Video: Election night viewer guide

By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 11/4/2008 1:24:00 PM ET 2008-11-04T18:24:00

There are a number of smart election previews out there.

Ready for one more?

Here are the things I'm watching for in every state, on every level.

Alabama: While the state isn't really in play on the presidential level, there are a couple of hot House races, including a very rare open Democratic seat in the 5th District. The 2nd District, an open Republican seat, is also competitive. The large turnout among African-Americans could give Democrats a sweep of both. Tip: Keep an eye on outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Riley – his term ends in 2010. One would think he might attempt to become a player in national politics. The party will be searching for new leaders.

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Alaska: Before John McCain picked Sarah Palin, I used to say, "As Alaska goes, so goes the landslide." My reasoning had everything to do with the battering the state's two longtime Republican congressional leaders – Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young – were taking in the press and in the courts. The sour mood among Republicans inside the state seemed to be doing enough damage that Obama would be competitive with McCain in the state.

Arizona: Could Arizona be to McCain what Tennessee was to Gore? Possibly, but is it what Tennessee was to Gore in 1996 or 2000? What folks don't realize is that Tennessee almost slipped away from the Clinton-Gore ticket in '96 but was saved at the last minute. I think that's what's happening in Arizona. This is a lean-Red swing state that every two years during the last eight has shown evidence of moving toward the Democrats. If McCain weren't on the ballot, Obama would have contested this state from the beginning. Democrats are targeting the open GOP House seat in the 1st District, one of the  largest in the country and even think they could pull an upset in the 3rd. I doubt that one myself. Tip: If McCain loses, the next good political story in the state will be his Senate re-election bid in 2010. Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano is term-limited and loves to read polls matching her up with McCain in 2010.

Arkansas: This could be the only state Obama doesn't carry that sports a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators. As Obama's poll numbers have surged in a bunch of states, one of the most surprising things is the numbers haven’t moved in Arkansas. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see Obama beat the spread in Arkansas if one assumes the spread is, say, 15 points.

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California: As unpopular as Bush supposedly has been in California, he only lost the state by 11 points in both 2000 and 2004. So what happens with McCain in '08? I think Obama's margin in this state will tell us a lot about Democratic enthusiasm among the base. Anything above 15 points for Obama probably means he will have some coattails down the ballot. And frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if some two to four GOP incumbents go down, shocking  folks in Washington (Reps. Mary Bono-Mack? David Dreier?) No one is safe in this Blue state.

Colorado: What a transformation. The Democratic dominance is taking place so fast that it appears the state forgot it was supposed to stop in "toss-up" land on its way from Red to Blue status. Democrats could win another House seat in the state, another Senate seat and see Obama carry the state. If I were the Republican Party, I'd make Michigan and Colorado my petri dishes for experiments to get the party's groove back. Until the GOP can appeal to secular independents in the West and working class Democrats in the Midwest, they are going to be a minority party. The party's comeback should start in one of these two states because they  are microcosms of the GOP's issues.

Connecticut: There is just one race to watch this cycle and that's Chris Shays' House race. He's the lone remaining Republican in the House from New England. His potential defeat puts a period on a trend line that explains why the Republicans have become a minority party. Just like the Democrats and the South in the '90s, when a party deserts one region, they desert their chances of remaining a majority party. But even if Shays loses, don't write his political obituary yet. Chris Dodd is going to have a tough re-election fight in 2010, defending his tenure as Senate Banking Committee chairman and if Shays still has the ambition, he would be a nightmare opponent for Dodd.

Video: The final days

Delaware: I think we can safely assume that Joe Biden will win re-election. (Don't forget, he's on the ballot twice in the state because his seat is up). The state's electing a new governor with Democrat Jack Markell the likely victor. The real intrigue in this state begins on Nov. 5 if the Obama-Biden ticket wins. There will be a Senate appointment. Who will get the gig? The unofficial politician who should be next in line is Republican Mike Castle. Of course, a Democratic governor wouldn't appoint a Republican, but it probably means Castle will challenge whoever gets appointed unless Biden talks Castle into switching parties.

