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Election Night Viewers’ Guide

Over at Newsweek, I have an hour-by-hour preview of what to watch for tomorrow night:

7 PM EST. Polls close in Virginia and Georgia, as well as most of Florida and most of New Hampshire.

Virginia, for my money, is the most important state in this election. If John McCain loses it, his path to victory is exceptionally narrow—he would need to pull out an upset in Pennsylvania, while holding on to Florida and Ohio, and avoiding a sweep out West. Barack Obama has considerably more ways to win without Virginia, but a failure to close out the state would suggest at best a more circuitous route to victory. As Obama remains about five points ahead in most polls of Virginia, what we’re really looking for is a quick call on anything before 8 PM that would indicate that the map has indeed changed from 2004, and not in McCain’s favor.

Georgia and New Hampshire are a bit less essential electorally, but they may tell us the most about whether the polls are off in this election. If there’s one state where Obama is likely to overperform his polls, it’s in Georgia, where 35 percent of early voters are African-American, and where almost 30 percent of them did not vote in 2004. These are the sorts of voters that may erroneously be screened out by “likely voter” models that rely on past voting history. Obama could not only carry the state, but he might help boost Jim Martin to victory in the U.S. Senate race there—giving the Democrats a plausible path to a 60-seat caucus.

On the other hand, if there is any state where the polls might overestimate Obama’s numbers, it’s in New Hampshire, where nearly the entirely electorate is white and where Obama was famously upset by Hillary Clinton during the primaries. If McCain holds Obama to within about five points in New Hampshire—closer than any current polls—we may need to be worried about some sort of Bradley Effect.

Lots more over that way…

By the way, just to make this clear: although I will be doing some hits on set for Dan Rather and HDNet (where we should have a very interesting panel with folks ranging from Dahlia Lithwick to Todd Harris to Donnie Fowler) there will also be plenty of downtime when I will be liveblogging. We’ll have new threads going up every 20 minutes or so covering every last detail of how we’re seeing the evening unfold.

Basically, the idea is that I’ll have an electoral map updated in real time … not just including those states that have officially been called by the networks, but also my informed opinion about how the rest of the states are going to be impacted by what we’re learning in real time. More about this later on.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.