Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What to watch for on election night

Election night television has become a ritual of talking heads speaking authoritatively on matters of little significance in the larger world. While it is commendable that television network news programs devote so much time to election coverage it is important to remember that silence is forbidden – therefore, commentators will keep on talking whether they have anything to say or not.

With the constant talking it is important that the viewer be able to screen out the irrelevant (most of what you see and hear) from the relevant. Walter Shapiro offers a guide in Salon on how to watch the returns tonight:

While premature poll-closing hours are unfair to would-be voters stuck at work, they are a godsend to television viewers craving a quick fix on national trends. By chance, Indiana and Kentucky -- the two states that start counting votes at 6 p.m. Eastern -- are in the Ohio River Valley, which is the epicenter, along with the Northeast, of Democratic efforts to win the House. (Getting reliable returns before 7 p.m. Eastern may be tricky, though, because both states are split between two time zones and the networks may wait until 6 p.m. Central to call any races.)

Democrats have a shot at sweeping three Republican-held House seats in Indiana. In fact, the national GOP has scaled back its efforts to save Chris Chocola (2nd District) and John Hostettler (the 8th). That is why the first barometer race of the evening is a replay of 2004, as Democrat Baron Hill tries to win back the 9th District seat that he lost to Mike Sodrel in the southeastern corner of the state. If the Democrats go three-for-three in Indiana, it presages a long night for Karl Rove. Equally telling would be if any of the possibly vulnerable Republican House incumbents (Anne Northup, Ron Lewis or Geoff Davis) in Kentucky find themselves prematurely facing a new career in the lobbying industry.

At 7 p.m. Eastern, the polls close in New Hampshire and Virginia. While everyone else will be fixated on the George Allen-Jim Webb race -- the first hotly contested Senate race to report -- you may learn more by keeping your eye on New Hampshire. This will be our first sounding on the depth of the Democratic flood in the Northeast. The Democrats will be on the path to winning the House if, as expected, Democratic challenger Paul Hodes prevails in his rematch against GOP incumbent Charlie Bass in New Hampshire's 2nd District. But also take a quick gander at the margin in the state's other House race. If woefully underfunded Democratic challenger Carol Shea-Porter is somehow running neck-and-neck with Rep. Jeb Bradley, it could mean that virtually every Republican in the Northeast will be going glub-glub-glub in the Democratic tide before the night's over.

The statewide races in Ohio (where the polls close at 7:30 Eastern) have long been drained of suspense with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland and Senate challenger Sherrod Brown holding the kind of 20-to-30-point lead normally common only in true-blue states like New York and Massachusetts.

Before you wonder "Why-o, Why-o Ohio?" take a close look at the House races where Democrats might -- just might -- win as many as five seats. A Democratic pickup in the 18th District (the seat held until recently by convicted Jack Abramoff accomplice Bob Ney) is a gimmee. Amid the statewide GOP meltdown, Democrats have the edge over Steve Chabot (1st District) and Deborah Pryce (the 15th). But also take a look at Democratic long shots Victoria Wulsin (opposing Jean Schmidt in the 2nd District) and 79-year-old Bob Shamansky trying to return to the House after, yes, a 25-year hiatus in the Columbus-centered 12th District.

At 8 p.m. Eastern, the networks on the air (all cable, except for top-of-the-hour bulletins) will be overwhelmed as the polls close in another 20 states. Listen as the breathless announcers try to feign tension with the easy calls: "Senator Ted Kennedy reelected in Massachusetts!" But while the anchors are recounting the obvious, pause for a moment to count up House races. (It is early enough in the evening that it will not be necessary to remove any shoes.)

The Democrats will be heading for an epic House sweep, if, by 8 p.m., they have won three GOP-held Indiana seats, at least one in Kentucky, one in New Hampshire, one in Virginia (if Phil Kellam knocks off Thelma Drake in the 2nd District) and a minimum of three in Ohio. That new math would give the Democrats nine new House seats -- leaving them just six pickups around the country short of making Nancy Pelosi speaker. Conversely, if by 8 p.m. Eastern, the Republicans have held their losses to, say, three seats, then the Democrats will once again be reeling from the hidden power of the GOP's turnout operation.

Either way, armed with this crib sheet, you should have a handle on whether it's time to break out the champagne or take a triple dose of antidepressants.

Often lost in the wrangling over exit polls is what crude instruments they actually are. When it comes to divining the hidden motivations of voters, exit polls are about as reliable as the shotgun that Elmer Fudd uses to go hunting. The list of questions has to be brief because most voters will not stand around on a chilly November day, with an illegally parked car or a squalling 2-year-old, answering a five-page questionnaire. Instead, this year the exit polls will be asking blunder-buss questions like, "How important was same-sex marriage for your vote for the House?" or "How important was the war in Iraq for your vote for the House?" Useful data -- especially since the only people polled are actual voters -- but far from the last word on the 2006 elections.

You can read his whole piece here.

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