Florida: One of the underreported stories of the cycle in this key presidential battleground state is the amount of House races being targeted. On a mediocre night for the Democrats, they should net at least one seat (they'll knock off two incumbents in the Orlando area and lose the Tim Mahoney seat). It's possible they could win another two seats in South Florida, as both Diaz-Balart brothers are in very tough fights with Cuban Democrats. That's right, the Cuban electorate may no longer be monolithic. And if Obama carries the state and one of these Cuban Republicans loses their House seat, it will be one of the bigger realignment stories in the state. If Republicans start losing their edge among Cubans in South Florida, it's a devastating blow for the GOP.

Georgia: Has this state really slipped into the toss-up category? Possibly. A few years ago, I asked a smart Democratic demographer which states could become competitive if the party could maximize voter registration and turnout among African-Americans. This demographer pointed to three states: Georgia, Louisiana (pre-Katrina) and Mississippi. So we'll see. But the real action in this state is in the Senate race where Republican Saxby Chambliss appears to be headed to a runoff with Democrat Jim Martin. The state has the odd law that if no candidate gets more than 50 percent, there's a runoff. This happened in 1992 when a Libertarian candidate nabbed a couple of points, and it’s happening again. The runoff will be in early December.

Hawaii: Nothing hot on the ballot other than the state's native son running for president. Will Hawaii become the new Western White House if Obama wins? That's the question every prospective White House correspondent in the country wants to know. Honolulu vs. Crawford … hmmm. Hawaii could become very powerful in Congress if Daniel Inouye is elevated to Senate Appropriations chair in place of an ailing Robert Byrd. Tip: Keep an eye on Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, who could be thrown into the national spotlight if Obama does indeed put Hawaii on the map as his Western White House. 

Idaho: The problems for the GOP have even spread to this normally rock-ribbed Republican state. Most House race bean counters have already assumed Democrats will knock off Republican Bill Sali. Could a Sali loss, combined with a couple of Club for Growth-supported incumbent losses in Michigan and Maryland lead to an internal fight inside the Republican Party over the power of that group in certain Republican primaries? It looks to me like the Club is seeing a lot of its conservative success stories struggling to hold seats that a Republican shouldn't have trouble keeping.

Illinois: Obviously, the presidential race isn't in doubt here. The big question is how long Obama's coattails in his state will be. Could he swing four House races? Probably not, but if Democrats net less than two seats out, they'll be disappointed. The big post-election story if Obama wins the presidency will be in the hands of the ethically embattled Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He's not very popular and has a chance to use his power to appoint an Obama replacement as a step in the direction of political rehabilitation. The fear among some Democrats is that “the Rod” will not listen to political reason as far as who could hold onto the seat for the Democrats in 2010. All sorts of names get bandied about, including Jesse Jackson Jr. (unlikely), Lisa Madigan (who wants to be governor more than a senator), Tammy Duckworth (the disabled Iraq war vet who lost a bid for Congress in '06) and Bill Daley. Because the Rod goes his own way, there's no telling what he will do. He could find a caretaker, that is, appoint someone who refuses to run for a full term.

Indiana: The most surprising battleground state development of the cycle is Indiana. Forget Colorado, North Carolina or Virginia — we knew those were coming. Indiana does not fit the profile of a state that seemed ready to move toward the Democrats, but move it has. The Democratic wave, though, isn't so big that Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels appears threatened. In fact, a Daniels win in this climate could catapult the one-time rising star of the Bush administration to national prominence again. Daniels is a conservative pragmatist that the party may desperately need to take a leadership role. If Obama wins the state, it'll be by a nose hair and he might sweep out conservative Rep. Mark Souder at the same time.

Iowa: What has happened to the Iowa Republican Party? Just two years ago, the GOP held four of the five House seats. Now, if the wave hits hard enough, the party could be down to just one seat (the always conservative 5th District). The state GOP's health can be summed up by the lack of a challenge they've given to the usually vulnerable Tom Harkin. In fact, Iowa is similar to a lot of battleground states where McCain is struggling; the state’s Republican infrastructure is just a mess. See also: Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Virginia, to name a few.

Kansas: Obama’s ties to this state through his mother’s roots haven’t translated to a pop in his numbers. The reliable Republican nature of the state is remaining just that, reliable. But it's not like the GOP is doing big things in Kansas, either. Nancy Boyda, a Democrat from the 2nd District, who some thought would be an accidental victor in '06, looks poised to win re-election, which is the most surprising development in state politics. Tip: Look for lots of action in this state in 2010 as Sam Brownback eyes a gubernatorial run, which in turn could have Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius eyeing a Senate seat, unless she gets a gig in Obama's cabinet.

