Election Night (Popcorn Included)

Published: November 3, 2008

Pundits and pollsters may be trying to take all the fun out of Election Day. So many have predicted a lopsided victory for Senator Barack Obama over Senator John McCain that you might wonder why even to bother watching the returns on Tuesday night.

The fact is, there is plenty of mystery — and there is only one poll that counts.

Aim to have the popcorn popped and to be on the couch by 7 p.m. Eastern time. That’s assuming you have a day job and haven’t been glued to the television all day. (Of course, even if you have a day job, you may have been glued to the Web, in which case, take a quick break!)

Now, a guide of highlights to watch for on Tuesday:

SETTING THE TABLE The networks are not supposed to call a state until all the polls in that state have closed. But there will be lots of raw data online, so you can go on the Web, check the returns and try calling the state yourself. Several news sites include interactive maps so you can play along at home to see how the candidates might reach 270 electoral votes, the magic number needed to claim the presidency.

FIRST BITE The suspense starts in Indiana. Most polls close at 6 p.m. and others at 7. Indiana is a ruby red state where Mr. Obama has been running closely with Mr. McCain. Be wary of results that do not include Gary, a city with a substantial African-American population. If Mr. Obama wins it, Indiana could be the canary in the coal mine predicting disaster ahead for Mr. McCain.

APERITIF Also at 7 p.m., polls close in Virginia and Georgia, and polls close in most of Florida and New Hampshire.

All eyes will quickly veer to Virginia, which Mr. Obama has labored to win. If he succeeds in the former capital of the Old Confederacy, he will most likely do exceedingly well the rest of the night. Subtracting Virginia from the Republican column would give Mr. McCain very few routes to 270 electoral votes.

New Hampshire is less predictive. But it would be a bad sign for Mr. McCain if he cannot capture these mavericks, whom he has been courting for eight years.

ORANGE CRUSH? Florida, a voting experience unto itself. Whoever wins Florida, the fourth-largest state, gets a big leg up on winning the presidency. Again, if Mr. McCain loses here, his path narrows. But the race is so close that Florida may not portend much about the rest of the country. The drama in this state, which has become synonymous with electoral dysfunction, may be in the new and creative ways in which voters might be foiled from casting their ballots.

PALATE CLEANSERS At 7:30, polls close in Ohio and North Carolina. While Ohio is the bigger prize, keep your eyes on North Carolina (where officials have the option of keeping the polls open until 8:30 if there are problems). North Carolina is a red state that is newly competitive, again thanks to an aggressive Obama ground organization. If North Carolina votes for Mr. Obama, the map is likely to bleed blue for the rest of the night.

As for Ohio, it’s one of the nation’s biggest battlegrounds. For an indication of how things are going, check the returns from Stark County, a longtime bellwether.

MAIN COURSE At 8, Pennsylvania and Missouri finish voting.

Pennsylvania, of course, is the keystone to Mr. McCain’s survival strategy: It is the one big blue state where he has staked his claim, in anticipation of losing some smaller red states. If Mr. McCain wins Pennsylvania, it would keep him alive and scramble the picture for Mr. Obama. And it would lead to grave pronouncements about racism and the so-called Bradley effect of whites not being honest about their preferences to pollsters. Surveys of voters leaving the polls in the April primary found that 19 percent said race played an important role in their decision (as they delivered the state to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton by nine percentage points over Mr. Obama).

Missouri is another red state where the contest looks close. But it frequently has voting problems that delay the count, so don’t expect right away to add this to one column or the other. When you do get the results, Missouri is usually with the winner.

A TASTE OF THE WEST Colorado polls close at 9. This is a tossup that has been trending Democratic and is now leaning Obama. If he wins here, watch for chatter of a Democratic realignment. Early voting was big here — an astounding 46 percent of voters cast their ballots before Election Day.

New Mexico also closes at 9 and is another red state that Mr. Obama has worked hard to turn blue. About three in every eight voters here are Hispanic; an Obama win would signal an important shift by Hispanics away from the Republican Party.

Nevada, where polls close at 10, is the latest tossup to report.

THE CALL Conventional wisdom suggests that if Mr. Obama wins, he will do so early, because the polls in so many tossup states — Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida — close early. Long lines or problems could delay the count. Watch to see how skittish, or not, the networks are about calling the states and the final outcome: CBS has signaled it might project a preliminary winner at 8 p.m., but all news organizations have nightmares about the debacle in 2000, when most made the wrong calls.

A TWO-SCREEN NIGHT This is the first presidential election in which the Web provides advanced tools for a complete do-it-yourself election night. This puts even more pressure on the networks to remind viewers of their resources and heft — and to offer something different. (Check out the holograms on CNN.) The networks are offering more bells and whistles this year, but they are competing with their cable channels and their own Web sites as well as those of other news outlets, including nytimes.com.

A note of caution: If a network calls a state, you might be able to extrapolate something. But if a network does not call a state, don’t read too much into it. It may be that there was something wrong with the exit polls (anyone remember President John Kerry in 2004?).

NO MORE CHADS Expect some confusion at the polls. About half of all voters will cast their ballots differently from the way they cast them in the last presidential election; most will use paper ballots rather than those touchy touch-screen machines. Still, heavy voter participation could delay poll closings and stall the counting.

TURNOUT Based on early voting, analysts are predicting (there they go again) that more people will probably vote this year than ever, in terms of numbers, and maybe at a higher rate.

The rate to beat in modern times is the 64 percent who voted in 1960. But the real record was set a century ago, when 66 percent voted in a race that no doubt warms the heart of Mr. McCain: 1908 was the year that William Howard Taft, the Republican, defeated the golden-tongued Democrat, William Jennings Bryan (and a real Socialist, Eugene V. Debs).