not go down that road just yet. First, a viewer’s guide to how the day will unfold and what you should look for as the votes come rolling in.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

12 a.m.:
That’s right. Election Day voting actually began at the stroke of midnight. That’s when residents of Dixville Notch, N.H., cast their ballots. (The results are in! It was a tie, with five votes for Barack Obama and five votes for Mitt Romney.) This is also approximately the start time for rumors to begin about exit polls, fraud, intimidation, and landslide victories. Actual voting started in East Coast cities around 6 a.m., where polls opened in Virginia. Polls opened in Florida an hour later.

There will be lots of stories today about turnout and what long or short lines mean for each campaign. (And we’ll be peddling these stories and shooting them down on our Election Dispatches roundtable). The Obama team has done a better job than the Romney team in turning out the early vote, which they’re telling reporters means their areas will have shorter lines. The Romney campaign promises to swamp their opponent on Election Day, making up for any deficit in the early vote. So look for heavy turnout in Republican areas—Duval County in Florida, Chesterfield County in Virginia, Butler county in Ohio—to see if the Republicans are matching their boast. Democrats may hardly line up in Nevada at all, where roughly 66 percent of the voting has already taken place. But if the lines are short in Virginia or New Hampshire, where most ballots are not cast early, then it might be a bad omen for Democrats.

5:30 p.m.:
Exit-poll rumors will start or already be underway. Ignore them. People will publish numbers and call them exit-poll numbers, but they will almost certainly be wrong or incomplete. Ignore analysis based on what people are calling exit polls until later in the night.

7 p.m.: Virginia (13) polls close, look for Indiana Senate race returns
If Barack Obama wins Virginia, Mitt Romney will have just 18 paths to 270 electoral votes. If Romney wins, Obama will have just 197.

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When Barack Obama won the commonwealth by 6.3 percentage points in 2008, it was a part of his new coalition. Before his victory, a Democrat had not won Virginia since LBJ in 1964. Obama beat McCain 52.6 percent to 46.3 percent, which almost matched his national percentage of 52.9. (Virginia is one of five states in 2008 in which Obama's percentage of the vote was below his national percentage. The others were Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida.)

Watch Fairfax County to see if Obama is running up a big lead there. We’ll get some idea about how well those messages about Romney’s extreme views on abortion paid off with married, white, college-educated women. (If it did play well with these kinds of voters in Virginia, the question then becomes will it also play with the same demographic in Colorado?) Obama got 60 percent of Fairfax County in 2008 and needs to do very well here to combat Romney’s likely advantage in rural counties and GOP strongholds like Chesterfield, Hanover, and Augusta. This pattern of Romney’s strength in the rural areas against Obama’s big margins in cities will be a constant theme throughout the night. Virginia is one state where the GOP ground game rivals Obama’s.

Prince William County in Northern Virginia is a swing county. George W. Bush won it twice, but Obama carried it in 2008 with 57 percent. The same is true in Henrico County, which sits like a hat on top of Richmond. This county has an African-American population at its core with conservative white suburbs. If Democrats are doing well in Henrico, then Obama will do well. Watch here also for the Tim Kaine-George Allen Senate race. Kaine was mayor of Richmond. He might win Henrico, even if the president loses it. In the southeastern portion of the state, the Hampton Roads area, Obama will have to do well with African-American voters in Newport News, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach. This area—along with Northern Virginia—relies heavily on military spending, and Romney has tried to win over voters by criticizing the proposed cuts to the defense budget. In 1996, military spending accounted for 26 percent of Hampton Roads’ local economy. Today, it's about 45 percent. 

We’ll also get an inkling about whether Romney’s attempt to go after voters unhappy with Obama’s coal policies paid off in counties like Martinsville, Va. Obama visited Martinsville in 2008 and promised he wouldn’t forget them. Danville, Bristol, and Abingdon are also areas where the GOP has held events under the title “Rally for Appalachian Coal.”

Indiana polls close at this time, too, and we’ll soon learn the fate of Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock, who retired longtime Sen. Dick Lugar in the Republican primary. Lugar would have held the seat easily, helping the Republicans gain control of the Senate. Now the state is a toss-up after Mourdock’s comments about a child conceived of rape being a gift from God.

7:30 p.m.: Polls close in Ohio (18) and North Carolina (15)
Say it with me now: No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. If Romney loses the Buckeye State, his 76 chances for reaching 270 will shrink to 11.

The president needs to run up his vote in Cuyahoga County (68 percent or more) to offset Republican strength in Butler, Warren, and Clermont* counties, areas surrounding the swing county of Hamilton (which includes Cincinnati), where Obama won in 2008. (Obama was the first Democrat to win Hamilton County in four decades.) He’ll need to win there again or hold Romney to a small victory. Obama needs to do well in Franklin County (Columbus), which has become friendlier for Democrats in recent years.

If you want to fixate on a bellwether county, look at Lake County, which is east of Cuyahoga. It usually matches the statewide vote. Also look to Wood and Ottawa, northern counties between Toledo and Cleveland that have gone to the state's winner in every presidential election since 1992.

Incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown is fighting off a challenge from Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel in what became a nasty fight. Expectations are that this will not be a Republican pickup.

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