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Election Night Viewers Guide

Election Night Viewers Guide
For Immediate Release, November 3, 2008
Michael O'Neil, PhD

How Networks Do Electoral Projections
How you can know the winner before the network will tell you.
Hour by Hour Guide (poll closing times by state)
Simplified Electoral College Chart (only states in play)
How to use the Chart
Summary Observations


How Networks Do Electoral Projections. Network projections are made from two sources First, exit polls are conducted by an entity contracted by a consortium of all the news networks and several national papers. There is a single entity that does this. (While it might seem better for each organization to do its own, this is cost-prohibitive. Think in the neighborhood of $100 million dollars for each separate operation). The results are compiled and shared with the networks who make independent decisions about how and when to "call" a race. The poll results will be available at the time the polls close in a given state. If the outcome is clear-cut, an immediate call will be made within minutes of the closing of a state's polls. If the race is at all close, it will not be called until enough actual votes are tallied to make the result evident. (If you hear the phrase "Too Close to Call" this is what happened.) But the analysts will not rely on the total raw counts reported, but on random samples of actual votes. In the case of a moderate margin, this will be sufficient to make a projection. But if a state is really close, this may not be sufficient. Then a call would have to await the counting of a much larger number of votes. How many need to be counted depend on how close the race is. In practice, this means that some states are called within a couple of minutes of poll closing while others are called much later. Indeed, it means that if an immediate call cannot be made on the basis of the exit polls, it will usually be quite some time before a call is made. How much longer? That will vary widely, depending on the winner's margin of victory in a given state.

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What the networks will not do. First, they will not call a state before the polls in that state are closed. Second, they will not call the election until they can call states totaling over 270 electoral votes, even though everyone knows that only 17 states are remotely in play (the outcomes of all of the others are beyond any reasonable doubt).


How you can know the winner before the network will tell you. Download and print the chart by clicking on this link. It assigns 238 votes to Barack Obama; these are from states whose outcome is beyond question. He needs 32 more for an Electoral College majority. (31 would produce a tie, and he would probably, but not certainly, be elected.)

Should Obama get his 32 Electoral Votes (or if it is clear he will not) the networks will not tell you this outcome until they can project the outcomes from the other states, even if these are the states for which we already know the outcomes. This is not because they do not know better, but because they are afraid of the criticism they will get if they "call" the election before the polls are closed everywhere. But if you use this chart, you are likely to know the winner before much earlier, possibly hours before the networks will tell you "officially".

Why use Obama as the base? For simplicity: since he has 238 Electoral Votes locked up and is only 32 short, it makes computations simpler. Rest assured, if Obama does not win, McCain does. If I used McCain as the base, the computations would have been more complicated since his base is much smaller, but the computed outcome would be identical.

What I did. This 238 "safe" Obama electoral vote figure is actually close to the most conservative estimate I could come up with after looking at the polls and several compilations. It does NOT include any "Obama Lean" states; only those rather universally regarded as locked up by him. The only exception to this I found was that NBC rated Iowa (7 electoral votes) and New Hampshire (4 electoral votes) as "lean Obama" rather than certain Obama. I could find nothing in published polls to support these calls. Each shows double digit Obama leads and neither has had a single poll with a McCain lead in over a month. I think NBC put them in the Lean category because they each went Republican in one of the two last Presidential elections. (If you want to be really conservative, reduce the Obama number to 227 and add these two states to my list. But it won't matter, so I kept these states out of the computations for simplicity).

What states are in my 238?
While this was not my criterion, my 238 happens to be all of the Kerry 2004 states, plus Iowa (7 electoral votes) minus Pennsylvania (21 electoral votes). I have already discussed Iowa. PA has clearly been a McCain target; he knows that without it, his winning options are few. And the Republican Party of PA has been running a Rev. Wright commercial starting on Sunday. One wonders what the effect will be of this commercial.

