By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/29/2008 1:05:24 PM ET 2008-10-29T17:05:24

How do you prepare for your election night party?

Buy the snacks, chill the drinks, tidy up the living room — and start studying!

That is, if you want to be the smartest person in the room on Nov. 4.

Here's your official guide to key races and key results — a cheat sheet of sorts — guaranteed to give you the political know-how, plus a few factoids, to impress family and friends on election night.

It's around 7 p.m. and...
Your first chance for playing political pundit comes early in the night, perhaps soon after the first round of polls close at 7 p.m. ET. (To simplify things, in this story all times are Eastern Time.)

Six states' polls close at this time, but you should pay particular attention to Indiana and Virginia.

Here's why: You can posit to the party-goers that they are in for a Democratic “wave” if NBC News projects that Sen. Barack Obama has won Indiana and Virginia.

Even if Obama wins Virginia while losing Indiana (and later, Florida), it will suggest a pretty tough road to 270 electoral votes for Sen. John McCain. (And if you are reading this, you already know the magic number is 270.)

Why?

Without Virginia’s 13 electoral votes, McCain would almost certainly need all of these states to have a chance of winning 270:

  • New Hampshire (four electoral votes)
  • Ohio, (20)
  • Iowa (seven), and
  • Colorado (nine).  

Keep in mind, Virginia hasn't voted Democratic since 1964 (Lyndon Johnson) but has been trending Democratic. The state has a Democratic governor (Tim Kaine), one Democratic senator (Jim Webb) and will most likely have a second, with former Gov. Mark Warner leading in the polls by about 20 points.

But if the night begins with a McCain win in Virginia, then it’s shaping up as a longer night than most Democrats expect (read: If you're a Dem, now's the time you may want to switch from beer to coffee).

And if we hear that McCain has won both Virginia and Florida, the Republican's chances start looking much better.

While trolling for signs and waiting for more states to be called in the presidential contest, check up on a Virginia House race: Virgil Goode (R) vs. Tom Perriello (D).

Goode was a Democrat until he left the party in 2000. He has held his seat in mostly rural southern Virginia since 1997.

Decision 08 DashboardHis district includes Charlottesville — home of the University of Virginia and very Democratic — but it also takes in a lot of very Republican counties.

Democrats are trying to knock Goode out, with very hard-hitting ads attacking him on health care and veterans’ issues.

So remember this phrase: What’s good for Goode is good for House Republicans.

So what about Indiana?
Against the odds, polls have shown Indiana to be a toss up, quite a feat considering the state hasn't voted Democratic since 1964, and before that in 1936. George Bush won the state by some 20 points in 2004.

But Obama being from a neighboring state has appeared to help, as it has in all the states bordering Illinois except Kentucky.

Pay attention to Republican Mark Souder, the seven-term veteran from Fort Wayne in northeast Indiana. Souder’s House race against Democrat Michael Montagano is rated “Lean Republican” by The Cook Political Report.

A Souder defeat would be a clear signal that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is set to expand her 235-seat majority by 20 or 30 seats or more.

Will Mitch McConnell prevail?
If you are so inclined, and see politics as sport, you might summon the Beer Man when the Senate race in Kentucky is called (polls there also close at 7 p.m.).

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a strong challenge from Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

The state’s most populous county, Jefferson County, home to Louisville, is a place Lunsford must win by a wide margin.

Election A to ZIn 2004, President Bush carried Kentucky easily, winning statewide by more than 350,000 votes — but he lost Jefferson County by nearly 5,600 votes.

The 2004 Democratic Senate candidate Daniel Mongiardo carried Jefferson County with 60 percent of the vote and a margin of nearly 64,000 votes.

In the end, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning beat Mongiardo, but the Democrat got close, losing statewide by only 1.4 percent.

The battle for Georgia
But don't forget about Georgia, another one to watch at the magic 7 p.m. time slot.

