Keep an eye on Virginia.
When you’re sitting down with a table full of snacks to watch the Election Night returns, when you’re being inundated by exit polls and magic-wall graphics, here are a few simple keys to figuring out where the race is headed.
Virginia’s 13 electoral votes are vital, but its chief asset for our purposes is that the polls close there at 7 p.m. President Obama took the commonwealth four years ago, the first Democrat to do so since LBJ, and if he does it again, it’s going to be a long night for Mitt Romney. His path to 270 is more difficult without Virginia, and a loss would signal that Romney is not doing as well in the swing states that will decide the election.
The problem is that Virginia is likely to be so close that we won’t know early in the evening which way it will tip. But fear not: on to Ohio, where polls close at 7:30.
In a very real sense, Ohio could be the ballgame. If Romney loses Ohio and its 18 electoral votes, it is very difficult to win the White House. No Republican has managed that feat in the past. If Obama loses the Buckeye State, it’s a significant setback, but he has several other plausible combinations that could get him to 270. So Ohio is more than just a bellwether; it could decide the election. Another complication: in past elections, 2 to 3 percent of Ohio voters cast provisional ballots, which aren’t counted until later. So we may not know who won Ohio even on Wednesday morning.
In North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008, polls also close at 7:30, but that state is most likely in the Romney camp this time around.
A brief word here about how 2012 is different. Thanks to early voting laws, more than a third of the country cast its ballots before Tuesday. Those totals will be made public when each state’s polls close. So we will have more raw totals to work with than in past years. The danger is that these results may be skewed, with Obama’s forces having made a far more aggressive push on early voting.
A whole wave of states will start reporting results at 8 p.m., but most are reliably red or blue; none looms larger than Florida. Romney needs its 29 electoral votes to have a real shot at winning; a defeat for Obama would be disappointing but not crippling. If Romney carries the Sunshine State, it would be a good barometer for his prospects in other tightly contested states. But an early projection by the networks is unlikely.
Two other states to watch at 8: New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Romney has a good shot at New Hamsphire, where he has a vacation home; he needs such small states (4 electoral votes) to cobble together an electoral majority. Traditionally blue Pennsylvania should be a slam-dunk for the president, but late polls showed a tightening race. If Romney gives Obama a run for his money in Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, he’s likely to have a good night.
By 9 p.m. we may have a sense of where the thing is heading as more totals trickle in from the early states. But there are two states that could speak volumes. Wisconsin, with its 10 electoral votes, should have been an easy Obama state, but it is also Paul Ryan’s home turf; if any part of the president’s Midwestern firewall were to fall, it could be Wisconsin.
The other is Colorado, a true swing state that both sides need. An Obama loss in Colorado would probably signal weakness in similar battlegrounds.
Ten p.m. used to be a big deal in presidential elections, but not any more. California, Oregon, and Washington are now all reliably Democratic. So by 10, the pundits will still be talking about Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, if those states haven’t already been called.
And if they’re too close to call—a phrase you’ll likely hear repeated all evening—it could be a very long night. Make sure you have adequate supplies of caffeine.