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What to Watch for—and Ignore—on Election Day

After thousands of polls and months of manufactured news cycles, Election Day is finally here. The horse race, however, isn’t quite over, and you should expect pundits to milk these final hours of everything they’re worth. Before precincts begin reporting at 6 p.m. (when some counties in Kentucky and Indiana close their polls), millions of antsy observers will latch onto all kinds of misinformation in hopes of gleaning the eventual outcome. In order to survive the night with your sanity intact, it helps to know what to look out for—and what to ignore. 

The insanity begins every election with images of long lines and news that precincts are running out of ballots—signs, according to commentators, of an historic turnout. These reports invariably come from urban areas, where reporters are camped out and where the vote is heavily Democratic. Turnout is likely to remain high in 2012, but whether turnout is as high in Democratic areas as it is in Republican areas is the more important question. Long lines in Milwaukee can’t tell us anything about whether Democrats are getting better turnout than Republicans. More generally, there hasn’t been a recent election when new information reported on Election Day could have improved the accuracy of election predictions.   

More maddening are the early exit polls, which usually leak in the afternoon. They’re not remotely accurate. Even the initial exit polls released when the polls close are typically off, and usually in a Democratic-leaning direction. You’re best off ignoring the exit polls altogether until they’re retabulated to reflect the results later in the night. If you can’t resist the temptation to look, remember that the exit polls showed Kerry winning big; a tight race in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall; and Gore carrying Florida. The rise of early voting makes the exit polls even more difficult to interpret, and 19 states will go without a full exit poll entirely in 2012. All things considered, you’d be better off ignoring any information released on Election Day prior to the actual returns.

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The real action begins when the polls close in the eastern portions of Kentucky and Indiana at 6 p.m. Eastern. Neither state is competitive, but the results in eastern Kentucky could provide insight into the voting of neighboring southern Ohio and southwestern Virginia. These areas are all part of a historically Democratic stretch of ‘coal country’ that also extends through West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. Obama did worse than Kerry in these areas and the Romney campaign is counting on big gains to make up for high black turnout and Obama’s likely resilience in well-educated suburbs.

As most of the big eastern battleground states close at 7 and 7:30 p.m., be prepared for Obama to take an early lead in Ohio, Florida, and even North Carolina, where early votes will probably represent a disproportionate share of initial returns. As Election Day ballots are tabulated, Romney will begin to make inroads and perhaps ultimately overcome Obama’s advantage in early votes. Conversely, expect Romney to open up a big early lead in Virginia, where rural, Republican counties in western Virginia report quickly. Even if Obama ultimately wins Virginia by a modest margin, Romney will likely lead the state for most of the night. Obama won Virginia by 6 points in 2008, but it wasn’t called until more than 90 percent of precincts were reported because Democratic-leaning counties take so much longer to report. In 2008, Obama won the final 600,000 votes by a 170,000 vote margin. For that same reason, Senator Jim Webb didn’t take a lead until 98 percent of precincts reported in the closely contested 2006 midterm election. 

As votes are counted across the Republican-leaning eastern two-thirds of the country, Romney is likely to take the lead in the national popular vote, perhaps even a large one. If Obama wins the popular vote, his margin of victory will come from the populous West Coast states and big cities that don’t report until later. In the case of the West Coast, mail-in balloting ensures that full results aren’t in for days or weeks. It is entirely conceivable that Obama could give a victory speech in Chicago while trailing in the popular vote, only to take the lead over the coming hours or even days in an extremely close race.

An 11 p.m. verdict is possible if the state polls are accurate, but not likely unless Obama carries Ohio and Wisconsin by a clear margin and the count in Nevada or Iowa goes fast enough to permit a projection within 1 hour of their 10 p.m. closings. Florida, Virginia, and Colorado are very unlikely to be resolved before 11 p.m. A decision might not come until after midnight, and the outcome of the popular vote might not be known for days if it’s as close as suggested by an average of national polls.