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"How about you and I go for a beer when all this is over?" Charlie Neibergall/AP/Press Association Images
US 2012

Here's what you need to know if you're watching the US election tonight

If you’re staying up late tonight, here are the times to take note of, the poll closing times to watch and the swing states where the battle for the White House will come down to.

WE’RE ALMOST THERE. The debates are over, one candidate is squeezing in a few more rallies and now America is in the process of deciding whether it wants to give Barack Obama four more years or give Mitt Romney a go in the White House.

US presidential elections are unique both in the way the campaigns unfold – Romney has been campaigning since the middle of last year – to the process of election itself using the state-by-state electoral college method rather than a straight forward nationwide vote for a candidate.

Election night makes for a fantastic spectacle as  the US television networks each make their calls on who is going to win what state and its electoral votes with all eyes on a handful of swing states where the outcome is in doubt.

The polls indicate that Obama and Romney are neck-and-neck which a slight edge for Obama. It could be a long night with the outcome not known until well into tomorrow morning. It could go on even longer than that or perhaps we’ll know pretty quickly how it’s going to pan out.

We’re not going to lie, we just don’t know at this stage. There are known unknowns:


But if you’d like to know some of those knowns and are planning on burning the midnight oil tonight, here’s our guide to how to follow the US presidential election outcome…

First things first, what’s this electoral college malarkey as Joe Biden would say?

Well, to start you off on a light note here’s vice president Joe Biden telling the man who wants his job, Paul Ryan, that what he has just said was a bunch of malarkey:


Enjoy that? Now then pay attention because here comes the science bit.

The electoral college is the rather complicated system by which a US president is elected. Each state, and the District of Columbia (Washington DC), appoints a number of electors who formally decide which presidential candidate that state is voting for. How many electors each state has is dependent on its number of senators (always two) and congressmen or women the state has – which is determined by that is population.

Voters select the electors who are pledging to vote for the candidate they want. The elector’s name in a particular district may or may not appear on the ballot below the name of the actual candidate running for president depending on the state. Electors are on a winner takes all basis except in the states of Maine and Nebraska. There are a total of 538 electors or electoral college votes which means that the first candidate to reach 270 electoral college votes wins the presidency.

Red States, Blue States, what’s all this then?

Most states have a history of voting a particular way which is why candidates can count on their support in plotting their path to victory. Now the number of solid red states and blue states that campaigns can count on for this election is not in the slightest bit clear.

But what we can say with some degree of confidence is that Republicans have a lock on 191 electoral votes in so-called ‘red states’ in the south and mid-west while Democrats have 186 votes locked in ‘blue states’ in the north-east and west coast of the country.

Other states are said to be leaning towards a particular candidate. However different news organisations and commentators have different perspectives on this. You will find the New York Times placing as many as 243 delegates in the bag for Obama and 206 for Romney.

For the sake of argument we are going to work off the data provided by Real Clear Politics which says that Obama has a lock on around 201 electoral votes while Romney has a lock on 191.

That leaves 146 electoral votes up for grabs from the battleground states.

The swing states, eh?

Less of your dirty mindedness, the swing states are the states that will generate the most talk, the most buzz and will be the most watched. If there is a Sky News correspondent freezing their ass off in some state to bring you ‘closer to the story’ then you can be assured that that state is a swing state, a battleground where its too close to call.

These states are Colorado (9 electoral votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Virginia (13), Wisconsin (10).

Now some analyses discount some of these states because they believe they believe these states are already locked up. For example, Florida and North Carolina are predicted to go the way of Romney while Michigan and Pennsylvania are both said to be leaning towards Obama.

But neither campaign can be certain even if top Obama advisor David Axelrod is so confident of winning he has pledged to shave off his legendary ‘tache if the President loses Minnesota, Michigan or Pennsylvania.

Could ‘Axe’ be reaching for his razor come Wednesday? (Pic: M. Spencer Green/AP/Press Association Images)

Nice ‘tache, but how do I watch this election then?

Every US presidential election needs a good map and here’s a pretty decent one from 270ToWin where you can go play around with the states and turn them red and blue (after you’ve finished reading this, okay?)

Still with us? So you’ve got your blue states, your red states, your swing states. Now how do they all get decided you ask?

Well, with the continental United States covering four time zones the polls will be closing at different times which prolongs the excitement/tediousness/tiredness.

Traditionally the overall result emerges between 3am and 7am but in close elections – as some forecast this will be – it could go a lot later and well into the next day.

In 2004 it wasn’t until the evening of the following day that John Kerry conceded to George W Bush while in 2000 the disputed outcome in Florida meant the US Supreme Court did not determine the result until December.

The close nature of this year’s election means that much will hinge on the outcome of the vote in the swing states  whose polls close first. If, for example, all of the early swing states break for Obama than he’s in for a good night and an early one too but if they are split then this could be a long one.

US television networks will use exit poll data and actual vote counts to ‘call’ a state. In some cases they will do this almost immediately after the polls close there such as in states where the outcome is not in doubt.

But in swing stages they will likely wait until they have as much information as possible to make the right call in order to prevent a repeat of what happened in 2000:


Okay, I’m briefed but how long have I got to stay up for this thing?

Well, as we said the polls will close at different times so here’s what you need to keep an eye on as the hours tick on tonight (All times are Irish):


Polls close in: Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia.

