So, what about the big race?
Well. Here's the way it's going to go. Polls close in waves, starting at 7 pm eastern. I'll list all times as eastern because that's where I live but you can do the math if you live elsewhere. I'm also supporting Obama, so I'm discussing this from the perspective of looking for an Obama win. The converse of what I say, though, works if you're hoping for a McCain victory: if I say Obama needs to hold a given state, that means you can hope he doesn't.
At 7, six states will close their polling: Vermont, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana. Vermont is guaranteed for Obama, Kentucky for McCain. South Carolina is about 95% likely to go for McCain as well. That leaves three states. Obama needs to win Virginia here; if he doesn't, it's going to be a rough night (although he can still win the electoral college, but barely). Georgia and Indiana could both be quite close. Indiana is polling almost dead tied right now, while Georgia is polling McCain by a few points. Some commentators are assuming Obama's support in Georgia is being underestimated. I myself agree, although I also don't think Indiana is as close as the polls say; the governor's race is not close, only two house races are close, and at gut level I think Indiana undecideds are going to be more comfortable with McCain.
Here's what to watch for: if Indiana stays close, so close that the networks don't call it by 7:30, or if Obama wins, it's going to be a good night for Obama. He should hold Ohio and Pennsylvania easily in that case, and with both those states the electoral math becomes quite easy.
Likewise, if Georgia stays close or goes to Obama, his strength in southern states has been underestimated. That could imply things down the road in Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Louisiana, and might impact the Mississippi Senate race. (Similarly if Obama is closer than expected in South Carolina—say, within five or six points—then regardless of what they say about Georgia he's outperforming the polling down south and could win a few unexpected states.)
But Virginia is the key state at 7. If it's an easy call for Obama (an easy call means the networks call the race within 15 minutes after poll closing), the electoral math gets easier and, more importantly, it means the polling showing an Obama lead in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania may be accurate. With Virginia, we can assume Pennsylvania will certainly go to Obama and probably Ohio. Virginia thus indicates that Obama is probably doing fairly well. That said, if it's a tough call or it goes to McCain, it will be a tough night.
At 7:30, polls close in Ohio and West Virginia. West Virginia is expected to go to McCain although most pollsters have said they have difficulty polling the state and it could be up for grabs. Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller will win a landslide which may help Obama, or it may not help him at all. Tough to say.
Ohio is the big one at 7:30. If we've already got Indiana for Obama, we should expect Ohio to go that way as well; if we've already got Georgia for Obama, Ohio frankly doesn't matter all that much. If all we have is Vermont and Virginia, winning Ohio means we can breathe a little easier; if all we have is Vermont, Ohio needs to go to Obama to allow any victory at all.
At 8:00, polls close in 16 states, and I submit to you that 8:15 is the earliest we might know who's been elected (barring an unforeseen landslide, which will be apparent before 8 if Obama has both Georgia and Indiana). Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee will go to McCain; Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey will go to Obama. That's all but assured; if any of those states flip to the other candidate it's clear there's a rout going on. That means that at the 8:00 closing there are only five states that matter.
Maine should go to Obama, but Maine divides up its electoral votes by Congressional district, and at one time McCain was actually close in the first district. That was a while ago and they're not contesting the state, but Maine bears watching all the same.
New Hampshire is polling strongly for Obama right now, and the Senate race should go to the Democratic candidate as well. New Hampshire is something of a must-win for McCain; if he doesn't have NH there's just not much chance he can win. It is by no means a must-have for Obama, but the state could be an interesting bellwether of the climate, if it's still a very tight race. If it falls to Obama he should be relatively safe, but if it goes to McCain he still has some life left.
Missouri is polling very tight right now, one of the three closest in the country (the others being Indiana, which closed at 7, and North Carolina, which will close at 8:30). Like Indiana, I have this gut sense that undecideds will be more comfortable with McCain and he'll eke out a narrow win—but in this case the governor's race looks like a win for the Democrat and there are a few close house races. Missouri used to be the classic bellwether, always voted for the winner in every election. Could do that again. Thing is, Missouri is not important for Obama's electoral math, whereas it's huge for McCain. If Missouri stays close late or goes to Obama, Obama fans can be comfortable.