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Kentucky: Six months ago, it didn't appear I'd have much to say about the Bluegrass State but my, have things changed. Not only are Democrats poised to pick up a House seat (in the state's rural 2nd District) but there's a 30 percent chance they knock off the state's most powerful Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell. The state is more of an evenly divided state than its reputation betrays. Tip: If Obama's within 10 points on Election Day, then it's probably going to be a bad night for McCain.

Louisiana: Is something happening in the Bayou? A recent poll showing Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu winning by a big margin also had Obama within three points of McCain. Could this poll be right? It really depends on how many Katrina evacuees return to the state to vote. It's the big unknown and is probably why the Obama campaign didn't target the state. It's very difficult to find the electorate and guarantee you can get them to come back to New Orleans in time to vote. Frankly, I don't know what's going to happen. Some days, I think we're underplaying the potential of Katrina evacuees to return and make the presidential race competitive and other days I think the electorate has changed so much that Landrieu is going to lose. We'll find out Tuesday. Tip: Democrats could pick up a House seat in the state, perhaps the 4th District, but it'll be a neutral gain since they may lose the district they won in a special election earlier this year.

Maine: Besides the development of Indiana as a presidential battleground, this cycle’s other big surprise for me is the lack of a race that Republican Sen. Susan Collins has found (or not found) herself in. If Democrats are killing it so much in New England then how did this race not pop for them? Answer: Collins is very good on the bread-and-butter parts of her job. She returns to the state all the time, not just in election years and has voted very much like a Maine moderate needs to vote in order to secure re-election. If Democrats come up short of their 60-seat, filibuster-proof Senate majority, Collins and her colleague Olympia Snowe could become the two most popular Republicans in the Democratic caucus.

Maryland: About the only major development here is that the state GOP could lose yet another Republican House seat. Believe it or not, Maryland wasn't always this much of a Democratic state, but it sure is looking like one now. Seven of the eight seats could now be Democrat. And I can't find a Republican for miles that appears to have the statewide juice to break the Democrats’ hold on any of these statewide seats. This is a state where the GOP may need to start from scratch.

Massachusetts: Did you know that there is no bigger state in the union that has one party in control of everything – the governor's mansion, two U.S. Senate seats and an entire House delegation? That said, the Democrats’ dominance here has gotten to a point where I'm guessing the state's a cycle or two away from seeing some Republican finally break through again. I guess it wasn't that long ago when Mitt Romney was the state's governor. It seems like such ancient history, doesn't it?

Michigan: Speaking of states becoming less competitive, welcome to Michigan. Nothing disappoints national Republican strategists more than their inability to get Michigan back into the swing column. From the presidential race on down, the party hasn't really had a success in this state in 10 years (Gov. John Engler's last re-election victory). Because McCain abandoned the state, there is some fear in GOP circles that the Democrats could pick up one or two House seats. Tip: If Republicans do lose the White House, keep an eye on state party chair Saul Anuzis, who could decide to run for RNC chair. His main argument: move the center of the Republican Party out of the South. Saul's main competition: South Carolina's Katon Dawson.

Minnesota: Forget the presidential race, there's no better campaign for political junkies like myself than the nutty three-way Senate race between Norm Coleman, Al Franken and ex-Sen. Dean Barkley (remember, Jesse Ventura appointed Barkley to the Senate for the remaining days of the late Paul Wellstone's term). It's a crazy race; I think there's even a five percent chance the third party candidate wins. That said, I guess Franken is the very slight favorite. It's been a roller-coaster. A Franken win would be the ultimate culmination of what's been the convergence of everyday politics and satire. I can't wait to see how Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the “SNL” folks deal with a Sen. Franken. Tip: Democrats could pick up two more House seats, including suddenly vulnerable Michelle Bachmann’s seat and another open seat.

Mississippi: Like Louisiana and Georgia, I'm going to be watching the surge in African-American turnout very closely in this state. How big will it be without efforts from the Obama campaign to turn out voters? This could tell us more about the historic nature of this election than anything in Florida, North Carolina or Virginia. Also, if Democrats win the Roger Wicker Senate seat — both of the state's Senate seats are on the ballot this year — it'll be solely because of an historic surge in African-American turnout. The surge should be big enough to allow Democrats to hold the House seat they won earlier this year in a special election.

