ATLANTA -- My computer is set up and charging in the Renaissance Waverly, the same hotel where Newt Gingrich celebrated the 1994 Republican landslide. Outside the ballroom: Two bars, where liquor is, sadly, more than $2.50 per gallon. Inside: A stage decorated with the Newt2012=$2.50 gas sign. The last time I covered a Gingrich victory party, the new slogan was "46 states to go." Say what you want about the guy, but at least he's not consistent.
There's an election tonight. Punditry and reporting will ensure. But! Ignore the shiny objects that CNN and the other networks will show you. Ignore them even if they're holograms! It will take time to figure out how many of the 427 delegates will go to which candidates. One possible outcome in Ohio, for example, is a narrow Rick Santorum win in the popular vote and an overall Romney delegate win, because Santorum failed to file for 18 delegates. Why? Because his campaign got humming too late.
Here's the calendar to watch. All times eastern.
7 p.m. Polls close in Georgia, Vermont, and Virginia. Expect all three to be called quickly: Gingrich, Romney, and Romney.
7:30 p.m. There won't be a call in Ohio yet, but the networks will release the semi-final wave of exit polls, and they'll strongly suggest whether Mitt Romney has bested Rick Santorum. He went into election day with a small early vote lead.
8 p.m. Polls close in Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Tennessee. First one goes to Romney, second to Santorum, but the margins will decide whether they take all delegates or start divvying them up. Tennessee's the swing state.
10 p.m. Caucus precinct captains in North Dakota should have delivered their results, which will start to be counted. This is the best chance Ron Paul has of winning a state outright.
11 p.m. By this time, most Idaho results will start rolling in.
11:30 p.m. All Alaska precinct caucuses will be in progress, with the results of a preference poll ready to count.
And now, the threading!
7:01: Why the heck won't networks call Virginia for Romney immediately? I'm stumped. According to exit polls, Romney has won around 63 percent of the overall vote there, only the second majority of the season. Paul's only winning independents by around 10 points. It's very possible that Romney pips Paul for majorities in all of Virginia's 11 districts, thus winning every single delegate. Still, kudos to the Paul campaign, whose 28-year-old state manager survived a car wreck this week, and kept on plugging.
7:08: The baffling network call on Virginia has been welcomed with cheer at Gingrich HQ. I walked past a TV playing Fox News's analysis of the results, and overheard chattering Gingrich backers rooting on Ron Paul. But Paul has no chance of winning and Romney still may grab all 49 delegates.
7:14: What about our other states? Vermont has only one district, so it's easy to game out delegates. Three of its 17 will go to the statewide winner: Romney. The other fourteen are assigned proportionately to candidates who grab more than 20 percent of the vote. Paul and Santorum will both grab delegates.
In Georgia, it looks like Gingrich will fall short of 50 percent statewide. That frees up delegates to go to Mitt Romney and (maybe) Rick Santorum. Romney's 49 delegates from Virginia may well outnumber Gingrich's delegates from Georgia.
7:30: If the exit polls are right, Mitt Romney will win the Ohio primary. How can I be so smug?
- The topline number has Romney besting Santorum by 4 points. So there's that.
- Santorum got destroyed -- 50-28 -- among voters who made up their minds in "the last few days." Add that to the early votes that Romney banked, and he has no path to victory.
- Santorum only won eastern Ohio, which is culturally incredibly similar to his old Pennsylvania district, by a 39-37 margin.
7:48: A Gingrich adviser tells me to cool it when I predict coming doom in Tennessee and Oklahoma. The math, he says, doesn't work for anybody. The race will come down to the convention floor; for the first time in decades, pledged delegates will start bailing on their candidates.
8:00: More exit polling arrives. In Tennessee, it's Santorum 35%, Romney 28%, Gingrich a rather weak 23%. I'd been told that Romney's own polling showed the race tightening to around 3 points. It may have been true, and Santorum may have saved himself with early votes.
In Oklahoma, Santorum's on track to win with 38% statewide; in geographic breakdowns, he's pulling about as well in every region of the state. That's no good for him. I mean, sure, it adds a color to the map, but it means he'll net only a small number of delegates Both Romney and Santorum are doing well enough to take delegates everywhere.
In Massachusetts, Romney's 68 percent is probably enough to win him every delegate. His weakest area is western Mass; he's still cruising to a majority there.
8:15: Brother, can you spare $250?
8:23: The exit polls have been adjusted in Ohio and reduce Romney's lead to roughly 38-36. We'll get to cover one last barnburner after all. Does it mean much for the delegate count? Stop asking annoying questions.
8:43: Newt takes the stage at his party, blasting "the elites" four times in his first four minutes. As he remembers how June and July 2011 were "the worst months of a career that goes back to 1958," I notice Rick Tyler, the trusted aide that bolted the campaign then, in the back of the room. He now runs the pro-Newt Super PAC Winning Our Future.
9:04: Most of Virginia has reported, and Mitt Romney has won 10 of eleven congressional districts; Ron Paul wins the 3rd district -- the heavily Democratic Richmond-area district represented by Rep. Bobby Scott. This gives Romney 43 of Virginia's bound delegates, and gives Paul three of them. (Three more are unbound and usually just go to the nominee.)
9:19: Why isn't Romney ahead in Ohio, if those exit polls are so smart? Well, 1) they're only so smart and 2) the biggest urban/suburban counties, where Romney's winning, are taking a typically long time to report.
9:35: Rick Tyler was gracious enough, in his role as a guy who wasn't co-ordinating anything, to talk with reporters. "The big loser tonight is Mitt Romney," he said. Next for Newt, with whom he was not coordinating: "We're going to win Mississippi and Alabama."
WOF was already going up in Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama, but what did Tyler learn from the defeat in Tennessee? "I think we learned that Republicans don't know the truth about Rick Santorum yet. He's an empty vest -- I mean, an empty vessel." Did that mean that the campaign, which up to now had only been running anti-Romney ads, would debut anti-Santorum ads? "I'm just speaking freely."
10:07: CNN keeps on adjusting its Ohio exit polls. From this:
The adjustment allows for a Romney win of 0.3 percent of so. This kind of white-knuckle count can district people from the fact that... Romney's delegate advantage was likely to remain whether he lost by one or won by one.
10:12: Rick Santorum wins the North Dakota caucuses, which makes the map of the United States look like Santorum dropped some dye in the middle and it keeps spreading in every direction.
10:20: A side note: Oklahoma Democrats could really take or leave Barack Obama. He's currenly winning 55 percent of the vote statewide. Randall Terry, the legendary anti-abortion activist, is at 18 percent. In the 2nd district, Terry is polling at 25 percent, which I think means Democrats have to find him a way to deny him a delegate.
11:05: My early confidence about a Romney win has gone from total to almost certain to total again. Rural Ohio is in. The outstanding votes come from the Republican burbs that have embraced Romney, for the usual reason that Republicans learn to tolerate their frontrunners.
11:33: Romney easily takes Idaho. Three landslide margins tonight -- here, Virginia and Massachusetts -- netted him at least 100 delegates.