In the case of the presidential race, polls in the three most important states close early: 7 p.m. in Ohio and Pennsylvania; 8 p.m. in Florida. If something big is happening in those bellwether states, we'll likely have a good sense of it fairly quickly.
Like most observers, I expect this year's White House race to be very close. But if it does not turn out that way, my guess is that the contest will break John Kerry's way, because of extraordinarily high Democratic turnout.
One theory circulating these days is that if voter turnout is up a bit, but not a great deal, that would most likely benefit President Bush. (White House political adviser Karl Rove has spent much of the past four years trying to get white evangelical Christians who sat out the 2000 presidential election -- a group he estimates to be 4 million strong -- to turn out for Bush this time.) But, this theory continues, if turnout surges by far more than 4 million votes -- by, say, 10 million, which would take the total to 115 million -- Kerry and his fellow Democrats are likely to be the beneficiaries. To me, this theory certainly seems plausible, keeping in mind that Democrats were widely perceived as having the superior get-out-the-vote operation in 2000 and that Republicans didn't catch up on that score until the 2002 midterm elections.
In watching the race for control of the House, the key on Election Night is to look for early trends that will give some indication of the ultimate composition of the body. Fortunately, many of the contests that will help sharp-eyed viewers spot telling trends are in the Eastern and Central time zones.
Then, of course, there are the outliers -- those House races that are much more likely to be decided by voters' reactions to candidates' personalities or by local issues than by any sort of national movement. Interestingly, many of the Republican incumbents who are the most vulnerable today are not the ones who seemed endangered earlier in the election cycle. Freshman Republican incumbents in marginal districts, such as Reps. Rick Renzi (AZ-01), Bob Beauprez (CO-07), and Jon Porter (NV-03), are by no means safe, but they seem to be in pretty good shape. But a handful of long-term incumbents in seemingly safe seats, including Phil Crane (IL-08) and Christopher Shays (CT-04), rank among the most vulnerable Republicans.
The list of the Democrats' most vulnerable House incumbents has not changed. The "Texas Five" -- targeted for defeat by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature -- remain the most likely to lose. Of the quintet, Rep. Chet Edwards has the best chance of winning.
As a rule, the closest House races break decisively in one direction or the other. In 2000, for example, Democrats won all four of the most vulnerable Republican-held seats in California. In 2002, Republicans won 10 of 15 toss-up races. This year, with so much uncertainty about how high turnout will be, races that look to be leaning toward one party today could end up falling the other way.
7:00-7:30 p.m. EST
Polls close in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia
At the House level, Indiana and Kentucky have traditionally provided some indicators of what will happen elsewhere. In Indiana's 9th Congressional District, Republicans have Democratic Rep. Baron Hill in their sights, arguing that his stands on abortion and gay marriage make the three-term incumbent "too liberal for Indiana," a message that may resonate in this culturally conservative district. And, in the highly polarized political environment, Republican businessman Mike Sodrel might benefit from strong party-line voting in a district that gave Bush 56 percent of its vote in 2000. Hill has survived tough campaigns in the past, however.
In Kentucky's 3rd District, four-term Republican Rep. Anne Northup, a perennial target for Democrats, looks safer coming into Election Day than she has in past elections. Her defeat would be a sign that a huge Democratic wave has hit. Look also to the 4th District, where Democrat Nick Clooney is hanging tough in his open-seat race against Republican Geoff Davis in a district that Bush carried with 61 percent of the vote in 2000. Clooney would have a tough time winning. If he does, it could suggest that voters are quite comfortable splitting their tickets.
Look to Virginia for a potential sleeper race. Despite the 2nd District's GOP edge (Bush would have taken 55 percent under newly redistricted lines), a mailer sent by Republican state Delegate Thelma Drake and the state GOP attacking Democratic former marine David Ashe for supposedly "weakening the war on terror" by supporting Kerry has caused quite a stir in a district dominated by active and retired military personnel.
The first round of poll closings will be equally instructive for analyzing Senate and gubernatorial trends. Republicans are poised to pick up the open Senate seat in Georgia, and their nominees are running slightly ahead in North Carolina and South Carolina. Kentucky's Senate race, a late addition to the ranks of competitive contests, is probably an anomaly -- one that will tell us little about either party's Election Night strength. If GOP incumbent Jim Bunning loses, that will likely be because Democrats created doubts about whether he is sharp enough to continue serving. Still, if Republicans lose two of these four Senate races, they are in for a long night -- and their hold on the Senate could be in danger. Conversely, if the GOP holds Kentucky and sweeps the three open seats, Democrats' chances of regaining the Senate majority will dim considerably.
