Election Day is Here: What To Watch For Tonight

So Election Day 2010 has finally arrived, after what may have seemed to progressives like the longest midterm election cycle ever, dominated as it was (certainly in media coverage) by raging Tea Partiers determined to take America back to the prelapsarian paradise that was ruined by the New Deal.

Election Day itself isn’t quite what it used to be, thanks to the steady rise of early voting, especially in the West.  Michael McDonald of George Washington University estimates that nearly 29 percent of all ballots will have been cast early (in person or by mail), with particularly high rates in all-mail-ballot Washington and Oregon, but also in Colorado, Arizona and California.

Election Night won’t necessarily end tonight, either, since both Washington and Alaska—both of which have potentially crucial Senate races—allow mail ballots postmarked by today to be received and counted later—sometimes much later.  An additional issue is Lisa Murkowski’s viable write-in candidacy for the Senate in Alaska, since write-in votes are usually counted much later, and challenges to individual ballots are certain if it matters.

Since turnout is invariably important in midterm elections, it’s worth noting that the weather today is unusually good in most of the country, with the exception of heavy rain predicted in the lower Mississippi River Valley and parts of the Gulf Coast of Florida.

I’ve written a pretty elaborate Election Night Guide for The New Republic, which you can find here.  It begins with the restive period before polls close, and concludes with what late-night insomniacs can expect to see and hear.  But here’s a brief overview:

  • Ignore just about everything you hear during the day that purports to tell you what is happening.  The days of leaked “early exits” that were exchanged (and often distorted) ended with the new security measures enacted in 2008.  Now media outlets won’t get data from the exit poll consortium (which will cover statewide races only in 26 states) until 5:00 EDT, and won’t make any calls based on this data until the relevant polls are closed.  You may also hear or read anecdotal assessments of turnout, usually from local media or state election officials; they often turn out to be wrong.  Finally, given the Tea Party Movement’s paranoia about “voter fraud” (which has not, in reality, been a significant problem since the 1960s), there will undoubtedly be reports during the day of alleged pro-Democratic chicanery in heavily minority areas.  Conservative media will fan the flames, in part to counter or cloak the often very-real incidents of voter intimidation or polling-place chaos engineered by local GOP operatives in these same locales.  Be forewarned.
  • At roughly 5:30-5:45 EDT, turn on your television and watch as the networks begin carefully releasing exit poll “findings” that don’t related to specific contests; they are sometimes quite revealing, and the official network analysts often drop broad hints in reporting them.  One obvious number to pay attention to is the president’s job approval/disapproval ratio; if it’s negative by more than a few points, that’s not good news for Democrats.  Another key set of numbers involve the demographic breakdown of the electorate.  Democrats hope that the percentage of voters over age 50 does not exceed 60 percent, and non-Hispanic whites aren’t over 80 percent. If partisan-ideological self-identification numbers are released, note carefully whether independent “leaners” are assigned to each party.  If the percentage of conservatives significantly exceeds the percentage of moderates, that, too, is a bad sign for Democrats.
  • The first poll closings are at 6:00 EDT in the Eastern Time Zone portions of Indiana and Kentucky, where there’s a pretty good assortment of bellwether House races.  Even if there seems to be a clear trend (e.g., Baron Hill is winning, or Ben Chandler is losing), be aware that regional trends don’t always hold sway elsewhere.  The first inkling we will have about a highly competitive Senate race is at 7:30 EDT, when West Virginia closes its polls.
  • If you decide to watch the whole show on the tube, keep in mind that the networks are going to spend a lot of airtime reporting the results of non-competitive races (some of which, like the Senate races in Kentucky and Delaware, involve colorful personalities on which they probably have a lot of footage in the can), and letting their highly paid pundits and “guest commentators” have their say. This will be particularly true at 8:00 EDT, when nineteen states close their polls.  If you want to keep up with what’s happening in real time, go online, and consult a cheat-sheet of key races (if you don’t like mine, which I mentioned above, there are many others available, including Nate Silver’s very precise hour-by-hour analysis of House races).  Avoiding the tube will also enable you to postpone listening to massive quantities of spin until tomorrow.
  • Given the natural horse-race obsessions of the chattering classes, there will be a major emphasis in coverage on who “won” or “lost,” and in that connection, context is everything.  The conventional wisdom is that Republicans will narrowly win the House while Democrats narrowly hold the Senate.  But expectations are being distorted by the unusually broad range of final generic congressional ballot findings by major polling outlets, which has enabled spinmeisters in both parties to make a case that Republican gains will be larger or smaller than originally anticipated.  Keep in mind as well that raw Republican gains must be assessed in light of the large majorities Democrats currently hold in Congress (known as the “over-exposure” phenomenon); the near-universal history of the party controlling the White House losing seats in the first midterm after a new administration takes office (the only recent exception being the post-9/11 midterm of 2002); and the normal midterm turnout patterns that create an older and whiter electorate.  There will be plenty of time for analysis later, so take claims made tonight with a large grain of salt.

Happy (or as the case may be, unhappy) election watching.  This campaign cost a total of $4 billion, so let’s hope tonight is at least as entertaining as the alternative cable offerings.

photo credit: dailyinvention