What to Watch on Election Night

Be among the first to know who'll be the next President (or not). How? By following our hour-by-hour guide as polls close nationwide

By Richard S. Dunham

The Pundit Elite is in high dudgeon. They say it could be days...or weeks...or months...after the polls close on Nov. 2 before anyone knows who the next President is. Walter Cronkite, the dean of TV newscasters, recently went so far as to say that it would be next spring before the victor becomes clear (see BW Online, 10/29/04, "Four Scenarios for Election Night").

In a race as unpredictable as this one, who knows? But here's one way to figure out what's happening on Election Night -- and whether either candidate will be hailed as the clear winner: BusinessWeek Online's viewer's guide to Campaign '04 -- our third such effort since the rise of the Internet.

Just print out our hour-by-hour analysis below (and keep our final Electoral College analysis handy), slip the popcorn into your microwave, sit back, and enjoy the evening. By checking the results in key states, you'll get an early indication of what the final tally may be. Or you'll see that the U.S. is heading toward another 2000 Florida-esque mess. Here goes:

6 p.m. EST. Polls close in Kentucky and Indiana.

This isn't important unless Kentucky is close. If Kerry is holding Bush to a single-digit lead, he's faring better than expected in national polls.

For a bit more drama, check out the Kentucky Senate race: If Republican incumbent Jim Bunning is losing to Democratic challenger Dan Mongiardo in the wake of a series of strange statements by the former Major League Hall of Fame baseball pitcher during the campaign, it could be a sign that Democrats have a chance to regain the upper chamber.

And if the Democrats upset incumbent Republican Representative Anne Northup in the Louisville district, they might be on track to pick up seats in the House.

7 p.m. EST. Polls close in Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia.

If the networks project a winner in Florida early, you can pretty much take it to the bank. A clear Kerry victory? He's likely to win nationally. Same for Bush if he emerges as an early winner.

New Hampshire is also a key. Kerry needs to win the Granite State, which Bush carried four years ago, to offset possible losses in the Midwest. If Bush wins in New Hampshire, it's a bad early sign for Kerry.

Another harbinger to watch: If Virginia's results are close, it's good news for the Democrats. While Old Dominion State usually votes Republican in national races, it has shown surprising support for the Democratic ticket this year.

On the congressional front, a Republican victory in the South Carolina Senate race could be an early sign of GOP gains nationally.

7:30 p.m. EST. Polls close in North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Kerry has a great deal riding on Ohio. A Bush win in the Buckeye State would make it difficult for the Democrat to cobble together the 270 votes he needs in the Electoral College. So if the networks call a winner here quickly, it may be a sign of a national trend toward that candidate.

A close race in West Virginia or North Carolina would be good news for Kerry. But double-digit GOP blowouts in these states once targeted by the Democrat could mean that the momentum nationally is with Bush.

At the Senate level, North Carolina is vital to the Democrats. A loss by Erskine Bowles here could presage a GOP gain of five seats in the South. That could mean a much stronger Republican majority in '05.

8 p.m. EST. Polls close in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas.

So many states, so little drama. Only 2 of the 17 states or territories in the "hour of power" are battlegrounds. But if Bush carries either Michigan or Pennsylvania, it's curtains for Kerry.

Other states to watch are Maine, Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee. If, for some reason, New Jersey or Maine is close, it's a sign of a Bush tide. Likewise, if Missouri or Tennessee is too close to call early, Kerry is performing better than the pre-election polls.

In the fight for Congress, the key contests here are the five embattled Democratic House incumbents in Texas and the Oklahoma Senate races. If any of the five Lone Star Democrats fall, it's hard to see how the party regains control of the House. If three or four of them lose, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) is likely to have an even bigger majority.

And the Oklahoma Senate race is vital to Democratic hopes to secure a majority of 51 in the upper chamber. If Republican Tom Coburn is declared the winner quickly, it's a sign that Bush has coattails in Republican-leaning states.

8:30 p.m. EST. Polls close in Arkansas.

If Kerry wins Arkansas, he can thank former President Bill Clinton. It could even presage planning for his inauguration. Otherwise, go crack open a cold one and come back in half an hour.

9 p.m. EST. Polls close in Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Hotly contested four years ago, Wisconsin and New Mexico both went for Al Gore. Yet, if Bush loses Ohio, GOP victories here could be his insurance policy for carrying the Electoral College. If Bush loses in the Badger State and the Land of Enchantment, he'll have lost his last line of defense. Since Bush is going to win almost all of the late-closing states, victories here could be pivotal -- keep an eye on them.

Kerry needs to win at least three of the five competitive states that report their results at this hour. In addition to Wisconsin and New Mexico, they are Arizona, Colorado, and Minnesota. He's favored slightly in Minnesota and is a slight underdog in the Western showdowns. If one candidate sweeps these, that man is going to be a clear winner before the clocks strike midnight.

The most important Senate race in the nation is in South Dakota, where Republicans have a fair shot at unseating Minority Leader Tom Daschle. If Daschle survives comfortably, it's a sign that the Democratic turnout machine is cranking from coast to coast.

10 p.m. EST. Polls close in Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, and Utah.

Iowa and Nevada are still up for grabs. Democrats are desperate to hold on to the Hawkeye State, where Gore won in 2000 but Kerry has been trailing for most of October. A Bush defeat here, after all of the time and money his campaign poured into Iowa, would portend deep damage for the GOP. But Kerry has to either pull out Iowa, or yank Bush-leaning Nevada into his Electoral corner.

11 p.m. EST. Polls close in California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington.

Because Oregon has so many mail-in ballots, it might be a day or two before the winner is known. That is, unless one candidate has unexpectedly pulled away. If Washington is close, it's a sign of a trend toward Bush. But the big upset to watch for is Hawaii. This Democratic-leaning state is closer than anybody predicted.

Vice-President Dick Cheney jetted in on Halloween for a 90-minute trick-or-treat session with Aloha State voters. It could be a sign the Republicans are about to pick the Democrats' pockets -- or that the Bush-Cheney ticket is so desperate that they can't possibly win without these four electoral votes.

12 midnight EST. Polls close in Alaska.

The only question in the Presidential race is whether Bush wins by 30 percentage points or more. But the hotly contested Senate race between Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski and former Democratic Governor Tony Knowles could determine control of the Senate, if the continental states haven't already decided it.

Viewers might have to stay up all night to find out who's the winner. Then again, if the result is clear early, get some rest and check out the Internet in the morning. Happy Election Night!

Dunham is Washington Outlook editor for BusinessWeek

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