Election night is a great spectator sport, a good excuse for a party, and sometimes an exercise in group therapy. Everyone wants to know the results before the results are in, and prognosticators are thick on TV and in the blogosphere. Exit polling may reflect how things are breaking, but such polls have a poor track record. The AP is trying to increase the accuracy of polls by factoring in early voting and voters who only have cell phones, but there is no way to know how accurate they are until the real numbers come in, by which point it won’t matter.
I prefer the traditional practice of looking at key precincts or counties, which is more fun because anyone can participate. Why wait for the networks to call the race when you can do it yourself? These days state by state, county by county data are available in real time online, so you can be just as informed as the talking heads.
Indiana is a good place to start looking for numbers, since most of the polls there close at 6 P.M. The question is not who will win, but the size of McCain’s margin. The latest polling shows McCain with a slight edge, but this state has returned respectable margins for Republicans in most elections, so a slight edge is something to be worried about. McCain would like to see a 59 percent win like George Bush enjoyed in 2004.
Indiana was noteworthy for huge turnout on the Democratic side in the May 6 primary. It is unusual for the primary vote to be greater than same-party vote totals from the previous general election, but that was the case in every county but one in Indiana; on average, 31 percent more people voted in the 2008 Democratic primary than voted for Kerry in 2004.
This phenomenon, noted in other states as well, was said by some to be a reflection of the importance of the race, or the result of Obamamania. Regardless, Hillary Clinton won Indiana 636,000 to 632,000, and of the eight counties showing especially high enthusiasm (with a 65 percent or more increase over the 2004 election turnout), only one went for Obama. Crossover voting probably accounted for a great deal of the increase; Republican turnout was much lower than Democratic turnout, and the GOP race had been decided by then. McCain’s margin will largely depend on how many of Hillary’s supporters were closet Republicans, and how many of the real Democrats who cast primary ballots for Hillary will vote for Obama. So watch turnout and how it distributes, whether it reflects the dynamic of the primary or not; that will tell whether this is a transformational election as the Obama team expects, or a traditional election as the McCain team hopes.
Watch the Clinton stronghold of Dearborn County, where Gore got 6,000 votes in 2000 and Kerry got 6,596 votes in 2004. Obama got 1,782 votes in the 2008 primary, while Clinton received 5,270. Obama’s fate in that county is clearly in the hands of Clintonites, making it a good indicator of which direction the whole state may move. If Obama gets 7,000 or more votes, he’ll probably win the presidency. If he gets 5,000 or fewer, it won’t look good.