Pennsylvania is the must-win for Obama is this group. There are very few maps where Obama wins without Pennsylvania (and he's got to have Virginia to do it). This is a key state here; unless Obama already has other unlikely states (Georgia, Indiana, Missouri), losing Pennsylvania almost assures a McCain win.
Finally we have Florida, which may or may not be close. Obama doesn't need Florida to win, but he can wrap it up right here at 8:00 with victories in Florida and Pennsylvania. If he wins both of those, he only needs the Kerry states to win. Doesn't even need Colorado or New Mexico, states he's ahead by larger margins in.
Remember I said we could know by 8:15 who's going to win? This is how: if Obama has Florida and Pennsylvania, Obama will be the next President. If McCain has Pennsylvania, McCain will be the next President. If Obama has Pennsylvania and Missouri and either Georgia or Indiana, Obama will be the next President.
Anything else and it's tight, although if Obama has Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, is still his to lose (just not guaranteed or anything).
At 8:30, polls close in Arkansas and North Carolina. Arkansas should be an easy win for McCain, but North Carolina has so many close races it'll take up every minute of news time until 9. Obama does not need North Carolina to win, but McCain does; that said, North Carolina is perhaps Obama's best chance to win a traditional southern state (if we assume Virginia, like Florida, has a mixed-enough population to not be considered traditionally Southern, a notion I would agree with). If Obama has done better than expected in Georgia and South Carolina, he should carry North Carolina.
At 9:00, polls close in 13 states. Wyoming, Texas, and South Dakota should be easy wins for McCain. He should also win Arizona and Louisiana, but recent polling numbers don't look so good there. He should also win Nebraska, although like Maine, Nebraska divides up its electoral votes by congressional district. The Omaha district (I think it's number 2 but it doesn't matter) was actually being contested by the Obama campaign a while back, although recent polling, like that in Maine, seems to indicate that the entire state will be voting the same way. If Obama can win Omaha (that looks funny) the possibility for an electoral tie is reduced to zero… and Obama's probably having a really good night.
Obama should have an easy time in Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. He also ought to walk in Minnesota, but Colorado could be close. Still, the 9:00 closings probably won't bring any big surprises. If the candidates win the states they're supposed to it's probably a good night for Obama. Note that if Obama already looks like he's walking to victory—he has Florida and Pennsylvania and one of the tossup states—he could conceivably contest in Arizona or Louisiana. Especially if he's won Georgia already, Louisiana might go to him as well.
There will then be a long break before the next poll closing at ten. Networks will probably dig down to find House and Senate races of interest, close governor's races, and of course any states that are too close to call early on might report a winner. But if Obama has already clearly won the thing (remember that he's got 77 electoral votes coming from the West Coast and Hawai'i) he may very well have the electoral college locked up by nine-thirty. In which case, you should definitely keep watching, because the networks will be desperate to keep their viewers so they'll have to come up with crazy shit to keep you tuned in. That always makes for good TV—remember, it's live!
If we're still undecided by ten, we have five states with poll closings at that hour: Kansas and Utah are slam-dunks for McCain. Iowa should be an easy Obama victory. That leaves Nevada, which is leaning Obama, and Montana, which doesn't get polled often but seems to be trending in his direction of late. If McCain and Obama are still very close, Nevada would be a good pickup for Obama (he's way ahead in early voting, or so they say). But if he manages to win Montana, he's probably already got the thing wrapped up.
California, Hawai'i, Idaho, North Dakota, Oregon, and Washington close at 11, and if you're still awake, the only state that's even close here is North Dakota. Idaho will give four EVs to McCain come hell or high water and the other four states will go to Obama sure as the sun shines in the day. If North Dakota actually turns out to be the linchpin here… damn, that would be a weird night. But if that's the case you'll still be watching TV.
Alaska doesn't close until 1 AM. There's no reason to stay up; you can find out whether Ted Stevens got the boot (let's hope) tomorrow morning. Before the Palin pick, it actually seemed like Alaska might be in play this year, but it's going to go to McCain. We'll know the winner before Alaska's polls close... that must really annoy Alaskans.