A wild contest, the likelihood of errors and a close outcome that could go into extra innings. That sounds like the just-ended baseball season, but it also describes what viewers may see when they tune in to tonight’s election returns.
The election for president, Congress and a host of state and local offices and issues appears as close as the 2000 overtime contest that wrote the term “hanging chad” into the nation’s lexicon. And if anything, passions about this contest are even more intense.
“This is the most emotional election we’ve had since 1968,” when Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey during the Vietnam War, says Curtis Gans, an authority on voter turnout. “Both sides feel an enormous stake, and the level of contention before, at and after the polls is going to be higher than we’ve ever seen.”
The most surprising ending would be knowing the winner before the wee hours Wednesday. Both parties have stocked the most hotly contested states with legal teams, poised to challenge any anomaly in the voting process. Under such scrutiny, election officials are likely to be slow and deliberate in their vote counting. Television networks, burned by premature declarations of the winner in 2000, will probably be more careful this time. And with apologies to Yogi Berra, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be over even when it’s over.
But there will be guideposts for the savvy television viewer, augmented by information available on the Internet, that will help predict how the evening will unfold. This year, the TV networks plan to provide county-by-county returns as they are reported. In addition, many state elections departments will post returns live on their Web sites.
Before the polls even close, all eyes will be on a process that usually gets little attention: the mechanics of voting. Did the polls open on time across the country? Did new computerized voting machines boot up and run smoothly? Does heavy turnout lead to long lines? Do partisans race to court to get the polls held open past their normal closing times? And how do election officials handle provisional ballots, the backup ballots they must offer to any voter whose registration can’t immediately be verified?
If there are serious problems in any of these areas, it could mean that the lawyers deployed by the two major parties will swing into action, leading to litigation and delaying the results.
Here’s a guide to watching the returns, following time zones from east to west.
The early closers
The first votes will be counted in Indiana and Kentucky. Because those states straddle time zones, polls close at either 6 or 7 p.m. EST. President Bush is expected to win both handily, as he did in 2000.
But a closer look might yield signs of how the rest of the night will go in the presidential race, says Bernadette Budde, a political analyst at the business-friendly group BIPAC. She advises a look at how Bush fares in Kentucky’s Jefferson County, which includes Louisville. He beat Al Gore there by 4,849 votes four years ago. If he does that well or better this time, it’s a sign that the president is holding his own in Democratic-leaning urban areas and means “he’s going to be OK” nationally, Budde projects.
Kentucky also is home to a closer-than-expected Senate contest that could be a harbinger of whether the Democrats recapture the majority in that chamber. Incumbent Republican Jim Bunning’s missteps in the campaign have allowed Democrat Dan Mongiardo to make gains. An upset could signal a good night for Senate Democrats.
There are few competitive House races this year – 40 at most – but five of them are in the two earliest-reporting states. A vacancy left by retiring Democrat Ken Lucas in northern Kentucky offers a chance for a Republican pickup, and Democrat Baron Hill faces a tough challenge in southeast Indiana. Republicans are in little danger of losing their House majority, and early developments could cement their prospects.
The big battlegrounds
At 7:30 and 8 p.m., 18 states and the District of Columbia close their polls. This wave includes what political analyst Charlie Cook calls “the three mega-states”: Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, with a total of 68 electoral votes.
Because they are large and hotly contested, final results there are likely to be slow in coming, and the television networks will be deliberate in their use of the exit polls that help project winners. “What viewers will probably notice is there is no race to be first this year,” says Sandy Genelius of CBS. “Nobody wants a repeat of 2000.”
The task of calling winners is complicated by what may be the heaviest voter turnout in more than three decades. Those new voters may behave differently than those who turn out faithfully year in and year out and present a challenge to pollsters. Cook believes turnout could hit 135 million (it was 105 million four years ago) and “blow the doors off any election we’ve had in a long time.” And the growing popularity of early voting means as much as one-fifth of the vote will already have been cast before today, adding another variable to the mix.
But while waiting for statewide results, viewers can find hints in local races. Ohio, where polls close at 7:30, could offer clues in how individual counties go. Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, is Democratic territory, and Kerry needs to do well there to offset a GOP advantage in Cincinnati and the state’s rural areas.
Another clue might be found in Franklin County, which includes Columbus. Al Gore beat Bush there by 4,156 votes in 2000, while Bush was winning the state by 165,000 votes. If Kerry’s margin turns out to be bigger than Gore’s, it probably means he’s winning Ohio, Youngstown State University political science professor Bill Binning says. That, in turn, could provide a clue to the national outcome: No Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying Ohio.
