Finally — polls that count.
After nearly two years of speeches, spectacle, polling and punditry, more than 120 million Americans get their chance to speak today.
The media will, of course, get a sneak preview of the results and demographic voting patterns at 5 p.m., when a consortium of TV networks distributes several waves of nationwide exit polling.
The first wave of that data is supposed to be kept secret from the general public because it is too unreliable and misleading. But the details were leaked to websites in 2004 — leading many Democrats to celebrate prematurely.
Since the avalanche of exit polling data and early election results can be confusing — here’s a quick list of benchmarks insiders will use to predict the evening’s winners and losers on a consequential and historic night in American politics (All times are Eastern Standard Time):
FIRST ROUND KNOCKOUT. Eastern Indiana reports at 6 p.m., with polling places in the western part of the state closing an hour later. The networks often start reporting results at 6 — and battleground Indiana should provide an immediate read on the night. Obama and McCain are deadlocked in the polls here — and no Democrat has carried the state since ’64 — so an Obama win would spell trouble for McCain. But a big McCain win here could cast immediate doubt on feel-good Obama polling elsewhere.
FRAUD ALERT. The Hoosier State will also provide an indication of whether the GOP claims of potential voter fraud are hype or a serious threat. Lake County, home of Gary and East Chicago, bungled the count during the May 6 primary, and good-government experts say a slowdown today or widespread allegations of shenanigans could augur serious problems around the country. Other counties with potential problems, according to experts: Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland); Palm Beach County, Fla., yet again; Denver; Richmond, Va.
SIGN MCCAIN IS FEELING THE HEAT. He loses Pennsylvania, (where he trails by 4 points to 14 points) after camping out in the Keystone State for much of the week. A key metric for McCain: Obama’s advantage coming out of Philadelphia. If it’s much more than the 412,000-vote edge enjoyed by John F. Kerry in 2004, McCain’s headed for a loss. (Closing time: 8 p.m.)
SIGN MCCAIN IS IN HOT WATER. If Obama wins any one of the following states: Ohio (7:30 p.m.), Virginia (7 p.m.), North Carolina (7:30 p.m.) or Florida (8 p.m.).
SIGN MCCAIN IS COOKED. If Obama wins two of them.
SIGN MCCAIN IS TOTALLY TOAST. He loses Georgia (7 p.m.), where he once enjoyed a 20-plus-point lead.
OBAMAPOCALYPSE. Obama is more or less finished if he loses Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida — with the stat wizards at FiveThirtyEight.com giving him only a 9.76 percent chance of victory if he loses the battleground trifecta.
REPRIEVE (10-20 LOSSES). If Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), John R. Kuhl (R-N.Y.) and Jon C. Porter (R-Nev.) survive, and if the Republicans can hang onto open seats in Kentucky and Alabama, the GOP will have done better than expected.
SIGN OF GOP MELTDOWN IN THE HOUSE (30-PLUS LOSSES). Look out for losses by relatively safe GOP House members such as Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) or Rep. Scott Garrett (N.J.) then, later in the evening, Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.) or Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Calif.). If several go down, it will be a brutal night for House Republicans. If scandal-scarred Rep. Tim Mahoney (D-Fla.) ekes out a victory, Republicans are in deep, deep trouble.
BAD, BUT NOT A WORST-CASE HOUSE SCENARIO (20-30 GOP LOSSES). Even if most of the aforementioned Republicans survive, Democrats could have better luck against Reps. John B. Shadegg (R-Ariz.), Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), Mark Souder (R-Ind.), Sam Graves (R-Mo.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.) Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), Henry Brown Jr. (R-S.C.), John Culberson (R-Texas), Michael T. McCaul (R-Texas), Virgil H. Goode (R-Va.) and Shelley Moore Capto (R-W.Va.).
THREE EARLY SENATE RACES. A trio of critical Senate contests all close before 7:30 — Kentucky, Georgia and North Carolina. In Carolina, incumbent Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole is trailing after a bitter race against Democrat Kay Hagan, so a Dole loss wouldn’t be shocking. The same can’t be said if Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) falls — or if Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) loses to Bruce Lunsford in Kentucky.
8 O’CLOCK HIGH. Results arrive for New Hampshire, where GOP Sen. John Sununu is trailing former Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Next come Senate results from Mississippi, where Republican Sen. Roger Wicker is locked in a tight contest against another former Democratic governor, Ronnie Musgrove. If all four pre-8 p.m. Dems win — and Musgrove pulls an upset — the party has a real shot at winning 60 seats.
BAILOUT BACKLASH. The $700 billion bailout is a bipartisan pariah — all voters hated it, regardless of party. Just how angry are they? That can best be gauged in races involving a pair of embattled incumbents in Georgia: Chambliss and Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall. Other “yeas” who might face a backlash: Porter and Reps. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
MISSOURI. For over a century, the best presidential bellwether has been the Show-Me State, where the polls close at 8 p.m. Missouri has a record of picking presidents that’s hard to match, voting for the eventual winner in every election since 1904, with the exception of 1956, when it voted for Adlai Stevenson.
THE LAST OF MODERATES. The extinction of the House GOP in the Northeast will be complete if Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) falls.
YOUTHQUAKE. About 47 percent of eligible 18-to-24-year-olds voted in the 2004 election, a slight increase over 2000. Some experts suggest that number could be as a high as 60 percent this year. If exit polls show the youth vote hitting or exceeding that mark, look for a big Obama boost.
ALASKA. If the election is decided by 1 a.m., anyone still awake will be treated to a political nightcap: the result of a tight race between Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, now a convicted felon, and Democrat Mark Begich. The Stevens race isn't the only one worth staying up for — 35-year House GOP veteran Don Young is also struggling to win reelection.