By Joe Brancatelli
November 3, 2008 -- I'm an election junkie. If a country is holding one, I'm there. I love 'em all. And I adore the process of watching elections, handicapping races and the whole concept of "election night." For me, it's better than Christmas morning when I was a kid.

Needless to say, I think this year's election cycle--although far too long--has been fascinating. And I don't care what the "experts" say, this election is not over. There are too many variables--turnout, the Bradley factor, the impact of new voters--for exactitude. The latest Real Clear Politics average of +6.9 Obama is also a reminder that the national polls do not matter. At the presidential level, it is 51 separate elections in a race to 270 Electoral College votes. As of 9:30 a.m. Eastern time, Obama is clearly in the lead in most of those state races and McCain's path to election is extraordinarily narrow. But there are no guarantees in a year this volatile.

Hence I give you Joe the Columnist's Viewers' Guide to Election Night. This, I hope, will help you figure out how the evening is going, hour by hour, key state by key state.

Let's start where we left off, in 2004. Bush won 286 Electoral votes to Kerry's 252 votes. Check the map here. Virtually everyone assumes Obama will hold all the Kerry blue states except Pennsylvania, which we will discuss in a moment. That reduces Obama's Electoral total to 231. The other common assumption is that Obama has irreversibly flipped Iowa, which brings him to 238 electoral votes.

I think the key to this year's election will, in fact, be Pennsylvania, where the polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern time. The rest of the election is being fought on red turf that McCain has been defending against the money and organizing skills of the Obama campaign and the general unhappiness with the Bush Administration. If Obama holds Pennsylvania, he's almost guaranteed to win the election because he has put so many red states in play and has so many paths to putting together the remaining Electoral votes he needs. If McCain flips Pennsylvania, he still has a very tricky path to victory, but his odds increase dramatically.

The first chances for Obama come right at the beginning of the evening, when the polls close at 7 p.m. in Indiana and Virginia. These two states have been reliably Republican for decades and the networks usually have been able to call them fast for the Republican candidate. Not this year. According to most polls, Obama is ahead in Virginia and within the margin of error in Indiana, where a huge part of the state's population is in the Chicago media market, Obama's home territory.

If the media calls Virginia for Obama within the first 30 minutes of the polls closing, assume that he has won the election. It'll herald a stream of red states that will turn Obama blue. If the media can't, it means McCain is making it close and it may be a long night. Indiana isn't likely to be an early call for Obama. If he wins this state, it'll be hours later. If the media calls Indiana early for McCain, however, pay attention. It'll be a sign that the purported Obama surge may not materialize.

The polls close in Ohio at 7:30 p.m. You surely know that no Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. That's true this time, too. McCain must have it. Obviously, if Obama wins it, it's over. But Ohio's electoral system is in disarray, mired in charges of both voter-registration fraud and voter suppression. Everyone expects Ohio to be close and the state's top election official admits results may not be complete until midnight at the earliest.

The other 7:30 closing is North Carolina. On the presidential level, North Carolina has been reliably Republican, but Obama has been tied or leading here for some time. If the media calls it fast either way, it's a sign of either a potential Obama landslide or a last-minute McCain surge. If the media is going hours without calling it, stay tuned. It means McCain's alive.

This is a golden hour for election freaks: The polls close in Florida, Pennsylvania, Missouri and New Hampshire.

Let's start with Pennsylvania, famously described as "Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in the middle." It has been Democratic at the presidential level for 20 years--but not by a lot. Democratic candidates usually under-perform the pre-election polling numbers. For example, Kerry won by just 2.5 percent in 2004 and Gore won in 2000 by just 4.2 percent. McCain is so far behind in so many 2004 red states that he has staked virtually everything on flipping Pennsylvania. If he does, he's alive. If Obama wins, it's over. But we may not know for several hours--and I think the networks will be very circumspect before making a call here.

New Hampshire is McCain's other hope for a blue-state flip. The state is notoriously independent and ornery--going to Kerry by 1.3 percent in 2004 and by 1.3 percent to George Bush in 2000. McCain saved his 2008 candidacy by winning the New Hampshire primary. Obama lost the 2008 Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton after leading in the polls. According to the polls now, Obama leads McCain by 10. If McCain flips it, it may be a sign that he's mounting an amazing upset. Or it could just mean New Hampshire is being New Hampshire. Its four electoral votes may not be decisive.