Four of the states where polls close early are holding gubernatorial races this year: Indiana, North Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia. In Indiana, Republican nominee Mitch Daniels, a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, has a narrow lead over Democratic Gov. Joe Kernan. If the incumbent pulls out a victory, that probably would indicate that voters in "red" (Republican) states are comfortable splitting their tickets and would signal trouble for other red-state Republicans. In Vermont, Republican Gov. James Douglas should win re-election over Democrat Peter Clavelle. A Douglas loss would be an ominous sign for GOP Gov. Craig Benson, who is locked in a tough race in neighboring New Hampshire. Democrats are likely to hold on to the governorships in North Carolina and West Virginia, but if North Carolina Democratic Gov. Mike Easley finds himself in a tight race, Republicans may be on their way to a good night.
8:00-8:30 p.m. EST
Polls close in Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee
If any sort of Democratic wave is taking shape, we'll see it in these states' House races.
In Pennsylvania, the battleground at both the presidential and House levels is for the Philadelphia suburbs. Vice President Gore carried many of these once GOP-leaning counties in 2000, and Democrats are hoping that Kerry will win them by a bigger margin and thus help Democratic nominees such as Ginny Schrader in Bucks County's 8th District and Lois Murphy in the 6th. Both women are currently trailing their Republican opponents -- Bucks County Commissioner Mike Fitzpatrick and Rep. Jim Gerlach, respectively.
In Connecticut, Republican Reps. Christopher Shays in the 4th and Rob Simmons in the 2nd are in fierce battles to hold on to Democratic-leaning districts. These incumbents are well liked by their constituents, but the incredibly polarized environment in the state has discouraged ticket splitting. If these GOP incumbents win, Democrats are unlikely to improve their standing in the House nationally -- and might even lose some ground.
The House sleeper to watch in this time period is the open seat in Missouri's 5th District. The most recent Kansas City Star poll showed Democrat Emanuel Cleaver, a former mayor of Kansas City, at 46 percent and Republican Jeanne Patterson at 41 percent. The fact that the Democrat is polling so low in a district where Gore won 60 percent of the vote makes this a must-watch race. Patterson has poured about $3 million of her own money into attack ads, one of which accused Cleaver of having "questionable ethics." Cleaver has to hope that a strong Democratic get-out-the-vote drive in Kansas City will pull this one out for him.
In this hour, polls close in three more states that are holding gubernatorial contests -- Delaware, Missouri, and New Hampshire. The open-seat contest in Missouri between Democratic state Auditor Claire McCaskill and GOP Secretary of State Matt Blunt, and the race in New Hampshire between Benson and Democratic businessman John Lynch are toss-ups. If early returns show Delaware Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner struggling, then Republicans will have made inroads in "blue" states that were not presidential battlegrounds.
Results in 10 Senate races will start to come in at 8 o'clock. If Republicans are experiencing trouble, it will show up in the re-election bouts of Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond of Missouri and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- both of whom are expected to win. If either loses, the Republicans' majority in the Senate will be in real jeopardy. The Senate races in Florida and Oklahoma are both rated as toss-ups -- so close that it may be much later in the evening before we know who won.
9:00 p.m. EST
Polls close in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming
This is the time when we could see whether a wave is developing for House Republicans. In Kansas, polling has shown Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore looking stronger than ever in his suburban, Republican-leaning 3rd District. An upset there would indicate a big GOP wave. In South Dakota, recent polls have shown newly elected Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth in relatively good shape in her at-large contest. Still, in a really red state, Herseth must always be alert to the slightest change in turnout dynamics.
This is also poll-closing time in Texas, where Democrats don't have much to look forward to. But if two or more of the five embattled Democratic incumbents win, that would be a huge morale booster for their party -- and would give Majority Leader Tom DeLay a really bad night.
Competitive open House races to watch include those in CO-03, NY-27, LA-03, LA-07, and NE-01. Should these break disproportionately one way, we will have a good idea of whether House Democrats have any realistic shot at seizing control.
Colorado, Louisiana, and South Dakota have very competitive Senate races. This means that votes in eight of the nine toss-up Senate races will start to be tabulated by 9 p.m. By midnight, we will possibly have a very good sense of which party will control the chamber next January, though the toss-up race in Alaska and the likely December runoff in Louisiana could keep things up in the air for hours, days, or more than a month.
No tight gubernatorial races close in this hour, but between 10 and 11 p.m., polls close in the remaining states with competitive contests -- Montana, Utah, and Washington. If voters are opting for change, those gubernatorial races will provide the best evidence; a switch of party control is very possible in each.
Once the contours of most of the down-ballot races are clear, all of us political addicts can plan to start pacing the floor, because we aren't likely to be certain about the identity of the next president for an extraordinarily long time.
Associate Editors Jennifer E. Duffy and Amy Walter contributed to this report.