An Armchair Pundit's Guide to Election Night on TV

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Better plan on an early dinner tonight.

It is possible that, at 7 p.m., network anchors and their map manipulators will make projections that strongly suggest Sen. Barack Obama is on his way to winning the presidency. But if Obama fails to capture a handful of key states by 8 p.m. or so, then Sen. John McCain has a shot at getting to the magic 270 and everyone could be in for a long night.

For those keeping score, the biggest early bellwethers are the once reliably Republican states of Virginia and Indiana -- where polls close at 7.

"These are canaries in the coal mine," said Charlie Cook, the veteran analyst and NBC contributor. "When they start dying, there are huge problems for the Republicans."

"If Obama wins Virginia, he's won the election," said Tad Devine, who worked for John F. Kerry and Al Gore. "It says Obama was able to do something we only dreamt of four years ago."

Mike Murphy, a former McCain adviser, said his onetime boss "has basically got two strikes and you're out. Any two bad things happen -- losing Virginia and North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, Virginia and Ohio -- and it's over . . . I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but I know where my crying towel is."

Network executives say they will be cautious about making projections, given the undeniable problems with exit polls in the past two White House contests. Obama, for instance, might be ahead in Virginia, but by a small enough margin that the networks hold off on awarding him its 13 electoral votes.

Down-ballot races could provide a clue, analysts said. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, is expected to prevail in Kentucky, where polls close by 7 p.m., but if he is trailing it would be a bad omen for McCain. The same goes for Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, another 7 p.m. state where Cook thinks Obama has an outside shot.

Since the networks' policy is to refrain from calling any state until all its polls have closed, the trick is to listen for code phrases. If Obama appears headed for victory, said Paul Friedman, CBS's senior vice president, "you'll hear a lot of language, from all of us, 'It's going to be very difficult for John McCain to pull this out.' "

Television's latest touch-screen maps, which can turn every correspondent into a hyperactive John Madden diagramming a flea-flicker pass, will be a colorful blur. The handicappers say Obama has a reasonably firm hold on the blue states carried by Kerry four years ago, so nearly all the action is in the red states won by President Bush.

The two largest red-state prizes that McCain needs are Ohio, where polls close at 7:30, and Florida, an 8 p.m. state. If the Republican nominee loses either, the airwaves will be filled with chatter about how his path to victory has dramatically narrowed.

The one blue state that the McCain camp hopes to steal is Pennsylvania, where polls close at 8. Such an upset would unleash waves of punditry about a closer-than-expected race -- that is, according to expectations set by the media. Missouri is another key 8 p.m. state.

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