In Pennsylvania, two congressional districts in the Philadelphia suburbs may be significant markers. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College and director of the Keystone Poll, notes that each is home to prized swing voters and is considered must-win territory for Republicans if they hope to carry the state. The so-called collar counties around Philadelphia represented almost half of the 2 million votes cast in Pennsylvania in 2000.
Names to listen for: Jim Gerlach, a rookie Republican congressman facing a strong challenge from Democrat Lois Murphy in the 6th District; and Democratic state Sen. Allyson Schwartz and Republican Melissa Brown, vying for an open seat in the 13th District.
Another key is how Kerry fares in Philadelphia. Democrats must roll up a huge margin there to overcome the more conservative vote in the middle of the state. Gore bested Bush in Philadelphia County by 348,000 votes en route to winning the state.
In Florida, watch the tight Senate race between Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor. “If Mel wins by two or three points, it bodes well for the president,” longtime GOP strategist Ron Kaufman says. Another clue, says political analyst Rhodes Cook: how the candidates are doing in the I-4 corridor. Named for the interstate that runs from Daytona to Tampa-St. Petersburg, it’s the most politically unpredictable section of the state and the one where most elections are won or lost. Key counties: Hillsborough, where Tampa is located and where Bush beat Gore 50 percent-47 percent; Pinellas (St. Petersburg), where Gore beat Bush 50 percent-46 percent; Orange (Orlando), where Gore beat Bush 50 percent-48 percent; and Volusia (Daytona), where Gore beat Bush 53 percent-45 percent.
Most Florida polls close at 7 p.m., but networks won’t call the state until polls close in the heavily Republican Florida Panhandle, which is in the Central time zone and closes at 8.
While you’re waiting for the count in the big states, Budde’s presidential weathervane is New Hampshire, which should report its vote quickly. “If Bush carries it, he will be president,” she says. Bush beat Gore there by just 7,211 votes in 2000, and it’s seen as the easiest take-away opportunity for Kerry, who is from neighboring Massachusetts. “If he can’t take it, he can’t take the others,” Budde says.
The key to the Senate
The 9 o’clock hour brings poll closings in 15 central and western states, including hotly contested Michigan, Colorado, Minnesota, Wisconsin and New Mexico. Those five are worth a combined 51 electoral votes.
But first there’s Arkansas, which closes at 8:30. If it’s not called quickly for Bush, that may be a sign the president is in trouble, says Craig Smith, a native of the state and Bill Clinton’s former political director. Bush won the state by five percentage points last time, but recent polls show a tight race, and Clinton made a late visit for Kerry.
This batch of states may be pivotal in deciding which party controls the Senate next year. There’s a hot contest for an open Republican seat in Colorado. In Louisiana, the big question is whether Republican David Vitter can claim 50 percent of the vote and avoid a runoff for the Senate in December, when his chances would be diminished against a single Democratic candidate.
But the most-watched Senate race of the night is in South Dakota, where Minority Leader Tom Daschle faces his toughest challenge from Republican John Thune. A win for the Republicans would be significant numerically and symbolically.
The final wave
Iowa, part of the upper Midwest triangle Bush is seeking to wrest from Kerry, closes its polls at 10 p.m. Some analysts say victories there and in Wisconsin and Minnesota would mean Bush can afford to lose two of the big three: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The other battleground in this wave is Nevada, which not only has a tight presidential contest but is the proving ground for new voting technology. It’s the only state to rely totally on computer voting machines with a paper backup that can be verified by voters.
There’s no drama about the biggest prize of the night: California and its 55 electoral votes should be easily in Kerry’s column. Oregon and Washington also begin to report results at 11 and have been leaning Kerry’s way. One sleeper at this hour is Hawaii, a traditional Democratic stronghold, where recent surveys have shown the presidential race is tight.
The last state to report, at 1 a.m., is Alaska, a strong Bush state but one with a crucial Senate race.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is struggling with voter resentment over how she got her job; she was named by her father, former Sen. Frank Murkowski, after he was elected governor. Tony Knowles is hoping to win the seat for Democrats.
If you’re still up and wondering about the race for the White House at this hour, that means the election is a doozy. The networks are planning to stay on the air at least until 2 a.m. Says CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman: “Who knows when we’re going to have a president?”