Romney: Georgia (16 electoral votes), Indiana (11), Kentucky (8), South Carolina (9)

Obama: Vermont (3)

Virginia (13) is the one to watch here. The TV networks will likely call the result in the the other states and if they don’t call Virginia quickly then it could be a long night. Polls show a slight lead for Obama and if he wins here it could mean that he’s in for a good night. But Romney will be hoping to pick this state up to add to the early lead he will establish by taking  the other states.


Polls close in: North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia.

Romney: West Virginia (5)

No Republican has ever taken the White House without Ohio (18) and polls indicate that Obama might just squeak it. It would be a blow to Romney and would mean that he would have to almost certainly take North Carolina (15) to still be in with a chance. If by this stage Obama has taken Virginia and adds Ohio to it, the game is almost certainly up for Romney. The closeness of the contest means that networks are unlikely to call Ohio straight away.


Polls close in: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee.

Romney: Alabama (9), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), Oklahoma (7), Tennessee (11)

Obama: Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Illinois (20), Maine (4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), Rhode Island (4)

The big one. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia close their polls at this time and a whole load of electoral votes are likely to fall into place for the candidates. Florida (29), Pennsylvania (20) and New Hampshire (4) will be the ones to watch.

The fiasco of Florida in 2000 means you won’t have many TV networks calling the state too early but the polls indicate that Romney will take Florida. If he doesn’t, he’s in big trouble.

Pennsylvania is leaning towards Obama but if Romney causes an upset here and takes its 20 electoral votes then it could be very interesting given that no Republican has taken this state in 25 years. New Hampshire and its four electoral votes is also one to watch here. If Romney takes that it could be indicative of a good night ahead for the former Massachusetts governor but again it is Obama who leads the polls in this state.


Polls close in: Arkansas.

Romney: Arkansas (6)

No problem for Romney in taking the six electoral votes on offer here.

(Pic: Alex Brandon/AP/Press Association Images)


Polls close in: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

Romney: Arizona (11), Kansas (6), Louisiana (8), Nebraska (5), South Dakota (3), Texas (38), Wyoming (3).

Obama: Minnesota (10), New Mexico (5), New York (29)

Okay we know you’re tired by this stage but keep those eyes open because there are three battlegrounds here including Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9) and Michigan (16). Democrats have won Wisconsin in the last six presidential elections and Obama is edging the polls there so if he doesn’t win this time, it could be an indication of a bad night for the incumbent.

Michigan will be expected to fall the way of Obama and other polls also give Colorado to Obama who, if he wins all three, will be on the way to sealing the deal. Romney taking Colorado would keep the Republican challenger alive.


Polls close in: Iowa, Montana, Nevada, and Utah.

Romney should take: Montana (3), Utah (6)

Two swing states here are Iowa (6) and Nevada (6). Privately, Republicans appear to have given up on taking Nevada but it remains a swing state and if they do take it well then that probably means a good night. Iowa, where it all started for Obama in 2008, will be expected to go for the Democrat.


Polls close in: California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Washington.

Romney: Idaho (4), North Dakota (3)

Obama: California (55), Hawaii (4), Oregon (7), Washington (12)

None of these are swing states but the 55 electoral votes of California will significantly boost Obama’s electoral tally. He will also take Hawaii and Washington with Oregon leaning his way too. Romney will win Idaho and North Dakota.

(Pic: Eric Gay/AP/Press Association Images)


Polls close in: Alaska (3)

Sarah Palin’s home state and its three electoral votes are a lock for Romney. For old times’ sake, here’s Sarah’s view on foreign policy:


So how soon will we know the winner?

If the election plays out in the way that the state polls are indicating than Obama could clean-up very early on but national polls indicate that the race is neck and neck. Of course there is the possibility that a candidate could win the electoral college but lose the popular vote. This happened to Al Gore against an ultimately victorious George W Bush in 2000.

The last close election was in 2004 when it came down to Ohio which John Kerry did not concede to George W Bush until the evening of the following day.

It looks as if it may come down to Ohio once again which means that there’s a chance the outcome won’t be known until after Election Day. In previous elections between 2 per cent and 3 per cent of the state’s votes came from provisional ballots, which aren’t counted until later.

There’s also a potentially nightmarish scenario developing in the state where authorities sent absentee ballot applications to every voter. People who applied for such ballots but then decided to vote in person will be required to cast provisional ballots that are sealed until it can be proven that they haven’t already voted.

As many as 200,000 ballots may be cast and the State law would mean they couldn’t be opened until 17 November.

But, in short, there are many ifs and buts and as the New York Times has outlined in this excellent predictive tool, a total of 512 paths to victory between the candidates.

Put your neck on the line then, what’s going to happen?

State polls, particularly those in key swing states, give Obama a slight edge but within the statistical margin of error. Tracking polls such as one by the Washington Post – ABC News has Obama ahead by three percentage points – 50 to 47. The final Gallup poll has Romney ahead – 49 to 48.

So it’s close, very close. An Obama win would tally with what the polls have consistently said even in the aftermath of his disastrous first debate performance in Denver last month.

But a win for Romney should not be ruled out given the momentum he has gained since that first debate and the state of the national polls which have in recent weeks shown him to be either slightly ahead or slightly behind.

It would be a surprise if Romney won and would certainly have a lot of pollsters wondering where it all went wrong in their models and algorithms but if he is to achieve victory it won’t be an easy one and it won’t be settled quickly.

So having firmly placed ourselves on the fence, our advice would be to get the munchies in and the pot of coffee on because it’s going to be a long night. will be liveblogging the results from the 2012 US presidential election tonight and all through the night.

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