Exit pollsters are at work in the states with contests Tuesday, except in Idaho, North Dakota and Alaska. Here’s a cheat sheet for following Super Tuesday's voting in the 10 states, and what to look for in the exit poll numbers as they start to trickle out this evening.
When does everything happen?
Before Tuesday: Edison Media Research — which conducts the exit poll for the National Election Pool (a consortium of ABC News, the AP, CBS News, CNN, FOX News and NBC News) — completed phone interviews with early voters in Ohio and Tennessee in the days leading up to Super Tuesday. Early voting may play the biggest role in Tennessee, where nearly three in 10 Democratic and Republican primary voters cast early or absentee ballots in 2008. Santorum led Romney by 12 points among early voters in an American Research Group poll released Sunday; the candidates were nearly even among other likely voters. Only about 15 percent of Ohio primary voters cast early ballots in 2008, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office.
5:00 p.m. (all times Eastern) — Exit poll analysts leave a quarantine room and send around early exit poll results to subscribers. These early data — including morning and early afternoon interviews with voters — are used to describe basic turnout dynamics and look at voter attitudes generally (see below for what to watch for). Caution is in order. Preliminary exit poll results can change quite a bit throughout the evening as additional interviews are included and as the numbers are adjusted to actual vote counts as those are tallied.
7:00 p.m. — Voting ends in Georgia, Vermont and Virginia, at which point networks may start to project winners based on models using both exit polls and vote counts. Polls leading up to Super Tuesday point to an early projection for Gingrich in Georgia (who leads by double digits in polls) and for Romney in Virginia (where Paul is the only other candidate on the ballot).
7:30 p.m. — Voting ends in Ohio, the marquee matchup of the night. Don’t expect an early projection in the Buckeye State, as pre-election polls predict a very close race. Do expect reams of exit poll data on how Ohioans voted; Ohio voters randomly filled out one of three questionnaires, providing far more data than in other states.
8:00 p.m. — Voting ends in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Massachusetts and North Dakota. Polls point to an easy win for Romney in Massachusetts, and potentially Santorum in Oklahoma.
Later — North Dakota results will begin arriving at 9:30 p.m., and the Idaho Republican Party plans to announce results from their caucus at 10:30 p.m.. The Alaska caucuses close when the clock strikes midnight, concluding the biggest election day so far in 2012.
Key exit poll results to watch
Southern evangelicals — They’ve been Romney’s bane (pardon the pun) in several primary losses this year, and socially conservative evangelical Christians play a dominant role in Bible belt states voting Tuesday. They represented over seven in 10 voters in Oklahoma and Tennessee in 2008, and another six in 10 in Georgia. In addition to evangelicals, Santorum has run well among voters who say a candidate’s religious beliefs are important in their vote.
Is Romney conservative enough? Romney has struggled to win over the most conservative Republican voters. Even in his rousing Florida victory, 41 percent of voters said his positions on the issues are “not conservative enough.” Tuesday’s exit polls will provide the biggest verdict yet on whether Republican voters are comfortable with Romney’s ideological positions.
Working class for Santorum? Rick Santorum had strived to appeal to working class voters, and Ohio represents a key opportunity in that quest: Over six in 10 Ohio Republican primary voters in 2008 lacked college degrees. But be careful if working class turnout is strong. Santorum received almost the same level of support among higher- and lower-education voters in Michigan and Arizona, according to exit polls.
Government vs. Business experience — Michigan voters said by nearly 2 to 1 that business experience was a stronger pre-requisite for the presidency, and Romney won “business” voters by a 30-point margin over Santorum. Ditto in Arizona. It’s unclear whether Romney’s business bona fides carry the same weight in southern Tennessee and Oklahoma.