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.

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.

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.

See my piece from yesterday about the questions I’m asking about what the Ohio outcome might tell us.

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.

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.)

The strong Republican counties follow a familiar pattern we’ve seen in other states. They ring the big Democratic areas. So watch Waukesha and Washington. (Say that three times fast!) Romney needs to get 70 percent of the vote there. Also look at Marathon County, in the northwestern part of the state. Romney should get 55 percent there to win. Your Wisconsin swing county is Brown, home of Green Bay.

Colorado is another state that tests the Obama theory about the new electorate. Hispanic voters make up 14 percent of the population. The question is will they turn out? A Pew Hispanic survey from early October showed Latino voters supported Obama by a 3-to-1 ratio but are less certain about voting—77 percent of Latino registered voters say they’re “absolutely certain” to vote, compared with 89 percent of all registered voters.

The Colorado electorate is packed with prosperous young professionals—more than half of the electorate is college-educated, one of the highest levels among battleground states—and that’s a group Obama does well with. But the key group to watch is suburban college-educated women. They helped Sen. Michael Bennet beat back the GOP tide in 2010 by convincing those women that his Republican opponent was an extremist on social issues. That was harder for Obama to do with Romney. Look for the results from Denver suburbs and Larimer County to see if Obama is doing well with this demographic again.

Romney has to do well in the rural counties and run up votes in the GOP strongholds of El Paso (Colorado Springs), Douglas (south of Denver), Weld, and Mesa counties.

In Wisconsin’s Senate race, Tammy Baldwin is trying to hold a Democratic seat against popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson. If Thompson loses, it will be another piece of evidence in the case against the Tea Party. He spent a lot of money and time fighting off a primary challenge that might have hurt his general election chances.

10 p.m: Polls close in Iowa (6) and Nevada (6)
By now some battleground states will probably have been called. Routes to the presidency will have narrowed.

The Obama campaign went into Election Day thinking it had these two states locked. Iowa is the spiritual birthplace of the Obama campaign, where his caucus victory in 2008 propelled him to the White House. At his last rally there Monday night, the president was emotional. Iowa has the lowest unemployment rate of the battleground states. The competition in the state is so close that both sides even use the same language to talk about it. “It started here and it ends here,” says Sue Dvorsky, the chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party, explaining why Obama will win. Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said, “We’re the state that launched Obama, but I think in this election we’re the state that’s going to sink him.”

There are more registered independents in Iowa than registered Republicans or Democrats. In all states, the candidates will both try to maximize turnout of their base and win over swing voters, but the question in different states will be: which is the priority? Veteran Iowa pollster Ann Selzer argues that Iowa is different than states like Pennsylvania or North Carolina, where the emphasis is more on base turnout than converting swing voters. In Iowa, there are more voters sloshing around in the middle.

The key area for Obama is Polk County (Des Moines), smack in the middle of the state. Republicans need to do well in Dallas, just outside Des Moines, and the western counties like Sioux and Woodbury, as well as the rural counties. Democrats must do well in the eastern counties.

Nevada: This battleground state may be the easiest to understand. Clark County (Las Vegas) is the largest county, and Democrats traditionally win there. It is perhaps the best county to look at to test a larger theme of this election: economics vs. demographics. Sixty-seven percent of the houses in Clark have mortgages that are bigger than the home’s value. But the county is nearly 30 percent Hispanic.

In Colorado, Republicans win the rural counties, so Romney will have to win places like Douglas County by 64 percent. The bellwether county is Washoe (Reno). If Obama wins Washoe, he will win the state.

Montana Senate race: Incumbent Democrat Jon Tester faces a challenge from Rep. Denny Rehberg. If you want to know what happens to the Senate, you might need to stay up for this race. It could be the crucial seat to determine whether the GOP can take control of the Senate.

11 p.m.:
Voting has ended in all states but Alaska, which will not determine the election. Based on the way these things have gone in the past, a call might be made between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.. But if you’ve reached this portion of the program and there doesn’t seem to be a clear trend in Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin for President Obama, then you might want to consider going to bed. It’s likely to be a long night. If Romney pulls it out in early states, the result will likely be close, which means lots of caution and probably some disputes in battleground states. Oh, and if you’re thinking about the popular vote, don’t stay up. That won’t be finalized for a few days.

Correction, Nov. 6, 2012: This article originally misspelled Clermont County. It also said Charletson, instead of Charlotte, was in Mecklenburg County.