Preparing for election night (I)

If 2008 is like 2004, then the moment the polls close in six states at 7pm, speculation will start flying about the results and — most important for people reading this blog — problems emerging with the election returns.  So, as I get ready  to roll into analysis mode at that point (as I also check the ads for a new flat-panel TV to be the center-piece of my election-watching party), I thought I’d lay out some step-by-step plans for getting ready for instant election night analysis.

Step 1 is figuring out which states will close first, which question is answered by this very nice web page on the Green Papers web site.  Some other sites have similar information, but few as so thorough about dealing with issues like states straddling time zones.

Several “battleground” states close right at 7:00pm, including FL, VA, and IN..  However, two things need to be kept in mind.  First, if these states are close, don’t expect to get anything especially insightful from the networks at 7pm.  Second, it may be a mistake to focus on battleground states in any case, if we are interested in getting an early read on the general contours of the election.  After all, the entire world is going to be pinging the web site of the Florida Election Division, so good luck getting any raw data from the Sunshine State early in the evening.  If there is a national swing, as everyone expects, then we might do just as well focusing first on getting data from a non-battleground state.  More on this point in a later post.

By ranking the states in the order in which the polls close, we can get an initial estimate of how early in the evening the winner might be called.  To see for myself, I took the current predictions on and simulated the cumulative number of electoral votes for Obama and McCain at various points in the evening.  If we assume that all of the current “tossup” states aren’t resolved until Wednesday morning, then Obama has to wait for the 11:00 closing, when the Pacific states (minus Alaska) pushes him over the top.  If we take the current toss-ups and assume that the networks will call them an hour after the polls close, and use the current poll results to push every state into either the Obama or McCain camp, then Obama would go over the top around 9:30, when the Florida results are added to his column.

Now, if anything like this second scenario happens, we could find ourselves with the networks calling the election for Obama, even though all of the west coast and most of the mountain west is still voting.  With so many mail-in ballots on the west coast this year, the issue may be moot.  But, I think we should be preparing for a kerfuffle if the networks call it by 6:30 PST.