From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
*** A viewers guide to tonight: Finally -- Election Day. And perhaps the best way to gauge how McCain and Obama are faring is by following the poll closing times for key states. The first closing times come at 7:00 pm ET for Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Virginia. In particular, if Virginia is called early for Obama, that will be a sign of a possible big night for the Democrats. But if there isn't an early call, that could be some welcome news for McCain. While Georgia and South Carolina aren't considered true battleground states, they could also signal how the night is going; in short, these are the landslide indicators: If they're too close too call early in the night, that will tell us that African-American turnout was HUGE.
In addition, Kentucky's polls close at 7:00 pm ET, and that will give us some early insight into Mitch McConnell's political health and whether Democrats might have what it takes to reach 60 Senate seats. (Note: Polls actually close in the Eastern Time Zone parts of Indiana and Kentucky at 6:00 pm ET, but the races won't be called until 7:00 pm, when polls close the Central Time Zone in those states. However, we will see returns start coming in at 6:00 pm.)
*** From 7:30 to 1:00 a.m.: The next batch of poll closings comes at 7:30 pm ET, for North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia. At 8:00 pm ET, polls officially close in Florida (although for most of the state, it's actually 7:00 pm ET), Missouri, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. If Pennsylvania is called early for Obama, that would be a severe blow to McCain and would force him to hang on to virtually every state that Bush carried in 2004. But keep an eye on the four states of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. If Obama wins just two out of the four, it becomes nearly impossible for McCain to get to 270 -- even if he wins Pennsylvania. And if Virginia is called for Obama, then it's down to the Iron Triangle of survival for McCain: Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio. Add any one of those three to Virginia and it's basically checkmate. So McCain has to win three of those four state. At 9:00 pm ET, polls close in the Western battlegrounds of Colorado and New Mexico. At 10:00 pm ET, polls close for Iowa, Montana, and Nevada. At 11:00 pm ET, polls close in California, and this is important if the night is going especially well for Obama: Because of its 55 electoral votes, probably the earliest that we might see the election called for Obama (i.e., him going crossing the 270 mark) would be at 11:00 pm ET. The last state to close its polls will be Alaska at 1:00 am ET, and that will be a time to check on the status of Ted Stevens' re-election bid. By the way, consider the following: Even in victory, it's possible McCain underperforms Bush in every single state in the Union.
*** Obama wins Dixville Notch and Hart's Location: As usual, residents of tiny Dixville Notch in New Hampshire began the voting at midnight, and Obama came out ahead -- the first Democrat to do so since 1968. The New Hampshire Union Leader: "The town, home to around 75 residents, began voting at the stroke of midnight. The final tally was 15 votes for Sen. Barack Obama and six votes for Sen. John McCain. Dixville Notch has opened its polls shortly after midnight each Election Day since 1960, drawing national media attention for being the first place in the country to make its presidential preferences known. The last Democrat it picked was Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon in 1968. President Bush won the town in a landslide in the past two elections: He captured 73 percent of the vote in 2004 (19 residents picked Bush while six preferred Sen. John Kerry), and secured 80 percent of the vote in 2000 (21 votes for Bush, five votes for Al Gore)." Also in New Hampshire, "Hart's Location reported 17 votes for Obama, 10 for McCain, and two for write-in Ron Paul. Independent Ralph Nader was on both towns' ballots, but got no votes."
*** 726 days: To us at least, the presidential contest officially began on November 9, 2006, when Tom Vilsack (D) filed paperwork to launch his presidential bid, becoming the first major candidate to do that. Since then, according to MSNBC's Vidhya Murugesan, 726 days have passed in reaching today's Election Day. And it's been quite a ride -- taking us to Hillary Clinton's online announcement ("I'm in and I'm in to win"; isn't it amazing btw, the neither Clinton nor McCain ever formally announced in front of a live rally?); that frigid February day in Springfield, IL where Obama declared he was running; the countless Dem and GOP primary debates across the country; the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary, and some 50 additional nominating contests (including Puerto Rico?!?!?) we closely followed through June; Hillary eventually bowing out; the Dem and GOP conventions; the surprise Palin VP pick; the financial crisis; the presidential and vice presidential debates; and the final stretch of campaigning. And today, it all comes to an end. (Until Bobby Jindal heads to Iowa at the end of the month, but we digress…)
*** And five months: While the presidential contest has lasted some 20-plus months, it's once again worth emphasizing how short -- by comparison -- the general election has been. In fact, today marks exactly five months since the day the general election officially began, June 4, after Obama clinched the Dem nomination. We spent more time deciding the nominees than deciding the president. Ss that a good thing? Good government types: Discuss!
*** Welcome to the 21st Century: Win or lose tonight, history will note that not only was Obama the first African-American presidential nominee, but that he was the first true 21st Century candidate. His campaign used the internet in part to raise some $700 million over the past two years. It fired off countless text messages to supporters to get them to volunteer and vote. And it utilized social-networking sites like Facebook and MySpace to bring its supporters together. No doubt about it, future campaigns will be modeled after Obama's.
*** The GOP's bright spot: Even though national and state polls suggest that he faces an uphill challenge tonight, it's important to remember that McCain has remained the Republican best suited to run in this political environment. Let's face it, Republicans down the ballot are poised for big losses tonight. In fact, Democrats could pick up House seats in 27 different states. Win or lose for McCain, one of the best political stories over the next couple of years will be how the GOP tries to fix many of the shortcomings it currently faces. The party could find itself a regional party after tonight -- not unlike what happened to the Democrats during the last turn of the century, but in reverse.
*** When red states turn blue: The two red states that have lifted Obama over 270 in NBC's current electoral map are Colorado and Virginia. What do they have in common? They happen to be the two lone states Bush carried in 2004 that rank in the Top 10 in education (bachelor's degrees or higher) and in fewest senior citizens (i.e., they're the youngest states). Virginia also was the sole state that Bush carried four years ago that ranks in the Top 10 in median household income. Demographically then, these two states were poised to be pick-up opportunities for the Democrats. And if Obama wins them tonight, the GOP's challenge in future presidential elections will be to find a way to win them back -- or reach 270 without them. Republicans don't have any more states they can afford to slip into the tossup/battleground column. The Democratic base in the Electoral College is getting awfully large (CA, NY, IL, NJ, New England, the Agricultural Midwest). If CO, VA, PA and MI are added in, what does that leave the GOP? And then in four or eight years, Texas will begin slipping into competitive territory. Who says Democrats ought to be in favor of scrapping the Electoral College? This may become a Republican movement.
*** Taking the initiative: Unlike recent past elections, there aren't many high-profile ballot initiatives this year that have grabbed the nation's attention. The two biggest are the abortion ban in South Dakota and the gay marriage ban in California. Could California become the second state (Arizona was the first in 2006) to defeat a gay marriage ban?
*** On the trail: McCain begins his day in Phoenix (where he votes at Albright United Methodist Church), holds a rally in Grand Junction, CO, does some retail stops in Albuquerque, NM, and then returns to Phoenix, where he will watch election returns from the Biltmore Hotel. Obama, in Chicago, already voted at Shoesmith Elementary School, and then he heads to Indianapolis for a retail stop before heading back to Chicago for his election night party in Grant Park. Biden votes in Delaware, makes a campaign stop in Richmond, VA, and then travels to Chicago. And Palin begins her day voting in Wasilla, AK, and then heads to Phoenix.
Countdown to Electoral Vote Count: 65 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 77 days
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