The Race to 270 (and 51, and 218 …)

An hour-by-hour viewer's guide to Tuesday night's election coverage

Obama wins with 332 electoral votes in this scenario. Can Romney turn 64 of these votes his way tonight?
Obama wins with 332 electoral votes in this scenario. Can Romney turn 64 of these votes his way tonight? (Map: adapted from RealClearPolitics.com)

Have you already voted? Good.
Are you watching election returns tonight? Here are some things to look for, hour by hour, as the polls close across the country.

U.S. Senate
Of the 33 Senate races, 23 are for seats currently held by Democrats. But though the Republicans seem likely to pick up three seats in the upper Plains states – Nebraska, North Dakota, and perhaps Montana – the Dems will win one back in Maine (well, that'll be Independent Angus King, but he'll caucus with the Dems, as do fellow indies Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut). It also looks increasingly likely that Elizabeth Warren will unseat first-termer Scott Brown in Teddy Kennedy's old seat in Massachusetts. And with Tea Partier Richard Mourdock imploding in Indiana (where Richard Lugar was too liberal for the GOP primary electorate), that would leave the current 53-47 Dem majority unchanged. Other key races to watch: Baldwin-Thompson in Wisconsin, Kaine-Allen in Virginia, Heller-Berkeley in Nevada.

U.S. House of Representatives
It looks unlikely there'll be any big changes here, either, where the current split is 241-194 for the Republicans. Latest polls show five or six seats flipping each direction, and about 25 too close to call. Eighteen of those are seats currently held by the GOP, so perhaps there's more opportunity for the Dems to make gains. On the other hand, Republicans only need about half those races to keep their current margin, while the very best results the Dems can hope for would still leave them down about 220-215 in the lower, louder chamber.
This one's going to go late into the night and Wednesday morning, because there at least a dozen competitive House races in California. Meanwhile, one of the closest races in the nation is the Texas 23rd, down in the western Rio Grande Valley, where incumbent Republican Francisco Canseco faces veteran state Rep. Pete Gallego.

The Presidential Race: Hour by Hour
State-by-state poll closing times, translated to Austin's Central Time.
Note, however, that most polls stay open to accommodate voters already in line at closing.
Also, some states have staggered closing times, and/or straddle multiple time zones; so take these times as a rough guide only.


5pm
Indiana (6pm ET) will be the first state to close its polls, even though it's split between Eastern and Central time zones. Obama has virtually no chance of repeating his upset win here in 2008, but watch the Senate race.

6pm
Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia (7pm ET)
If Georgia and South Carolina don't go immediately to Romney, and Vermont to Obama, something is terribly wrong. Early returns from Virginia, where Obama holds a slight lead in the polls, could give an indication how that state is going to go. Florida is the big early prize, but don't expect an early call; in fact, polls don't close for another hour in the panhandle, which falls in the Central time zone. Romney has virtually no route to an electoral victory without winning Florida, so if Obama wins here, the national election is over. In the Senate it's the opposite story: Bill Nelson's seat in Florida, and Tim Kaine's in Virginia, are two the Dems dearly need in order to retain control in the upper chamber.

6:30pm
North Carolina, West Virginia
(7:30pm ET)
North Carolina's another must-win for Romney – so, conversely, another state that would signal an Obama landslide if it falls to him early.

7pm
Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, D.C.
(8pm ET)
Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, North Dakota, Texas (7pm CT)
Twenty states have polls that close now, but only two of those are even remotely in play on the presidential map: New Hampshire should break for Obama, but their four electoral votes are unlikely to be decisive. But Pennsylvania is critical. What Florida is for Romney, Pennsylvania is for Obama: it's mathematically possible for him to get to 270 without winning here, but it's hard to imagine how that could really happen.

7:30pm
Arkansas, Ohio
(7:30pm CT)
Ohio's the big prize, as usual. Expect polling places in Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) to stay open for several more hours, though, to accommodate late voters; reports are that early voting there has been down significantly from four years ago.

8pm
New York
(9pm ET)
Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin (8pm CT)
Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming (7pm MT)
Some important battleground states in this batch, and they're all trending toward Obama in the latest polls: Michigan and Minnesota are expected to be solidly blue; Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Colorado have been moving that way as well. Romney needs to pick up at least a couple of those – most likely Colorado – to get to 270.

9pm
Iowa
(9pm CT)
Idaho, Montana, Utah (8pm MT)
Nevada (7pm PT)
It all started in Iowa, and will pretty much end there as well, with one of the longest poll open and close times in the nation. Iowa and Nevada have developed into two of the safest of the battleground states for Obama; if he's still hanging fire there at this point, it's going to be a long night for Dems.

10pm
California, Oregon
(8pm PT); Washington (a mail-in ballot state, with no polling places)
There will be no surprises in any of these states; if you're still up watching returns, it's for the cliffhangers still hanging fire back East – or for those California congressional races that could well decide the course of federal governance for the next four years.

Later
Alaska
(8pm Alaska Time), Hawaii (6pm Hawaii Time)
It's all over but the shouting. No, wait, the shouting keeps right on going – along with, perhaps, the voting in Cleveland.
Do try to get some sleep at some point tonight.

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