An hour-by-hour guide to Election Night 2018

[A general overview of the elections is in the previous post.]

Because states close their polls at different times and count the votes at different rates, Election Night always produces the illusion of a horse race. You could just go to bed early tomorrow night and find out Wednesday what happened. The information that trickles out minute-by-minute is not actually useful to you.

But lots of us love a good horse race, and many of the rest of us won’t be able to sleep well until we know how the important races come out. So I’m going to a returns-watching party, and I suspect many of you will be glued to your TV sets as well. Here’s what to look for hour by hour.

Before 7 p.m.

[All times are Eastern Standard. You can do the math to adjust for where you live.]

No polls close before 6, and no entire state closes its polls before 7. So by common agreement, none of the networks will report their exit polls or project any races before 7. The only point in turning on your TV before 6 is if you’re just too anxious to do anything else.

If you do tune in, though, you can sometimes glean a little information indirectly. The commentators have been getting exit poll results all day, and while they can’t tell you what those results say, they aren’t obligated to say anything that will make them look stupid when the results start coming out. So if they’re having a what-if conversation, like “What if young voters do (or don’t) turn out in record numbers?” chances are that will turn out to mean something. Commentators will be trying to lay down some themes that they expect the election results to fill out.

You will also hear some “party officials are worrying about X” comments. (One of the first signs things were going badly for Democrats in 2016 was when I heard a Democrats-are-worried-about-black-turnout-in-Cleveland conversation.) Officials are worried because they’ve seen something to worry about.

At 6 EST, the first results will come in from the eastern-time-zone parts of Kentucky and Indiana. Maybe you’ll find out something about the Indiana Senate race, which supposedly is leaning towards Democrat Joe Donnelly. But unless you know a lot about Indiana, those early returns won’t tell you too much, because exit polls can’t be released until the central-time-zone parts of those states close their polls at 7.

7 p.m.

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

There’s no chance that control of Congress will be decided before California closes its polls at 11, and if there are a lot of close races it may take much longer. So in general, what you’re looking for in the early results is the unexpected: A close race that wasn’t supposed to be close, or an surprisingly easy win somewhere. Early elections are linked in some probabilistic way to later elections, so a surprise that favors one party or the other is a sign that surprises might keep favoring that party for the rest of the evening.

You’re also looking for trends in the state exit polls that might turn out to be national trends: Did young people vote? Are Hispanics turning out? Are women outvoting men?

The only really close Senate race in this bunch is in Indiana. Probably it won’t be clear for hours who won, but if it is, the winning party is off to a good start.

Virginia has two toss-up House races: Brat vs. Spanberger in VA-7 and Riggleman vs. Cockburn in VA-5. Those could be bellwethers for the country. In VA-10, Democrat Jennifer Wexton is expected to knock off incumbent Republican Barabara Comstock. That might be the first good news of the evening.

Kentucky-6, Andy Barr against Amy McGrath, is also rated a toss-up. As I explained in the previous post, Democrats can take the House (barely) without winning any toss-ups. But this would be a nice one to get. Georgia-6, where Republican Karen Handel won a close special election last year, is also a toss-up.

One of the most interesting governor races in the country is Abrams vs. Kemp in Georgia. That race has been all about race, so the election hinges on who actually votes. Big turnout, especially big turnout among blacks, favors Abrams.

7:30 p.m.

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

It’s interesting that a swing state like Ohio has no toss-up House races, a sign that districts are drawn badly. West Virginia’s three districts are all predicted to go for Republicans. North Carolina-9, Harris vs. McCready, is a toss-up.

In the West Virginia, Joe Manchin is expected to hang on to one of the Democrats’ most improbable Senate seats. If he doesn’t, the slim hopes of Democrats winning a Senate majority are pretty much finished.

Ohio has a competitive governor’s race, with just the slightest of edges to Democrat Richard Cordray.

8 p.m.

This is when things get serious. Polls close in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.

Claire McCaskill’s Senate seat in Missouri is one the Democrats need if they’re going to have any chance of a Senate majority. Democratic wins in the Mississippi or Tennessee Senate races would be upsets, but Democrats need an upset somewhere. New Jersey is a solidly blue state this year, but Senator Bob Menendez has had a long series of near-misses with corruption scandals. He’s expected to win, but the race will be much closer than it should be.

Several interesting House races are in this batch. Maine-2 has been an expensive battle that seems to be leaning to Democrat Jared Golden. A court-ordered redistricting has partially ungerrymandered Pennsylvania, giving Democrats several chances to pick up Republican seats. The toss-up is PA-1, with polls giving a slight advantage to the Republican. In PA-17, Conor Lamb, who won a special election last year, is up against another incumbent, Keith Rothfus. Lamb is expected to win.

IL-6, MI-7 are toss-ups.

8:30 p.m.

Arkansas closes its polls. The four House seats and the governorship are all expected to go to Republicans. No Senate race.

9 p.m.

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

By now the shape of the evening should be coming into focus. Either there’s a Democratic rout going on in the House and the Senate is a nail-biter for Republicans, or it’s pretty clear Republicans will hang onto the Senate and the House is going to go down to the wire.

The close Senate races are in Arizona and Texas. Beto upsetting Ted Cruz is considered unlikely, but if it happens it’s the story of the night. Kansas and Wisconsin have close governors’ races.

MN-1, NEB-2, NM-2, and TX-7 are toss-up House races.

10 p.m.

Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Utah.

Montana’s and Nevada’s Senate races are ones the Democrats need to have. In Iowa-4, Congress’ closest thing to an open white nationalist, Steve King, is expected to be re-elected. But he’s gotten bad publicity late, so you never know.

11 p.m.

North Dakota, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Washington.

If it’s a good night for Democrats and the Senate is still in play, it probably comes down to Heidi Heitkamp’s seat in North Dakota.

If Republicans are doing better than expected, control of the House will probably hinge on CA-39 and CA-48. California has a lot of mail-in ballots that only need to be postmarked by Election Day, so these races could be in doubt into next week.

1 a.m.


If Don Young’s seat in Alaska is in doubt, odds are the Democrats have already nailed down the House.

Past 1 a.m.

At this point all the votes have been cast and all the exit polls published. We just have to wait for the counting. Probably either the House or the Senate (but probably not both) will be in doubt well into the wee hours.

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  • Roger  On November 5, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    You don’t love us in NYS (9 pm)? We have at least 2 House seats in play

    • weeklysift  On November 6, 2018 at 10:06 am

      I apologize for the oversight. 538 rates NY-22 as a toss-up and NY-19 as just barely leaning Democratic. I also missed the toss-up in NJ-3.

  • Gilbert Pilz  On November 5, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb has many interesting comments about the misleading nature of too much detailed information/noise.


  • By Where the Party Ends | The Weekly Sift on November 5, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    […] This week’s featured posts are “Why I’m Voting Straight Democratic“, “How the Midterm Elections Look with One Day to Go“, and “An hour-by-hour Guide to Election Night 2018“. […]

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