Five Things to Watch Tonight

Veteran pols know that you don’t need to stay up all night watching election returns or listening to the TV pundits to get a feel for which way the political winds are blowing. There are certain places to watch and clues to look for over the course of the evening that will provide strong signals about the eventual winners and losers. Here is Politico’s guide to five key things to keep an eye on.

The exit polls

If you believed the early 2004 exit polling data, Democrat John F. Kerry was on his way to victory over President Bush. Those numbers, of course, turned out to be half-baked. But the premature circulation of the data created enough of a stir that the National Election Pool — the consortium of ABC News, The Associated Press, CBS News, CNN, Fox News and NBC News formed in 2003 to provide exit poll data — implemented a “quarantine” policy in 2006, designed to keep the numbers under wraps until at least 5 p.m., when the data are more reliable.

That quarantine — which consists of confining the news organizations’ pollsters to a secured room — will be in place again this year, so don’t expect (or believe) any exit poll numbers until late in the afternoon.

Other precautions have also been taken to ensure the integrity and accuracy of the exit poll data: The average age of those conducting interviews rose from 34 to 42, the interviewers will be better-trained, and the NEP won the right in several state courts to allow its interviewers to gain closer physical access to polling places.

Still, there are lingering concerns. Media outlets are worried about the possibility that surveys could be skewed because of several new variables this year, ranging from the enthusiasm level of Obama’s supporters to his racial background and the prevalence of early voting this year.

A congressional bloodbath?

If Republicans are going to be buffeted by a second consecutive tidal wave, there’s a good chance it will be obvious early in the evening. By 7:30 p.m., the polls in Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Ohio will be closed — and the fate of GOP Sens. Mitch McConnell, Elizabeth Dole and Saxby Chambliss may be sealed. If all three go down in defeat, it’s likely going to be a disastrous evening for the GOP.

On the House side, Ohio is the early state to watch for a hurricane alert, since Democrats could pick up as many as five seats there under the right circumstances. In South Carolina, keep an eye on Republican Rep. Henry Brown Jr. — if the GOP can’t hold his Charleston-based seat, it can’t hold anything. Other GOP canaries in the coal mine: Reps. Frank R. Wolf and Thelma Drake in Virginia and Mark Souder in Indiana.

Here’s an early way to tell if the pundits are wrong and it’s going to be a better-than-expected night for Republicans. First, the GOP will hold onto Kentucky’s 2nd District, where Rep. Ron Lewis is retiring. Next, former New Hampshire Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley will recapture the seat he lost to Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter in 2006.

Potential meltdowns

If you thought the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida was bad, wait until you see what happens this year in the event of another nail-biter. Both parties already have been trading charges of voter registration fraud and voter suppression, and there are widespread concerns about issues ranging from faulty voting machines to questionable voter lists. Part of the problem is the intense interest in the 2008 election. The playing field of competitive states has broadened, and there are millions of new voters, which means the potential for Election Day meltdowns has increased considerably.

Two states draw frequent mention from the experts: Ohio and Florida, yet again.

But there are also a few other states that are often cited as possible trouble spots in the event of record turnout: Colorado, Georgia and Virginia. Technical failures in Denver in November 2006 led thousands of prospective voters to leave polling places without voting. In Georgia, stricter voter identification requirements could lead to problems this year. In Virginia, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recently filed suit, accusing the state of not allocating enough voting machines, poll workers and polling places, particularly in precincts with a large minority population.

A blowout scenario

If, as some political analysts believe, Barack Obama is positioned to win in a landslide, that could pose a serious problem for some Western Republicans. The issue isn’t necessarily whether he sweeps in new Democrats on his coattails. Rather, if Obama is poised for a big win, the race could be called (or at least strongly signaled) by the networks relatively early in the evening — before the polls close on the West Coast.

The effect would be to tamp down turnout, particularly among GOP voters, who might decide not to cast votes since the race will have already been decided. This could affect close to a dozen competitive races up and down the West Coast, where the polls close at 11 p.m. Eastern time.

In the Pacific Northwest, Washington’s gubernatorial contest and Oregon’s Senate race could feel the impact. In California, which rarely has competitive congressional races, as many as five House seats could be affected — four of them currently in GOP hands. In Alaska, where the polls close at 1 a.m. Eastern time, an early call could make all the difference for Republican Rep. Don Young and GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, both of whom are scrambling to hold onto their seats.

Buckeyes and other bellwethers

Among the 50 states, Missouri has a record of picking presidents that’s hard to match — the Show Me State has voted for the eventual winner in every election since 1904, with the exception of 1956, when it voted for Adlai Stevenson. Ohio’s not a bad predictor, either: It is almost always close to the national average, and no Republican has ever been elected president without carrying the Buckeye State. In fact, in the 14 presidential elections since 1952, Ohio has gone with the winner 13 times. Just three other states can boast that record of accuracy: Missouri, Nevada and Tennessee.

At the local level, according to Dave Leip’s Election Atlas, six bellwether counties have voted for the winning candidate in every presidential race dating back to 1960: Ferry County, Wash.; Eddy County, N.M.; Lincoln County, Mo.; Logan and Van Buren counties in Arkansas; and Vigo County, Ind.

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