What to watch when you're watching U.S. election coverage

Luiza Ch. Savage on key battlegrounds, swing states and projected turnout

With both Republicans and Democrats arguing that their candidate has what it takes to win, it’s going to be an interesting night. Here is handy map of poll closing times.

Of all the important swing states, Virginia and Florida close first, at 7 p.m. ET. The last swing state to close is Iowa at 10 p.m. ET.

There are a variety of ways each candidate could rack up the necessary 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. The NY Times has a very cool interactive graphic  here. It shows that because Obama starts out with a lead in Electoral College votes from solidly Democratic high-population states (with high Electoral College vote allocations,) Obama has 431 ways to win the election—while Romney has only 76.

The graphic illustrates why Ohio is so important. If Obama wins Ohio, then he only needs to win North Carolina to clinch the presidency. Failing that (Romney has a polling lead in N.C.), then Obama can still win if he gets only Virginia and Wisconsin in addition to Ohio. Virginia is a deadlocked. Wisconsin is the home state of vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, but is still considered to lean to Obama. So if Obama wins Ohio and Wisconsin, then he only needs one more swing state: either Colorado or Iowa or New Hampshire, for victory. If you play around with the graphic, you can see how Obama has much more room for error than does Romney. Even if Romney wins Ohio, he still needs a combination of several other swing states to win. If he loses Ohio, he has to have a near-perfect night elsewhere.

Forecasters who build their models using published polls predict an Obama win: Romney wins North Carolina and Obama wins all the other swing states (see Nate Silver’s map) or Romney wins North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia and Obama wins the other swing states and the White House (see Larry Sabato’s map.)

But many Republicans don’t trust these projections. They argue that the polls this year can’t be taken at face value because they overestimate Democratic turnout. They argue that enthusiasm among Republican voters is much higher, that Romney is winning Independent voters, and that the polls are missing a pro-Romney movement that will turn into a tidal wave election. Here is one projection of a Romney sweep of most of the swing states. Here is another projection of a big Romney win from the University of Colorado that has received a lot of attention. It factors in economic data as well as polls.

The state everyone will be watching is Ohio, where the polls close at 7:30. It’s an important swing state to Romney’s path to 270 votes, but polls suggest Obama has consistent but slim lead there. Back in 2004, John Kerry didn’t concede Ohio — and the election — until the day after the election. This time, if the race is extremely close, there is a chance the outcome would not be settled for weeks.

When returns start being announced in Ohio, Obama is expected to be ahead after early voting (people who voted before Election Day) because polls suggest Obama was ahead among those voters. If he’s not, then that’s an early sign that Romney won the state. If when additional votes are counted and there is a tie or a slim Romney lead, then the result may not be a result for weeks. That’s because there will be thousands of “provisional ballots” to count — and those are expected to favour Obama. The state won’t start counting those ballots for at least ten days and the winner of the election could remain undecided. The Washington Post explains the details of Ohio’s procedures and counties to watch in detail here.

Meanwhile, results have already been announced in the traditional first-vote village of Dixville Notch, NH, which cast votes shortly after midnight: it was a 5-5 tie. A second early voting village went handily for Obama. Should be an interesting night.