How to watch the elections

The early races to look for, what those exit polls really mean -- and how you'll know whether the Democrats will clean House.

Published November 7, 2006 1:30PM (EST)

In an ideal world, we would be blessed with the "Old-Fashioned Election Night Channel," which would merely show raw-vote totals from key races around the country. The only on-air commentary would come from veteran pols chomping on unlit cigars as they explain that they are still waiting for three blue-collar precincts in Pawtucket before they call the Rhode Island Senate race. Instead what we will get from the networks Tuesday night is not Dan Rather but Damn Blather. Preening anchors, greenhorn correspondents and partisan gunslingers will offer an endless loop of prefabricated commentary, while meaningful numbers only will occasionally pop up by accident on the crawl. It will be like sitting through a long evening of movie trailers without ever being allowed to watch more than occasional snippets of the main feature.

But, even without channeling Howard Beale, you don't have to take it anymore. Instead of cursing at Katie's insipid ad-libs or Brian's bombastic bromides, you can be master of your own domain by knowing what to watch and when. To help with this laudable quest, here are Salon's election-night tips.

The Early State of Play

While premature poll-closing hours are unfair to would-be voters stuck at work, they are a godsend to television viewers craving a quick fix on national trends. By chance, Indiana and Kentucky -- the two states that start counting votes at 6 p.m. Eastern -- are in the Ohio River Valley, which is the epicenter, along with the Northeast, of Democratic efforts to win the House. (Getting reliable returns before 7 p.m. Eastern may be tricky, though, because both states are split between two time zones and the networks may wait until 6 p.m. Central to call any races.)

Democrats have a shot at sweeping three Republican-held House seats in Indiana. In fact, the national GOP has scaled back its efforts to save Chris Chocola (2nd District) and John Hostettler (the 8th). That is why the first barometer race of the evening is a replay of 2004, as Democrat Baron Hill tries to win back the 9th District seat that he lost to Mike Sodrel in the southeastern corner of the state. If the Democrats go three-for-three in Indiana, it presages a long night for Karl Rove. Equally telling would be if any of the possibly vulnerable Republican House incumbents (Anne Northup, Ron Lewis or Geoff Davis) in Kentucky find themselves prematurely facing a new career in the lobbying industry.

At 7 p.m. Eastern, the polls close in New Hampshire and Virginia. While everyone else will be fixated on the George Allen-Jim Webb race -- the first hotly contested Senate race to report -- you may learn more by keeping your eye on New Hampshire. This will be our first sounding on the depth of the Democratic flood in the Northeast. The Democrats will be on the path to winning the House if, as expected, Democratic challenger Paul Hodes prevails in his rematch against GOP incumbent Charlie Bass in New Hampshire's 2nd District. But also take a quick gander at the margin in the state's other House race. If woefully underfunded Democratic challenger Carol Shea-Porter is somehow running neck-and-neck with Rep. Jeb Bradley, it could mean that virtually every Republican in the Northeast will be going glub-glub-glub in the Democratic tide before the night's over.

The statewide races in Ohio (where the polls close at 7:30 Eastern) have long been drained of suspense with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland and Senate challenger Sherrod Brown holding the kind of 20-to-30-point lead normally common only in true-blue states like New York and Massachusetts.

Before you wonder "Why-o, Why-o Ohio?" take a close look at the House races where Democrats might -- just might -- win as many as five seats. A Democratic pickup in the 18th District (the seat held until recently by convicted Jack Abramoff accomplice Bob Ney) is a gimmee. Amid the statewide GOP meltdown, Democrats have the edge over Steve Chabot (1st District) and Deborah Pryce (the 15th). But also take a look at Democratic long shots Victoria Wulsin (opposing Jean Schmidt in the 2nd District) and 79-year-old Bob Shamansky trying to return to the House after, yes, a 25-year hiatus in the Columbus-centered 12th District.

At 8 p.m. Eastern, the networks on the air (all cable, except for top-of-the-hour bulletins) will be overwhelmed as the polls close in another 20 states. Listen as the breathless announcers try to feign tension with the easy calls: "Senator Ted Kennedy reelected in Massachusetts!" But while the anchors are recounting the obvious, pause for a moment to count up House races. (It is early enough in the evening that it will not be necessary to remove any shoes.)

The Democrats will be heading for an epic House sweep, if, by 8 p.m., they have won three GOP-held Indiana seats, at least one in Kentucky, one in New Hampshire, one in Virginia (if Phil Kellam knocks off Thelma Drake in the 2nd District) and a minimum of three in Ohio. That new math would give the Democrats nine new House seats -- leaving them just six pickups around the country short of making Nancy Pelosi speaker. Conversely, if by 8 p.m. Eastern, the Republicans have held their losses to, say, three seats, then the Democrats will once again be reeling from the hidden power of the GOP's turnout operation.

Either way, armed with this crib sheet, you should have a handle on whether it's time to break out the champagne or take a triple dose of antidepressants.

Exit Poll Exegesis

Anyone with access to exit-poll data will be held at an undisclosed secure location without access to the Internet, cellphones, BlackBerrys or carrier pigeons until 5 p.m. Eastern. That embargo is likely to hold, so don't bother trolling the Internet for exit-poll results until, say, 5:10 p.m. when the most closely guarded numbers in the political universe shockingly begin to leak, even though they will not be mentioned on television until the polls close.

Yet even if a furtive man in a dirty raincoat hands you a sheaf of exit-poll data at 5:11, do not get your hopes up. What you will have in hand is a series of numbers for hard-fought Senate races (Virginia, Missouri, Montana, Maryland and Rhode Island) that are probably still too close to call, judging from the knotted pre-election polls. What you will also possess are the numbers on the party preferences for Congress of a national sample of voters. If the Democrats are up by a double-digit margin in this post-election survey, then it does suggest a takeover of the House with votes to spare. But if the figures are closer than that, then you are back to laboriously waiting for returns from individual House races.

The most important thing to remember as the anchors invoke the exit polls as holy writ is that there are no surveys whatsoever for individual House races. That's zilch, zero, zed. In short, we will not have on Election Night any reliable gauge to tell us for certain why voters made their decisions in contested House races. All the networks will be able to provide is a national survey that makes no distinction between the 375 districts where the outcome of the House race was preordained and the roughly 60 hard-fought contests. Needless to say, this limitation in the data will not prevent anyone from making sweeping generalizations about the meaning of the 2006 elections. But it might prevent you from believing them.

Often lost in the wrangling over exit polls is what crude instruments they actually are. When it comes to divining the hidden motivations of voters, exit polls are about as reliable as the shotgun that Elmer Fudd uses to go hunting. The list of questions has to be brief because most voters will not stand around on a chilly November day, with an illegally parked car or a squalling 2-year-old, answering a five-page questionnaire. Instead, this year the exit polls will be asking blunder-buss questions like, "How important was same-sex marriage for your vote for the House?" or "How important was the war in Iraq for your vote for the House?" Useful data -- especially since the only people polled are actual voters -- but far from the last word on the 2006 elections.

There will be other reasons to be wary Tuesday night. Ignore all the predictable put-downs of Nancy Pelosi's abilities as a television figure, since she would be succeeding Denny Hastert not Oprah. Disregard all flagrant examples of partisan rhetoric, since -- even on Election Night with vote totals pouring in -- campaign operatives naively cling to the belief that they can spin reality.

For nothing is as final as an election. And Tuesday night's results should be the definitive record until, well ... Wednesday morning, when the 2008 presidential campaign officially begins.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2006 Elections