Missouri: Two big races in the state: the presidential, of course, and the race to replace the unpopular and retiring GOP Gov. Matt Blunt. The Democrats look to be in a good shape to pick up the governor’s seat. The biggest problem for the GOP in this race is their nominee has the first name of "Congressman" in a year when that's not the most popular title with voters. Moreover, Blunt's unpopularity doesn't help Republican Kenny Hulshof either. As for the presidential implications, Missouri is a state that's a trailing indicator of the national polls. If Democrats lead by two to four points nationally, they are a point or two to even in Missouri. If Obama carries Missouri, I suspect this means he'll carry just about every toss-up state left on the NBC battleground map. As for House races, it doesn't look like the potential Democratic House wave is going to sweep away any House seats, but the open seat and Republican Sam Graves' district are relatively competitive.

Montana: The Republican Party here has been devastated, leaving Obama with a reasonable chance of carrying the state. Republicans have very little reason to go to the polls in Montana outside of the presidential race. There's not a good ground game in the state for the GOP, as it is hard to motivate voters for a gadfly Senate nominee and a gubernatorial candidate who has no shot at knocking off the popular incumbent, Democrat Brian Schweitzer.

Nebraska: For the first time since they changed their law to allow electoral votes to be split, it appears there's a decent chance that Nebraska could split its five electoral votes, 4-1. Obama's chances to carry the state's 2nd District look very good, in fact so good we may move the district to "toss-up" status. Not only is Obama doing well in the district, Democrats have a decent shot at knocking off the incumbent Republican in the district, Lee Terry. One of the interesting potential missed opportunities for Democrats is the Senate race. Republican Mike Johanns could have been given a tough race, but Democrats chose not to. In fact — get ready for this — not a single negative ad has been run in the campaign. That may sound nice to good-government types, but it's why Democrat Scott Kleeb has not benefited from the national Blue tide. He hasn't made a Bush case against Johanns.

Video: Can McCain still win White House?

Nevada: As I've been hinting for quite a bit, the situation facing state Republican parties across the country has as much to do with McCain's problems in some battlegrounds as it has to do with Bush. The state GOP in Nevada is a mess because of the nutty problems besetting the state's Republican governor, Jim Gibbons. The guy has had a high-profile divorce from, shall we say, his very colorful ex-wife. He's also had a bout or two with ethics issues. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has organized the heck out of this state and while I expect it to be very close on Election Day, McCain's got issues in Nevada. He may yet eke it out, but we shall see. As for down the ballot, I'm keeping an eye on the 3rd District where Republican Jon Porter — who is preparing to challenge Harry Reid in 2010 — appears to be the slight underdog against Democrat Dina Titus. Porter has a way of making comebacks so don't count him out.

New Hampshire: In 2006, I said the Democratic wave came ashore in New Hampshire, as that state saw more Republicans get swept out the state Legislature and Congress than any other. This year, things don't look much better. Republicans have a reasonable shot at winning back the 1st District House race, but the presidential and the Senate races look to be trending the wrong way. New Hampshire has been the last Republican bastion of New England, but year after year, the state seems less "Live Free or Die" and more of a Boston suburb. If Republicans fail to win one of the House seats and hold the Senate seat, it could be a long while before they get their groove back in the state.

New Jersey: The Garden State is starting to act like its old self again.  Even in a good Republican year, the state leans Democratic and that seems to be the case again. In another year, I could make the case that Republicans would have a shot at knocking off Sen. Frank Lautenberg, but not this year. Down the ballot, the Democrats are trying to pick off two House seats. If they win them both (my guess is they only win one), it'll leave the Republicans with just three of the state's 10 House districts, a real low point for a once proud state Republican Party.

New Mexico: The state is getting an entirely new House delegation as all three of the state's representatives decided to run for retiring Pete Domenici's open Senate seat. Two members are facing off in the senate race where Democrat Tom Udall appears to be headed to a big victory over Republican Steve Pearce. Pearce beat the more statewide friendly Republican, Heather Wilson, in the primary. While I doubt Wilson could have beaten Udall in this environment, she would have made it a better race. Keep an eye on Wilson, I'm betting she runs for governor in 2010. Democrats appear poised to sweep all three House seats which would be a net pickup of two seats and yet another setback for another state Republican Party.

