, WASHINGTON, Nov 5 – Armchair election watchers should brace themselves on Tuesday; it’s going to be a marathon.
Here is a guide outlining the principle elements to look out for as President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney go toe to toe on election night.
+ POLLS OPEN: The continental United States covers four times zones from east to west. Aside from Dixville Notch, the New Hampshire village whose 12 residents vote just after midnight Tuesday, the earliest polling stations open at 6am (1100 GMT) in Virginia and New Hampshire, among other eastern states. On the West Coast, California polls open at 1500 GMT.
+ POLLS CLOSE: Some polling sites in the east close at 6pm (2300 GMT), but the first significant closures are an hour later in battleground Virginia. Everyone will be watching for early results in the state as a potential bellwether of the night ahead.
At 7:30pm (0030 GMT) polls close in North Carolina and all-important Ohio. A win for Romney in North Carolina, one of the more conservative swing states, would keep his hopes alive. But no Republican has won the White House without taking Ohio, and a loss there would put Romney in a massive hole.
Others will start to fall into place after 8pm (0100 GMT), when the most populous swing state, Florida closes along with most eastern states. An Obama win in Florida would be monumental for his re-election hopes, as polls have shown the Sunshine State leaning to Romney in recent weeks.
West Coast states generally close three hours later.
+ RESULTS: This year, the nation’s broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC, plus cable giants CNN and FOX, are conducting exit polls of some 25,000 voters, mainly in key states. Those figures, together with telephone polls and vote counts from precincts, will be used in formulating state predictions, which are made only after polls close.
Partial results will be posted by some states, and networks will show such results ahead of predicting the state’s winner.
+ KEY STATES: A candidate must win 270 of 538 electoral votes to clinch the White House. Eleven states, collectively representing a jackpot of 146 electoral votes, are up for grabs, according to RealClearPolitics. As a measure of how tight the race is this year, Obama won every one of these states in 2008. Of the 11, Obama’s campaign says traditional Democrat states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are in his column. But Republicans have made late campaign moves there.
+ THE OBAMA SCENARIO: Based on recent poll averages, Obama is a lock in 18 states totalling 201 electoral votes. He has notable leads in Michigan (16 electoral votes) Pennsylvania (20) and Wisconsin (10). If Obama holds those states, he needs just Ohio (18) and Iowa (6) to win re-election. Or just Florida (29).
Look for Virginia (13) and North Carolina (15) as key early tests; if Obama wins one of them, it’ll be a long night for Romney.