As election night approaches several friends asked if I could put together a guide to interpreting election results as the polls close. With Obama showing a small yet steady lead in a majority of battleground states and many paths to victory, he is likely to win. Yet Romney could easily erode Obama’s lead in enough states to squeak out a victory. Because Romney’s paths to victory are so limited and depend largely on winning a number of east coast states, it is possible that we will know of an Obama victory early in the evening on Tuesday night. Likewise, because Romney’s path to victory depends on sweeping virtually all east coast battleground states, we will likely have early (though not determinitive) word if Obama faces trouble.
The basic theme of the 2012 election night is this: Romney has to sweep the eastern battleground states and pick off one rust-belt battleground state to win.
Below is a very red map that gives to Romney many of the battleground states that are currently tied or in Obama’s column within the margin of error (i.e. NH, VA, FL, CO, NC) while keeping OH in Obama’s column. This in my view is a likely map that reflects a mediocre night for Obama, yet still delivers an Obama win (Obama could lose IA or NV on the below map and still win).
For those (like me) too excited, invested, and impatient to wait for the news later in the evening, I have put together a list of early indicators that spell trouble for each candidate as the polls close on the east coast. I have including the poll closing times for each of these indicator states, and you can also find a full list of each state’s poll closing times here.
Here’s the list of indicator states in order of poll closing times:
FL – Polls close at 7 except Panhandle at 8 EST – Romney has almost no path to victory without Florida. If Obama wins Florida you can pretty much bet that he wins the election. Without a FL win, Romney could win NC, VA, NH, WI, CO, NV, and even OH and still lose by 2 electoral points!
VA, NC – Polls close at 7 (VA) and 7:30 (NC) EST – Without these states, Romney has to sweep the rest of the eastern battleground states plus OH plus an unexpected victory in the rust belt in order to squeak out a victory. If Romney loses either VA or NC, he’s in trouble and probably loses the election absent an upset elsewhere.
OH – Polls close at 7:30 EST – If Romney has won FL, VA, and NC, then winning OH would put him on a path to victory. In this unlikely scenario, Obama would have to hold the rest of the rust belt and win both NH and CO to win.
NH – Polls close at 8 EST – Not a huge state by itself but critical to an Obama victory if Romney sweeps the east coast battleground states (VA, NC, FL) plus win OH. If Romney sweeps all four of those states, Obama would have to win NH and CO to win the race.
PA, MI – Polls close at 8 (PA) and 8 and 9 (MI) EST – A Romney win in either state would be a big upset, especially considering the fact that Romney has no ground apparatus in either state and has never been ahead in the polls . But depending on results in the previously discussed states, a Romney win here could be problematic for Obama. For example, if Romney wins FL, NC, VA, and NH, but loses OH, an upset in MI or PA could put him over the top.
WI, IA – Polls close at 9 (WI) and 10 (IA) EST – There are only a couple scenarios in which WI and IA make a difference for either candidate. For Romney, if he has swept all eastern battleground states but lost Ohio, he needs WI to win. Even a win in IA won’t be enough. If Romney sweeps all eastern battlegrounds, loses OH, and wins WI, Obama can still win by winning either NH or CO. In the unlikely scenario that Romney sweeps all eastern battlegrounds (except NH) and wins OH, then winning either IA, WI, or CO would clench a Romney victory. If Obama has a bad night and loses NC, VA, FL, and OH, he needs to hold onto the rest of the rust belt, win CO, and win NH in order to prevail.
CO – Polls close at 9 EST – CO only makes a difference if Romney has swept many states by 9 EST. As mentioned above, in the unlikely scenario that Romney sweeps all eastern battlegrounds (except NH) and wins OH, then winning either IA, WI, or CO would clench a Romney victory. If Obama has a bad night and loses NC, VA, FL, and OH, he needs to hold onto the rest of the rust belt, and win both NH and CO in order to win the election. If Romney sweeps the eastern battleground states but loses OH, he can win NH, CO, and IA and still lose the election.
NV – Polls close at 10 EST – I haven’t mentioned NV yet as it is increasingly likely that Obama will win the state and the scenarios above assumes the 6 electoral votes from NV stays in Obama’s column. If Romney is within 6 electoral points of 270 by the time NV polls close, he could win the election in NV. It is so unlikely that I have not considered this in the above analysis.
As you can see from the above analysis, it’s almost impossible for Romney to win without sweeping most battleground states. An early loss in FL, VA, or even NC can portend doom for Romney. A loss in OH likewise almost guarantees a Romney loss. Picking off PA, MI, or WI gives Romney a small path to victory should he lose any of the eastern battlegrounds, but those wins are unlikely as of this writing.
I’ll be glued to the TV and hopefully we will know early if this is the big night for Obama that so many have been hoping for. Four more years!