On November 6, folks here in the US are voting on a third of our Senate, 100% of our House of Representatives, and a variety of other local issues. There's also a presidential election, which is carrying a disproportionate amount of interest.
Of course, as one of the candidates recently pointed out, there's really not much give in the voting numbers; a bulk of the voting population is already committed to one side or the other. Indeed, there are lot of polls about who's more popular amongst voters in general, but that's irrelevant. A nominee can be more popular and still lose the election because of the electoral college. Now, there are a lot of sites that give you an electoral college breakdowns as they stand now, but they agree on a few things: most state's votes are set in stone, a dozen or so have some wiggle room, and the rest are too close to call.
Still, on that night, 24-hour news networks will make a noble attempt to frame this as some sort of dramatic battle with its own narrative. I can only assume they do this because there exists a Vallhala for reporters, where they constantly report on a never ending tide of clean wars, humanitarian disasters, and nip slips until the day of Ragnarock. But here on Earth, hour by hour, as the polls close that night, they'll unveil the results of exit polls that have been 90% complete for hours, acting as though the most obvious results are somehow shocking or relevant to buy time until the important states' votes are counted. For your benefit, I've constructed a projected timeline to follow along with.
Each candidate starts with the electoral votes from the states (and Washington D.C.) where they currently hold a 10+% lead. As the timeline moves past each time zone, I add the states that are leaning strongly in their direction (>3% and <10%) to their electoral vote count. These are the states where real surprises and upsets can happen. The remaining states are listed as Toss-Ups; they're just too close to call right now and will likely be the pivotal states in the election.
For the sake of consistency, each state that is in more than one time zone is counted on the timeline as being in the later time zone. For example, Texas is listed in the Mountain Time Zone because a tiny bit of it is in there. While the general results in Texas will probably be known before El Paso closes its polls, putting it in Mountain Time is part of a consistent rule that keeps me from arbitrarily deciding which portions of which states in later time zones are relevant.
Considering the wide variety of of polls available this time of year, I've balanced a number of sources to determine these numbers, in a way that I'll admit is a bit arbitrary. Mostly this is to gain specific numbers when a source lacked them, or to determine a consensus on what exactly constitutes a tossup. Most polls close at 7 PM local time, so that's the assumption I'm applying to all states.
Starting Numbers - The Base
Barack Obama: 179
Mitt Romney: 155
Both candidates start with a number of states securely in their corner. It's obvious that Barack Obama is going to get California, Illinois, and New York while Mitt Romney can count states like Texas, Alabama, and Utah. As things stand today, these numbers initially favor Obama, and Romney needs to swing the swing states and even dislodge Obama in states where he's polling well. Note that these numbers aren't absolute; demographics aren't votes, polls aren't votes, historical trends aren't votes. Votes are votes.
1800 CST - East Coast Polls Close
Barack Obama: 219 (Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Virginia)
Romney: 170 (North Carolina)
There's no winner after the East Coast, but you can see that Barack Obama is further ahead. Democrats have historically been strong on each coast. The toss up states of Ohio (18) and New Hampshire (4) are probably still undecided, as the results may be close enough to prevent any clear winniner in those states when the polls close. Technically, the polls in North Carolina close at 1830, so those points will be a while in coming. Ohio polls also close at 1830, but because it's a swing state, those extra thirty minutes will merely delay the networks' declaration of it being too close to call.
06NOV12 Update: In the month since I first published this, some things have changed. Connecticut (7) is now firmly Obama, and Virginia (13) and North Carolina (15) are toss-ups. My numbers say Romney's only eight points up in Georgia, so technically, Georgia (16) is (impossibly) only leaning Republican.
1900 CST - Central Time Polls Close
Barack Obama: 255 (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin)
Mitt Romney: 181 (Tennessee)
Central and Mountain Time Zones comprise the Republican base, but Romney's numbers already include them. With the addition of Florida (29), Indiana (11), and Iowa (6), there are now enough unknown points in play that if there's a shift to give Obama a clear victory in 15 votes worth of those states--for example, Indiana and New Hampshire, or Ohio, or Florida--it's all over in enough time for you to catch the end of Dancing With the Stars.
06NOV12 Update: Indiana (above) and Tennessee (11) are now firmly in the Romney camp. I'm not sure what took them so long. Missouri (10) now merely leans his direction. Even as The East Coast embraces its swing state status or submits to the liberal stereotypes, the MidWest makes a conservative mirror.
2000 CST - Rocky Mountains Polls Close
Barack Obama: 260 (New Mexico)
Mitt Romney: 195 (Arizona, Montana)
This is where the second half of Romney's big tally of confirmed votes
drop in. Again, the 38 points he scored off of Texas are a given, and
might even roll in sooner, but when you're watching CNN or Fox News,
it's going to be a big jump on the night's ticker despite being a foregone conclusion.
Colorado (9) is the only question mark for the race here, but at this point, Romney needs to win every toss-up state or win some of them and steal states like Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin while losing none to Obama. If Obama hasn't won by this point in the evening and some of the states listed by his name above are red on Blitzer's touch map, get ready to say the words "President Mitt Romney" for a while. Unlikely, but possible.
06NOV12 Update: Some polls have Obama breaking percent in Colorado. Not a lot though.
2100 CST - West Coast and Hawaii (and let's throw in Alaska)
Barack Obama: 260
Mitt Romney: 195
There aren't many close races on the West Coast, so there's no startling last minute shifts here except for Nevada (6). Just like 2008, California's 55 electoral votes are going to be confirmed, making for another dramatic, if delayed, declaration of Democratic victory or providing a momentary distraction during the wait for the close states to count their ballots.
06NOV12 Update: Nevada (6) and Oregon (7) are now leaning Obama.