Much to the surprise of pundits, Florida looks dead even going into Election Day. Obama supporters weren't expecting to win Florida. McCain can't win without it. If Florida's 27 electoral votes still matter late in the evening, McCain is still in the race. If Obama wins it, it's probably icing on a very big cake.

Missouri has voted for the winner in every presidential election except 1956. McCain, who seems a bit ahead here, must have the state to win. Obama doesn't--and didn't focus on it until late October. This could be Missouri's second miss.

Polls close in four notable states: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and North Dakota. And it could be the hour that Obama wins.

The "cleanest" route Obama people see toward a victory is holding all of the Kerry blue states and flipping Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico. If Obama wins Colorado and New Mexico--he's ahead in the polls in both states--assume he's on the glide path to victory. If McCain holds them, Obama's supporters are going to be very nervous and McCain's supporters will see real hope. That's especially true because McCain has all but conceded Colorado and New Mexico, which is why he has staked so much of his closing campaign on flipping Pennsylvania.

Arizona, McCain's home state, and North Dakota are interesting. Obama is making some late polling moves in both and he's thrown some of his seemingly endless resources at the states. If he flips either, it would be en route to a stunning landslide of 350+ Electoral votes. Needless to say, McCain needs to hold both.

The polls close in Nevada, Montana and Iowa. As mentioned, pundits expect Iowa to be easily blue--Obama started his long march to the Democratic nomination with a victory in January's Iowa caucus. If Obama doesn't win, or McCain makes it extremely close, Obama is in big trouble. If McCain wins, start thinking McCain upset.

Obama is up by about 5 points in Nevada and may flip it, thanks to his strong support among Latinos. McCain needs to hold it. Ditto Montana, which has been trending Democratic on the state level in recent cycles.

Polls close in three states assumed to be easy Obama wins: California, Washington and Oregon. If Obama's team is right, this will be when the networks could call the election for him.

If picking up the three states' combined 73 Electoral votes doesn't put Obama over the 270 threshold, then buckle up for a long evening. It means Pennsylvania is still undecided or has flipped for McCain or something in Obama's easy glide path (flipping Iowa, Colorado and New Mexico) has gone wrong.

The Republicans are in huge trouble in the Senate. At a minimum, they stand to lose about five seats. Democrats might get to a filibuster-proof 60 seats if they defeat Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Saxby Chambliss in Georgia. Elizabeth Dole may be lost in North Carolina, especially since she tried to paint her opponent, Kay Hagen, as "godless." Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman is locked in a three-way struggle with a former senator and comedian Al Franken. After Coleman surged back into the lead late last month, Sunday's final Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll had Franken up by two. (Some Democrats suggest they would be just fine if Franken lost since they fear his victory might lead to a parade of entertainers thinking they can break into politics.) And then there's Ted Stevens of Alaska, convicted of corruption last week. He's now slightly behind Anchorage major Mark Begich. The only incumbent Democratic Senator perceived to be at risk: Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

Losing 15 seats would be considered a "victory" by House Republicans, who fear they could lose as many as 40 seats. Christopher Shays, the last Republican Congressman in New England, is in trouble in Connecticut. And Republicans stand to lose their only seat in New York City. Vito Fossella pulled out of the race after his second family in Washington came to light. Two Florida Republicans, the Diaz-Balart brothers, are also in tight races. Michele Bachmann may lose in Minnesota after her disastrous comments on Chris Matthews' Hardball program. Also a potential loser: Don Young of Alaska, who is under FBI investigation. On the Democratic side, John Murtha is in trouble in Pennsylvania after he called his constituents "racists," then tried to backtrack and called them "redneck." Another Democrat in Pennsylvania, Paul Kanjorski, is considered vulnerable. And Democrat Tim Mahoney in Florida is probably toast after his sex scandal unfolded.

If Vietnam veteran John McCain loses, it means Vietnam will be the first major American war that did not produce a President. If Obama loses, look to see how many "Hillary Clinton Democrats" voted against him. Best comment on the state of the election at this moment came from politician-turned-pundit Pat Buchanan. Asked to describe the chances of a McCain win, he said it was like needing to draw two cards to an inside straight. Chuck Todd of NBC said in September that he expected election night to be roughly equivalent to where it was right after the final debate. His theory: With so much early voting, the race would "freeze" right after the final debate. For the record, on October 16, the day after the last debate, the RealClearPolitics average had Obama +5.6 points in national polls.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

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This column is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.