Your guide to Election Night

So here we go. In 36 hours the United States will have a new President and if the polls are to be believed arise sir Barack Obama.

Below is your print-out-and-keep hour by hour guide to tomorrow night for those of you planning to watch the returns on tv. If you’re going to be by a computer join me for one final liveblog which will be coming via my phone from the Union’s election night party.

Oh, and a quick plug. Last week I joined a panel to discuss the election for Second Look. Click here for audio joy. Finally, a word on this blog. From later this week I’ll be starting a series of posts looking back at the campaign season and the key issues/changes it raised. I’ll also be widening my focus to American culture at large and, if you’re really lucky, there might even be a bit of English politics as well.

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All times are for the UK.

11pm – Majority of polls in Indiana shut. McCain is still the slight favourite to win this state but if the networks can’t call the polls straight away things are looking good for Obama. If Obama wins early here get ready for a landslide.

Senate-wise Kentucky (which also shuts its polls at this point) is one of 3 key races where the Democrats will be looking for an upset if they are to reach 60 seats. The other two, Georgia (12pm) and Mississippi (1am) will start to report later. A footnote here – there is a rule in Georgia whereby if one candidate doesn’t reach 50% a run-off is held).

12pm – Polls shut in Virginia and Florida. Both are key toss-up states but since the financial crisis and bailout Obama has enjoyed a healthy lead in Virginia paritcuarly. A win here for the Democrats gives McCain a very narrow route to 270 votes and probably indicates an Obama win. If Florida goes too it’s a done deal.

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On the other hand, if Florida goes for McCain and Virginia is slow to be called we could be in for a nail-biter.

12.30am – Polls close in Ohio and North Carolina. A chance to assess the impact of the ground game. North Carolina has been very very close in recent polling so results from the state will give an opportunity to see how much Obama’s much-touted advantage in the get out the vote operation will be worth.

In 2004 the election came down to Ohio. No Republican President has ever reached the White House without turning the Buckeye state red and so Ohio’s 21 electoral college votes are crucial for John McCain. Obama has other routes to 270 (a combination of Virginia or Colorado with Iowa and Niew Mexico is a likely one) but an early call for the GOP on Ohio will mean the election will be heading late into the night.

1am – Polls shut in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Whilst McCain likes to think these are both toss-ups in reality they should be quick calls for Obama. This could well be the point where the networks project that Obama will reach 270 votes (states like California with 55 votes ahead are locked up for the Democrats) and declare him the winner. Polls also close in Missouri at this point, but don’t expect the state to be called any time soon, the state should be in for a close finish.

2am – Lots of results coming in from the right-hand two-thirds of the country. If it’s not done by now the focus will be turning to New Mexico, Colorado (in both these states polls shut now) and Nevada. One to watch at this point will also be Arizona. There’s a very real possibility that in the event of a landslide McCain could even lose his home state – he was forced to play defence there just two days ago.

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Also of interest here is the closely fought Minnesota senate race between comedian Al Franken and Norm Coleman. Franken is currently slightly favoured and will be a cruical pickup for the Dems if they are to have any chance of reaching that magic veto-proof majority of 60-40.Minnesota would likely represent the 59th seat for the Democrats (including independents Sanders and Lieberman).

3am – The last of these three results will come in from Nevada. Polls also shut in Iowa. The latter should be safe for Obama but if it’s still in the air at this stage something has gone badly wrong with the polling and Iowa’s 7 electoral college votes will be very valuable for John McCain.

4am – California, Washington and Oregon start reporting results. All three are safely blue at the presidential level but there is a close governor race in Washington for hardcore politicos to look out for.

5am – Alaskan results will start coming in. By now the presidential race will be over one way or another but there’s a senate seat up for grabs in Palin’s home state and following the conviction of Republican incumbent Senator Ted Stevens it should be there for the taking for the Democrats.

A word on these timings: given the expectations of record turnout and in spite of the quantity of early voting it is likely that counting will take longer than normal, and that poll opening hours may even be extended. As a result the fact that states won’t be called straight away does not mean they have suddenly become very close necessarily, it could just be slow counting. Following some embarrassments in the primaries (New Hampshire anyone?) the networks are increasingly suspicious of exit polling as a predictor of the actual result.

And finally, my prediction:

Obama: Kerry states + NM, CO, NV, VA, OH, NC, FL, IA, MO

Giving a final score of Obama 364 vs. McCain 174.