So we made this. Your normcore guide to what to watch for on election night, presented in an Internet-friendly step-by-step way.
7:30 p.m. Eastern: Watch Ohio.
Ohio is a big state that Trump can and should win. He needs the electoral votes. Polls there close at 7:30 p.m., and it has been leaning Trump for long enough now that it has sort of been treated as a given that he will pick it up.
If he doesn't? If Trump loses Ohio, we can say two things. First, that the long-promised Trump surge of white working-class voters failed to materialize in a way that would reshape the electoral map. Second, because Ohio is big and because that wave didn't materialize, we can pretty safely assume that Trump will lose.
Why? Because there aren't many big states that are in play for him where he can make up a lot of electoral votes in short order. Happily, we have a better state with which to make that point.
8 p.m. Eastern: Watch Florida.
I sincerely hate having to say this, because: No kidding. If you've heard the word “electoral” before and were conscious in the year 2000, you know to watch Florida.
Polls close everywhere in the state at 8 p.m. Eastern. (Some polls close at 7.) But do not expect to get immediate results; in 2012, the state wasn't called for days (but it didn't matter because President Obama had run up more than 270 electoral votes elsewhere).
Florida is important simply because Donald Trump has to win it. As with everything in this article, there are caveats that apply; Donald Trump doesn't need to win Florida if he, say, wins California. But he's not going to win California, so he needs to win Florida. If Hillary Clinton wins Florida, Trump has to make up 29 electoral votes somewhere else, which means that he needs to either win New York, which he won't, or he needs to win at least three other states that are in Clinton's column at the moment. Setting aside Pennsylvania, which we'll get to, there's nowhere else to pick up 29 votes from two states.
Here, game it out. Click the states to see how things change. It's pre-loaded with the current RCP polling. Try to find a believable way for Trump to win without Florida. You cannot.
Polling in Florida has basically shown it as a toss-up for the last two weeks. There has been a spike in Hispanic turnout that suggests the state may not be as close as it seemed. If Clinton wins Florida, it's done.
8:01 p.m. Eastern: Watch North Carolina (and then Pennsylvania).
We're jumping around a bit now, but this is my prerogative as your tour guide to the evening's elections. If I were your tour guide at, say, the Statue of Liberty, would you want me to take you around the base and show you where such-and-such happened or would you want me to take you to the crown and show you lower Manhattan? You would want the crown, and in this election, Florida is the crown and I'm sorry, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, but you just have to wait until a bit later in the tour.
North Carolina polls close at 7:30 and Pennsylvania at 8 p.m. Eastern. If Trump wins Ohio and if he wins Florida, he still needs to win either North Carolina or Pennsylvania, too. Which is why we can come back to North Carolina once we know what happens in Florida — if he loses Florida, who cares about North Carolina? It's not March.
The math works like this. Including the gimme states for Trump and assuming he doesn't lose any states he should win (like Texas, Georgia and Utah), he is sitting at 197 electoral votes. Give him Florida and Ohio and he's at 244. Give him Pennsylvania and North Carolina — where he trails by two points and leads by about one, respectively — and he gets to 279. If he loses Pennsylvania (the more likely of the two) he's at 259, and needs to cobble together 11 electoral votes from somewhere.
If he loses both? Clinton wins — unless the California Miracle happens.
8:02 p.m.: Watch New Hampshire and Maine.
So let's say Trump wins Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. He's at 259 electoral votes and needs 11 more.
Five of those electoral votes could come from New Hampshire and Maine. Maine gives out an electoral vote to the winner of each of its two congressional districts. Trump is in shouting distance in New Hampshire (Clinton has a slight lead) and could win that one electoral vote in Maine (538 has it as a toss-up).
But let's set this aside for a second.
9 p.m. Eastern: Watch Michigan.
If Trump could pull off an upset in Michigan, he doesn't need that rinky-dink New Hampshire garbage. He would win the presidency (assuming he won North Carolina or Pennsylvania).
The polling suggests that this is unlikely; the RealClearPolitics average of public polls gives Clinton a 3.4 point lead. But both campaigns have put resources into the state over the past week or so, suggesting that each thinks it might be within reach.
We'll probably have a sense of whether or not this is possible once we see what happens in Ohio. If Trump manages to win Ohio by a wide margin, it suggests that he may be seeing the demographic surge that he has promised, which could carry over into Ohio's demographically similar (but far inferior at college football) northern neighbor.
10 p.m. Eastern: Watch Iowa.
Included in the Trump gimme states above is Iowa, which has six electoral votes. He should win the state (he leads by about three points, according to RealClearPolitics). If he doesn't? Then the odds are good that he didn't win North Carolina or Florida either, given how much closer those states are to tipping to Clinton.
So just keep an eye on Iowa. Expect Trump to win, but, you know.
10:01 p.m. Eastern: Watch Nevada.
Now let's assume that Trump loses Michigan but wins Iowa, New Hampshire and that one little dude in Maine. He's at 264, just six electoral votes from the presidency.
Guess what state has six electoral votes!
Early voting numbers suggest that Trump is unlikely to carry Nevada. If he manages to overcome that deficit and win Nevada, he's up to 270 electoral votes. Done and done.
11 p.m. Eastern: Watch California.
The question is what happens if he doesn't win those states. Remember, this path demands he win: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire and that district in Maine. If he loses Nevada, there are only a few states where polls are still open. He would need to flip Washington, Oregon, California or Hawaii, all solidly blue states. That's unlikely to happen.
So keep your TV tuned until 11 p.m. That's the point at which California will be called, and if Trump isn't on the path above (or hasn't somehow cobbled together a miraculous alternative path), you would expect networks to declare a winner.
And if Trump wins California, the winner would be Trump! Which is why you have to tune in to see.