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The Smart Progressive's Guide to Election Night

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What with annoying little details like having the last two presidential elections brazenly stolen by a right-wing lunatic, election-watching has gotten to be a nerve-wracking pastime for progressives. There are still huge, justifiable concerns about the integrity of our elections. Still, it has to be said that things are looking a lot better this time around. People say, “We thought Gore and Kerry had it in the bag, too,” but the truth is, Gore and Kerry never had it in the bag. If there had been honest vote-counts, they would both, in my opinion, have won, but only by pulling out a close election in the last day or so. If you don’t believe me, check out this graph.

It’s possible Obama could have the election effectively won very early on election night. Alternately, we could be in a for a long night and short fingernails. However, you have to know what to look for (or else leave yourself at the mercy of biased and woodenheaded corporate media pundits). Even if Obama wins decisively, he probably won’t officially clinch the 270 electors needed until the polls close in the Pacific at 11 o’clock Eastern time. At that time, California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii will all finish voting—and their 77 electors are in the bag for Obama, meaning he only needs to have 193 electors at 10:59 to be assured of victory a minute later.

If Obama gets to 193 before 11:00, even the media pundits will no doubt point out that he’s almost sure to win—interspersed with some McCain surrogate ranting on about how the people haven’t yet spoken and Oregon is somehow still in play. However, you don’t need to wait that long to figure out what’s going on. In fact, you may be able to foresee the final outcome between two and three hours earlier—while the pundits are still arguing.

There are two methods you can use.


Method #1: by 8 p.m. Eastern time (5 o’clock if you happen, like me, to live on the Sparkly Blue Left Coast), the polls in about half the states will have closed. Barring unforeseen delays, no other states will close their polls in the next hour except for Arkansas, which is safely Republican and not really an issue. Meanwhile, networks will start projecting states to one candidate or the other. Some will be projected as soon as polls close, others, where it’s closer, will be a little later.

If the networks project that Obama has won at least 126 electors BEFORE 9 o’clock Eastern, he’s essentially won the election. This is true even though even though McCain may be in the lead with as many as 194 electors. Fear not, tremulous progressives—truth shall prevail.

The reason? Among the states that close at 9:00 Eastern or later, there are ten states with 144 electors in which Obama has great big leads, well over 10% if you average the recent polls: Rhode Island, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, New Mexico, California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii. 126 + 144 = 270, which is how many you need to win. Obama’s lead in the relatively more competitive of these states has only been increasing lately. Forget the pundits and McCain hangers-on telling you how Iowa is up for grabs—the six most recent polls as of this writing all show Obama with an 8-17% lead there, a 12.5% average. Double-digit leads very rarely vanish on the eve of a general election. For McCain to win Iowa, he’s probably have to steal more votes than is likely in one state, even in our corrupt semi-democracy—unless there’s a bizarre McCain swing in the last days before the election. If no evidence of such a swing surfaces in the latest of the late polls, massive fraud, far greater than W seems to have perpetrated in any state in ‘04, would be the only likely explanation.

If you want to play Cassandra and expect this kind of unprecedented theft—or get neurotically hung up on the idea that, because Bush “won” New Mexico and Iowa in 2004, they are in play again, no matter what current polls say—bear in mind that they have only 12 electors between them. McCain isn’t really even contesting the other eight late-Obama states, except half-heartedly in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where he’s getting slaughtered. Therefore, you can still rest easy, so long as Obama scores 138 electors before 9:00 Eastern. But 126 is really the magic number, not 138.


Method #2: Among the states that close early—at 8 Eastern or earlier—are eight swing states, each with eleven electors or more. They are not the only states in play (there are 30 electors in swing states in the West), but these eight states are the largest as well as the earliest swingers. Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri—these are the eight divining rods of a perceptive early-night poll-watcher. Call them the “8-at-8” states.

The states whose polls close at 8:00 Eastern or earlier

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Now here’s the part where your media pundits may fail you. It’s not that they don’t know that these are the swing states. In fact, they will helpfully point them out to you. (They will probably try to tell you that New Hampshire, where Obama leads all the last eight polls by 7 to 18 points, is a swing state too. Suffice to say, if McCain does win New Hampshire, or comes even close, suspect possible foul play.) But they will confuse the issue by speaking of red states and blue states—defined in terms of 2004, before the great Democratic tidal wave that has since swept the nation, rather than current polls. A few of the pundits may get it right, but it will hard to tell which are the good ones and which are the idiots. Most of them will probably tell you that Obama is ahead in most of the swing states, intone some ponderous-sounding historical prophecies about how nobody gets elected without winning Ohio or Missouri, and leave you with the vague impression that whoever wins most of the swing states will win.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact, if Obama wins any two of the 8-at-8 states, he will almost certainly win the election. At least, he will unless McCain pulls off an unlikely double-digit comeback/theft in some other state. If Obama wins three of the 8-at-8, even these bizarre scenarios for a McCain win pretty much disappear.

Why are two enough? Well, if you leave aside Indiana and Missouri, any two of the eight contain at least 28 electors. 98 early electors are in safe Obama states, so if he gets 28 more, he makes the magic number 126 before 9 p.m. But what about Indiana and Missouri, which only have 11 electors each? Well, apart from Georgia, they are the McCain-friendliest of the 8-at-8 states. If Obama wins both of them, or one of them and some other 8-at-8er, though theoretically he could fall barely short of a electoral majority, it’s actually very hard to imagine anything but an Obama landslide once all the results are in. Indiana and Missouri are must-wins for McCain, icing on the cake for Obama. Realistically, Obama’s not going to win Indiana and Missouri and then lose Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

So Obama only needs to be projected the winner of two 8-at-8 states before we can start cautiously celebrating. Save the really strong booze for when he wins three—at that point, you can safely afford to lose consciousness (as long, of course, as you are still a Politically Conscious Person when you wake up).

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Michael Lubin served on the first democratically elected governing board in the history of KPFA, the nation's oldest listener-sponsored radio station. There, he was a founding member of the pro-democracy listeners' (more...)

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