Most Democrats say they don’t think Obama can carry the state, and its 15 electoral votes, which Bush won handily in 2000 and in 2004. But a powerful Obama performance at the top of the ticket could help Democratic Senate candidate Jim Martin who is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Keep an eye on Cobb County, Atlanta’s suburban neighbor to the north and west.

A total of 130,000 votes in Cobb County for Obama would tell you it will be a great night for Democrats in the state. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, won about 104,000 votes in Cobb, but was crushed by Bush who won 173,000, or 62 percent.

Also watch Chatham County, home to Savannah, where Kerry and Bush nearly tied in 2004. Bush carried the county by a mere 146 votes out of more than 91,000 votes cast. A Georgia Democratic strategist, speaking on condition he not be identified, said if Obama gets 55 percent and a total of about 55,000 votes in Chatham County, he’ll be doing well.

He added that if Obama gets 230,000 votes in DeKalb County next door to Atlanta that would be another good sign for the Democrats.

North Carolina and Ohio want some attention too
At 7:30 p.m., North Carolina and Ohio polls close.

At the simplest level it’s hard to devise a plausible scenario in which McCain loses Ohio and still manages to win the presidency. Based on recent polling, the current electoral math just doesn't add up for McCain without a win in Ohio.

Similarly, an Obama victory in North Carolina would seem to seal McCain’s fate. No Democratic presidential candidate has won the state since Jimmy Carter in 1976 and no Republican has been elected president without it since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956.

As for House races, there’s a good bellwether one in North Carolina. “Robin Hayes is going down,” the Georgia Democratic strategist gleefully predicted last weekend.

Hayes is a Republican trying to survive a challenge from Democrat Larry Kissell in the 8th District. If he does, it’s an upset win for Republicans.

Tune in to Mississippi
Roger Wicker’s Mississippi seat is another of the night’s bellwether contests. Polls close there at 8 p.m.

A Wicker win would lift GOP spirits. Both parties, and allied groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have spent lavishly on the race.

But a big African-American turnout could be the key to Democrat Ronnie Musgrove winning.

If Musgrove beats Wicker, then a 60-seat filibuster-proof Senate majority looks quite feasible for the Democrats.

Counties to watch in Mississippi:

  • DeSoto County, a fast-growing suburb of Memphis. Wicker ought to win this county by a margin of 20,000 votes.
  • Harrison County: A Republican county on the Gulf Coast which Bush won by more than 16,000 votes in 2004. Wicker also needs big numbers here.

Just down the way in Florida
At 8 p.m. it is also time to watch Florida's Orange County, home to Orlando, where the two parties were almost tied in the 2004 presidential race. And we all know what happened in Florida in 2000.

According to NBC's political unit, the state has appeared to lean McCain, but after weeks with the economy in focus, polls have showed a shift to Obama. The goal for Team Obama in Florida, as in some other GOP-leaning states, it not necessarily to win, but to make the state a sinkhole for McCain in terms of money.

And yet Obama showed he's serious about the Sunshine State by sending two top strategists there in early October.

So what to watch in Florida?

There's Brevard County, where Bush won more than 153,000 votes in 2004, a big increase over his 2000 performance.

And of course, keep a look out for heavily Democratic Palm Beach County.

Kerry got more than 328,000 votes in Palm Beach County in 2004; Obama should do better.

Keep in mind, there are several endangered House Republicans in Florida. One race some Democrats think may be moving their way, which hasn’t gotten much national attention, is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s race in Miami, the 18th Congressional District (aka, "Florida 18" if you want to sound like a political operative.)

Victories by Ros-Lehtinen and fellow Republicans Lincoln Diaz-Balart in Florida 21 and Tom Feeney in Florida 24 would be harbingers of a better election night for Republicans than they expected.

Don't forget Pennsylvania
Based on past presidential elections, most of the states whose polls close at 8 p.m. should be easy wins for Obama. An easy comment for the couch potato pundit on election night.

But Pennsylvania bears close watching.

A McCain win in Pennsylvania would defy expectations. It would also signal polling there at the start of this week was either wrong or outdated.