What else did I exclude from the list? The "solid McCain" states, of course. But I also excluded the "lean McCain" states of South Dakota (3), Arkansas (6), West Virginia (5) and Arizona (10). (Interestingly, some raters even rate Arizona as a "tossup" state) While Obama might win some of these, I figure if Obama needs any of these to win it means he has lost most all of the tossup states and will most likely lose these as well. If there is an Obama landslide, these lean McCain states could be in play, but they will not determine the outcome. So, again, for simplicity, I omitted them.

There is also one congressional district in NE that Obama could carry for a single electoral vote (McCain will win the rest of the state) and one in ME that McCain could carry (Obama will carry the rest of the state). Neither should matter unless it is very close.


How to Use the Chart.

Ignore all results other than the 13 states indicated on the chart. These are either safe Obama or safe McCain states (and a few lean McCain states excluded for reasons described above). When one of the critical 13 states' results is determined, enter then number of electoral votes for Obama (either the EV total for the state if he wins, or 0 if McCain wins).

• If this number totals 32 or more, go to bed, Obama is elected even if the networks will not tell you this. This could be really early in the evening. If this chart is filled out and the numbers you have entered here total less than 31, McCain is elected.

• If the chart is completely filled out and totals something very close to 31 you might want to rip it up and look at those other states and the CDs in ME and NE. But there is not much chance that will happen. (Remember, my purpose was to give you something that I am 99% sure will give you the correct outcome and get you to focus on what matters early in the evening without being confused by "calls" of the thirty-some-odd states for which we already know the outcome. But, if you end up with a number close to 31, you might want to pay attention to the other commentary.


Hour by Hour Guide (all times Eastern). 7pm. I think an Obama victory in either GA or IN would be game-ending. They are a couple of his weakest states on the list. Should he win IN, it will clue that he will probably carry OH and PA as well. Likewise GA would be a surprise and would probably signal a victory in NC and game over. But neither of these is highly likely and an Obama loss would not be a major blow to his chances.
Not so Virginia; this is Obama's strongest state of the three. A VA win for Obama with a PA win later and it is game over.

7:30pm. North Carolina for Obama probably means he carries VA as well and wins the election. Likewise an Ohio victory probably means a PA victory and he wins.

8pm. PA is the closest thing to a "must win" for Obama. With PA there are many win combinations for him. Without it, it gets difficult. FL would nearly cinch an Obama win by itself. Missouri is McCain's strongest chance of the three.

9pm. If Obama hasn't cinched by now, NM and CO are likely to be "must wins".

10pm. Nevada is the only remaining Obama likely state. If Obama "needs" ND (11pm) and MT (10pm), it probably means he has had such a bad night that these are likely to go for McCain as well.


Summary Observations Think of IN, OH, and PA as in a logical order. Obama wins IN (the most Republican of the three) and he probably takes them all. Likewise, McCain wins PA (the most Democratic of the three) and he probably wins all three.

You can think of NC and VA the same way. McCain wins VA indicates a likely NC win. And an Obama win in NC probably signals a VA win.

Of the tossup states, PA CO NM and NV are Obama's strongest states. Should he win these all and lose everything else he will have 278 electoral votes. Drop CO from this list and we have a 269-269 electoral college tie*-and a scurry to look at those districts in NE and ME. (Right now Obama looks to be an even bet in the NE district; McCain is not so lucky in ME).

The net result: McCain would have to sweep Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio AND North Carolina to have a chance. All of them. And either Pennsylvania or Virginia. And some of the remaining tossup states as well. While it is possible, it seems unlikely he could win all of these swing states. That is why an Obama victory is probable.

*If there is an Electoral College tie, the House of Representatives elects the President, so Obama wins, since there is a big Democratic majority in the House, right? Not so fast: it is one vote per STATE. And that Congress has yet to be elected. And that distribution is A LOT closer than you think (a lot of small red states each get a vote equal to that of CA). Wouldn't it be ironic to see Obama put over the top in a House vote by a newly elected Democratic delegation FROM ARIZONA? (And don't let anyone tell you otherwise: if the election goes to the House, it will be a straight party line vote.). And no matter who the House selects for President, the Senate will elect Joe Biden Vice President. McCain/Biden?


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