It’s over. The longest, most intense, most media-saturated presidential campaign in American history has come to an end. Now, as the United States at last selects its next president, it’s all about the wait.
Campaign strategists who have been working 24/7 for months may go see a movie, head for the gym or otherwise kill some time and try to settle their nerves. But sooner or later, they’ll be glued to the TV and computer, working the phones, scanning every report, chasing down any nugget of news.
With history in the balance, you don’t have to be a politico to crave clues to tonight’s results. Here are some tips for those readers who want to follow the action like a pro -- some are standard quadrennial rules, some are unique to the particular 2008 puzzle.
Turnout reports. Journalists too have a lot of time to fill today, and this year there will be an obsessive push to assess the turnout. Every indication is that voting rates will be higher (maybe a lot higher) than in recent years. But don’t be fooled by a breathless TV reporter broadcasting live from a swarming polling station, or by a call from your Aunt Betty in Ohio describing an eight-hour wait to cast a ballot. Anecdotal slivers do not necessarily mean turnout is going to be up locally or nationally. Wait for official characterizations from secretaries of state or big-county officials before drawing any conclusions.
Exit poll embargo. For the first time in a presidential election, the consortium of news outlets that tracks the national and key state exit polls is keeping its statisticians and data under a strict quarantine until 5 p.m. EDT (2 p.m. in California).This is meant to prevent early leaks of incomplete, raw data, which could create a misleading impression of the results.
The consortium survey is the only national exit poll, so no one outside a secret and secure location in Manhattan will have any legitimate exit-poll data until the officials there release it. Don’t believe any reports you hear about exit poll numbers before 2 p.m. in Los Angeles.
Early exit poll reporting. Early exit polls and raw exit poll data can be skewed for a variety of reasons. So even once the data get out of quarantine, responsible networks and media websites will produce only limited reports on what can be gleaned. They’ll use the information to identify trends and interesting demographic and attitudinal developments. But flip around your cable TV dial, or click around the Internet, and you can watch some of the less responsible sources use loaded language to hint broadly at the outcome suggested by the early data.
Here’s one important historical insight: Methodological problems such as oversampling or insufficient response in past elections have sometimes falsely skewed early exit polls in favor of Democrats. Remember: The exit poll numbers might be absolutely correct or dead wrong, but either way, the real result may not be set in stone.
Early returns of real votes. Actual vote counts are more reliable, and early results in a few key states could tell us the night’s story. That’s because many of the states with the earliest poll closing times happen to be ones that for generations have been typically Republican strongholds but today are major battlegrounds. Indiana, Virginia and Ohio all have final poll closings by 7:30 p.m. EDT, and Virginia’s election tabulation system has historically been able to accurately count its votes very quickly.
If Barack Obama wins two of these states, John McCain’s narrow path to the White House is effectively blocked -- and if the Democrat is winning them easily enough for major media to make swift projections, that’s probably all she wrote. If McCain wins two of the three, he will remain a long shot for victory, but the fight goes on.
If McCain wins them all? As Dan Rather might say, the night could be longer than a teenager’s explanation for how he wrecked the family car.
If Obama wins easily. In 2008, a presidential candidate who gets more than 53% of the popular vote over a broad geographical sweep doesn’t just win the election, he wins a true mandate. The latest polls show that Obama may be poised for such a win. If it comes to pass, don’t lose sight of the potential for Obama coattails as the night goes on. An overall Democratic landslide could mean a potential political realignment in the United States that could last a decade or more.
If it is a close race. It appears that McCain can only win the battle for 270 electoral votes by a whisker, so if the presidential contest is too close to call by 10 p.m. EDT, watch as judges are forced to decide whether to extend polling place hours in areas with long lines at closing time. And, hearkening back to 2000, look for lawyers from both sides to take center stage with talk of recounts and voting irregularities.
Voting irregularities. Before the Florida fiasco of 2000, two things were true: There were a lot of voting problems in U.S. elections, and no one paid much attention to them. Now only the former is true.
In a vast nation with a decentralized system of election administration, there are always going to be discrepancies when ballots are cast and counted. On this election day, there will be more watchdog efforts than ever before, but be careful to separate the inevitable, small-scale mistakes from crucial incidents -- such as systemic machine errors in counties in large battleground states or thousands of voters waiting in line when the polls close -- that could actually effect the outcome.
As today unfolds, Californians (and many others outside the Eastern time zone) need to remember that even if reliable projections say one candidate has effectively locked up a majority of the electoral votes before you cast your ballot, you should still vote. It’s your civic duty, every vote is equal, and when you consider all the issues and all the races, it really won’t be over until it’s over.