Are you ready for a long Election Night? Here’s a quick guide for the key events in Tuesday night’s presidential election coverage, which could easily extend into Wednesday.
In a persistently close race, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney are separated by an apparently razor-thin margin in the national popular vote.
However, it’s the math involving 11 swing states and their 146 undecided electoral votes that will determine the winner.
You can follow the election results on TV and online starting at 7 p.m. EST.
If you are really interested in how election polls work, there is a very good blog post from The Wall Street Journal that explains the details.
But such polls have been famously wrong, so don’t expect the TV networks or the AP to be in a big rush to call a swing state, especially if polls are open in other time zones.
Here is the order the 11 swing states will close their polls, and some key milestones to watch. (All times are in Eastern Standard Time.)
Don’t expect a decision before early Wednesday if you live in the Eastern time zone. Based on the last two close elections, key states in the races aren’t usually called until several hours after the polls close, and in many cases, the call comes in the wee hours of the morning.
7 p.m.: Florida, Virginia
The biggest swing state is the first one in play: Florida. Mitt Romney has an edge in the current polls, but don’t expect the media to call the Florida race until a healthy amount of results come in.
Virginia is also a big swing state and if it goes to Obama instead of Romney, it could be a very bad sign for the GOP. The race is too close to call, so don’t hold your breath!
7:30 p.m.: North Carolina, Ohio
The Tar Heel State is technically a swing state, but it’s widely expected that Romney will take North Carolina. If the exit polls are a strong indicator, this race could be called quickly.
The second major swing state, and the one that will likely assure Barack Obama’s re-election even if Romney takes Florida and North Carolina, is Ohio.
First poll results will be out shortly after the polls close. The first media outlet to (correctly) call Ohio will have one of the biggest moments of the night. However, no one will call the race until after the polls in the Central time zone close.
Remember, in 2004, early exit poll data projected John Kerry as the winner in Ohio, which didn’t turn out to be the final result.
Eventually, Fox was the first network to call Ohio for President Bush—at 12:41 a.m. EST.
8 p.m.: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire
If Pennsylvania isn’t called for President Obama between 8:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. , there may be drama in the cards. In past years, the Keystone State was called early for the Democrats. A close race there could put Ohio and Pennsylvania in play at the same time.
9 p.m.: Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado
Technically, Michigan is a swing state, but it is expected to go to President Obama.
Wisconsin is closer. GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan is from Wisconsin, but Obama leads in the polls there. This is one of three states, along with Ohio and Iowa, that would guarantee re-election for President Obama if Pennsylvania doesn’t go to Mitt Romney.
Colorado also closes at 9 p.m. EST. Its nine electoral votes are crucial to both campaigns. Based on current polling, this race is very, very close.
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10 p.m.: Iowa, Nevada
Iowa closes its polls late and it will be closely watched, since it is leaning toward President Obama. Ditto for Nevada, which has the same number of electoral votes as Iowa, but which appears to be a closer race.
10:30 p.m.: Decision time
In 2008, the election of Barack Obama was called at 11 p.m. EST, after California reported its results. Don’t expect a repeat of that scenario in 2012. Look for a repeat of 2000 or 2004.
Looking back at the timeline for the 2000 and 2004 elections, these are the times when some key swing states were called in the race:
8:22 p.m.—North Carolina
10:05 p.m.—New Hampshire*
1: 00 a.m.—Ohio
In 2004, the races in New Hampshire, Iowa, and Wisconsin weren’t called.
The key moment will likely be when a network decides to call the race in Ohio. In 2008, the call was made before 10 p.m. With such a close race in 2012, the decision to call Ohio could easily happen after midnight on the East Coast.
If the networks give Ohio to Obama, and they also have called Wisconsin and either Iowa, Nevada, or Colorado for the president by then, the election is over and won by the Democrats.
If Ohio goes to Romney, and he’s already picked up Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, then Romney is at 266 electoral votes, and any additional swing state gives him the election. If he has picked up Nevada or Colorado by then, the big Ohio announcement gives the election to Romney.
In either event, it will be high drama late at night, when the networks and media outlets can make a determination on Ohio. Or it could be a repeat of 2000, with an undecided or even a tied election the next day.
And there is the distinct possibility the election will go uncalled by the networks on Wednesday morning. Ohio has more than 200,000 provisional ballots that can't be counted until a week after the election.
Recounts are also possible in Colorado and Virginia. There is no shortage of opportunities for legal actions if the races are as close as they seem.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.