And if polling was wrong there, where else was it wrong?

McCain has fought hard to win the state. Both he and Obama are campaigning there heavily in the final week.

In northeast Pennsylvania, Democrat Paul Kanjorski has faced allegations of wasteful earmark spending, which could work to the benefit of his Republican foe Lou Barletta. This is one of the GOP’s best opportunities to gain a House seat.

In Erie, in the 3rd congressional district Republican incumbent Phil English has a struggle against Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper. English is a conservative and a defender of the steel industry who was first elected in the Newt Gingrich wave of 1994. But Pennsylvania political analyst Jon Delano calls Dahlkemper “a pro-gun, pro-life, pro-business conservative Democrat.”

Beer or coffee?
By 9ish, you may have to face a call of your own: a beer run, or time to brew up the coffee. If at this point you think it's going to be a long night, you may want to opt for the latter.

Wisconsin closes its polls at 9 p.m. A McCain victory there would be startling — at least given the current polling. He’s been behind in Wisconsin since early summer.

Also closing at 9 is Colorado. If the presidential race is still up in the air, the outcome could hinge on Colorado.

Video: Franken’s serious about the Senate The state also has a marquee Senate race which the Democrats fully expect to win (Democrat Mark Udall vs. Republican Bob Schaffer).

It also has one of the nation’s epic House battles with embattled social conservative Rep. Marilyn Musgrave facing Democrat Betsy Markey.

Can Coleman survive in Minnesota?
Another 9 o'clock poll closing is in Minnesota.

Republican Sen. Norm Coleman won in 2002 with only 49 percent of the vote. He could win this year with an even smaller percentage as he faces Democrat and former 'SNL' star Al Franken and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley.

One leading indicator for Coleman: Anoka County in the suburbs north of St. Paul.

In 2002, Coleman carried Anoka with 56 percent and in 2004 Bush won 53 percent there. But in the 2006 Senate race, the losing GOP candidate, Mark Kennedy, got only 41 percent in Anoka.

Coleman probably needs well more than 90,000 votes in Anoka County to win statewide.

If you check the running tally of independent spending by outside groups and by party committees (try The Center for Responsive Politics), you’ll see that there’s been a massive investment by both sides, $2.4 million and counting, in an open seat race in Minnesota's 3rd Congressional District, an excellent suburban indicator.

Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad is retiring. Democrat Ashwin Madia squares off against Republican Erik Paulsen.

Time to check in on Nebraska
In Nebraska, where polls also close at 9 p.m., you’ll see both a ballot referendum on state use of racial preferences as well as a strong Obama effort in Omaha — so strong that it may get Obama an electoral vote.

(And here's some more trivia to wow the crowd: Nebraska and Maine are the only two states that split their electoral votes, allotting them to the winner of each congressional district.)

The Obama effect in Omaha might cost Republican Rep. Lee Terry his seat in what has been a very Republican-performing district for years.

Tired yet?
If you’re an East Coaster, but still awake when polls close on the West Coast, take a look at another imperiled Republican, Rep. John Shadegg in Arizona 3, a place that Bush carried with nearly 60 percent of the vote in 2004.

Also in the Pacific Time Zone: the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot in California to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

In 2000 California voters passed a nearly identical measure with 61 percent.

But that was a law, not a constitutional amendment, and it was overturned by the state supreme court.

The California vote will tell you whether sentiment on gay marriages has shifted since 2000.

And if you plan to greet dawn’s early light on the East Coast, or are just getting started on the West Coast, be sure to find out whether or not Alaska’s beleaguered 40-year Senate veteran, Ted Stevens, keeps his job or loses to Democrat Mark Begich.

On Monday, a jury found Stevens, 84, guilty on seven counts of trying to hide more than $250,000 in free home renovations and other gifts from a wealthy oil contractor.

Polls close in Alaska, Colorado and Montana at 1 a.m., followed by the final state to wrap up the night, Nevada, at 2 a.m.

Will you still be partying?

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