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What to watch for on election night

It all starts with Kentucky — not a swing state, but an important one.

It takes 270 electoral votes to win the election. And since 74 of them are located in the Pacific time zone (with three more in Hawaii), it’s difficult for a Democrat to formally lock them up until relatively late in the night. But back in the real world, we know that Clinton is going to carry those states, and the election will really come down to a handful of swing states.

But in truth, you don’t really need to wait for results to start coming in from Colorado and Nevada when the polls close at 9 pm Eastern to get a good sense of how the election is going. That’s because modern-day electoral dynamics are more regional than geographic — meaning that the way any one state goes actually tells you an enormous amount about the overall national picture. The states that will be called first, almost by definition, aren’t the most closely contested battlegrounds. But by watching what happens in those states compared to the results in 2012 and understanding the underlying demographics, you can get a pretty clear sense of where the country is going.

In other words, while neither nor any other reputable news outlet is actually going to call the election until we get a clear sense of how the swing states voted, an informed news consumer can draw some pretty strong conclusions much earlier than that.

Here’s our tip sheet for what to look for.

Kick things off with Kentucky

Kentucky is the antithesis of a swing state. Bill Clinton carried it twice, but it swung to the right in 2000. Along with its coal country buddy of West Virginia, it has stayed right ever since. Trump will win Kentucky and he will win it big. But its polls close at 7 pm in the western portion of the state and 6 pm in the places where most people live, meaning it’s the first state we’ll get information from — and it’s actually a state that will be a huge tell for how the entire evening will unfold.

Kentucky is very white (85 percent) with very few college graduates (22 percent), making it a huge stronghold of Trump’s core white working-class demographic. Trump isn’t going to do better than Mitt Romney did with nonwhite voters or with white college graduates. If he wins, it will be by improving on Romney’s margin with working-class whites or by dramatically boosting their turnout. And if that’s working, it should show up quickly and clearly in Kentucky.

Romney beat Obama by a hefty 60-38 margin in 2012 while losing the overall election. If Trump can increase that 22-point margin to something more like 27 or 28 points, that could put him on a pace to win in states like Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where Romney lost by fewer than 5 points and which also have many working-class white voters.

Conversely, if Trump does even a slight bit worse than Romney in Kentucky, he is probably toast.

The coastal South

It’s very difficult for Trump to win the election if he loses North Carolina. But the polls don’t close in North Carolina until 7:30 pm Eastern.

Thirty minutes earlier, though, we will get a big clue in the form of South Carolina. These two states are broadly similar in demographic terms, but South Carolina is systematically more GOP-friendly since North Carolina is home to a sizable cohort of white transplants from the North.

In 2012, Romney won North Carolina by about 2 percentage points while carrying South Carolina by a comfortable 8. Trump is expected to do worse than Romney throughout the coastal South but the question is how much worse. If he wins South Carolina by 8 to 10 points, he’s in the fight for North Carolina and could win the election. If he wins South Carolina by 5 points, that’s still a comfortable margin in that particular state but spells trouble for his efforts nationwide.

Also closing at 7 pm are the polls in Virginia, where Clinton is heavily favored, and Georgia, which should be comfortable for the GOP. The speed with which the networks are comfortable calling these results will tell us something about the margins. If Virginia is called for Clinton immediately but Georgia needs time to start counting votes, that’s very good news for her hopes in North Carolina and vice versa.

New Hampshire has the first Senate race

New Hampshire, where polls also close at 7 pm, is a presidential swing state but also features closely contested races for senator and governor.

There are a whole bunch of Senate races with narrow polling at the moment, most of it generally favorable to Democrats. In recent elections, to the extent that the polls have erred they have erred in the same direction in basically all states — so the New Hampshire results alone will tell us a lot about the national picture. If Maggie Hassan’s narrow polling lead over Kelly Ayotte holds up, the narrow Democratic leads across the country will likely hold up, giving them control of the senate. If it doesn’t, then narrow leads across the country probably won’t, leaving Mitch McConnell in control.

Watch West Virginia for Ohio clues

At 7:30, polls close in the crucial swing state of Ohio and in super-Trumpy West Virginia.

Think of West Virginia as a rerun of the Kentucky scenario: It’s not going to be close here, but unless Trump can improve on Romney’s margins in these kind of states he has no path to victory. Back in 2012, Obama lost here in a 62-35 landslide. If Trump can improve on that margin by 5 points or more, it suggests good things for his odds in Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. But if he’s stuck in the Romney Zone, he is facing a substantial national loss.

Ohio itself probably won’t be called right away. But as you wait for the votes to come in, recall that even though you’ll hear TV pundits talk about how nobody has won the presidency without winning Ohio since 1960, it’s no longer quite the crucial swing state that it once was. Back a decade or two ago, Missouri was the quintessential bellwether state; these days it’s quite a bit more conservative than average.

Ohio is trending in the same direction: It’s still winnable by either party, but the state has moved right even while Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia have moved left — meaning that there are plenty of scenarios in which Trump wins it while losing the election.

By 8 pm, the key states are done

At 8 pm Eastern, the polls close in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. (Most of Florida closes at 7 pm Eastern, but a portion of the state is in the Central time zone and doesn’t close until 8 Eastern.)

To win the election, Trump probably needs to carry all three of these states plus North Carolina. It’s conceivable for Clinton to win without carrying any of them. But realistically, a Trump sweep of those states would imply a significant polling error (especially in Pennsylvania), at which point Clinton supporters’ confidence should be totally shot. The key point is just that Trump needs a clean sweep. A single one of those big four called for Clinton means she is overwhelmingly likely to become president.

In the event that the networks aren’t prepared to call any of them by 8 pm, just remember to look back at your key indicator states:

  • If Trump isn’t improving on Romney’s 22-point margin in Kentucky and 27-point margin in West Virginia, it’s hard to see how he wins Ohio and Pennsylvania.
  • If Clinton can hold Trump’s margins in South Carolina and Georgia to 5 points or less, she will probably carry North Carolina and Florida.

For the sake of upholding the integrity of the democratic process, the networks won’t call the states based on this kind of external logic. They will look at exit polls in the swing states and calibrate them as actual results are counted. Blowing a call would be embarrassing and bad for the country, so the networks will be cautious — as they should be.

But you sitting at home don’t need to be so conservative. It’s certainly possible that the trajectories of these various states could diverge for mysterious reasons. But it’s extremely unlikely. If the indicator states come in badly for Trump, then given what we know about the state of national polling, they’ll be feeling extremely confident in Brooklyn even if official calls in the swing states are still a ways off. But if Trump is overperforming expectations, then we will know something is off in our polling models — and it will be a long, nervous evening.

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