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New York: Speaking of potentially disastrous Republican showings, welcome to the Empire State. Democrats could win as many as four House seats and take control of the state senate. The story of the changing New York political landscape has been chronicled fairly well by the New York Times. The bottom line: The GOP in New York, like everywhere in the Northeast, is a mess. Losing the state senate is going to be a tough blow for them. Even Rudy Giuliani might not be the white knight the party thinks he can be in 2010. We'll see, though. The GOP bench is thin and the one thing Rudy could do is bring a financial shot in the arm to the Republicans.

North Carolina: Is there a more relevant battleground state than the Tarheel state? Not only is the presidential close, but the senate and governor's races are also nailbiters. The Dem ballot is really fascinating as none of the top three slots are being filled by white males. And, believe it or not, the Republicans feel best about their chances in the governor's race (a campaign they usually lose) than the senate or presidential. A Democratic victory in the senate race would really be historic as it would be the first time since the days of Sam Ervin that the party will have won a senate seat in a presidential year. Democrats also have a shot at a House pickup in the 8th District. But keep an eye on Republican Pat McCrory. If the Charlotte mayor wins in this environment, he'll instantly become a player in national Republican politics.

North Dakota: The state has seen Democratic success in House and Senate races for years but that hasn't trickled up for the presidential since '64. Could all that change this year? I think so. The key ingredient for Obama? Same-day voter registration; it's his ace in the hole.

Ohio: One of the better state Republican parties is right here in the Buckeye State; it's why so many of us aren't ready to count McCain out yet in Ohio. The Republican machine is a good one. The Democrats had a terrible state organization here before 2004 but have since put together a very impressive operation. If Ohio does go south on McCain, he could take a couple of House seats down with him, giving the Democrats control of that House delegation. The two Cincinnati-area House races, as well as the open seats are what the Republicans are worried about.

Oklahoma: Other than Hawaii, there may not be a quieter state this year, politically, than Oklahoma. There was a time when Democrats thought they could sneak up on Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe but that no longer looks feasible.

Oregon: Remember when Oregon was a swing state in '00? No longer. Obama is simply dominating the state and because of his strength, he may drag a Democratic senate candidate across the finish line. Republican Sen. Gordon Smith has done everything he could to stop the Democratic momentum but looks like he may come up just short. If there is a potential bright spot for the GOP, it could be that they come close to picking off the open 5th District. They probably won't, but it's a district they should be competitive in if they ever want to be a majority party again.

Pennsylvania: Ah, the Keystone state. Is it in play or not? The McCain folks have no choice but to believe that it is. They are hoping that party I.D. snaps back and that some sort of race component kicks in to salvage McCain. I don't know. If George W. Bush couldn't carry the state, why should we believe McCain can? Ironically, Republicans have a shot at winning two House seats thanks to incumbent Democratic gaffes; Both Jack Murtha and Paul Kanjorski are on the brink. Could Pennsylvania be the only state in the union where Republicans net more House seats than Democrats?

Rhode Island: I wrote the Oklahoma blurb too soon... Rhode Island is another quiet political state. Not a lot going on that will be worth discussing on Tuesday though I am curious about Obama's margin: Will it be down in this heavily white ethnic part of New England?

South Carolina: What is going on in South Carolina? We have polling indicating that the presidential race might be fairly competitive. The surge in African-Americans could make South Carolina one of the surprises of Election Night. My guess is that McCain holds on but don't be surprised if we can't call the state at poll close. In fact, the surge in African-Americans appears to be so great that Republicans are now fretting the Republican Henry Brown might lose his House seat. Democrat Linda Ketner, if she upsets Brown, would be the state's first openly gay member of Congress.

South Dakota: The only thing worth staying up for on E-night in South Dakota is to see how close Obama comes to carrying the state. Recent polling has suggested that McCain has not put this state away. There's something happening in the plains and the Rocky Mountain west because McCain is underperforming in the entire region. The other big story in the state is the fact that Democrat Tim Johnson is winning his re-election so easily after his stroke. He's not having the easiest time getting around or communicating but Republicans failed to find a very credible challenger. The local media as well as state Republicans have not pushed this story and it's been to Johnson's benefit. Tip: There's an abortion referendum on the ballot that, if passed, could test Roe v. Wade in the High Court.

Tennessee: It's amazing that Obama is doing so well right now but getting killed in Tennessee. This is a state that has a pretty good presidential track record and Democrats normally don't win the White House without the Volunteer state, but the Republican stranglehold on the state is stronger than ever. Lamar Alexander is also coasting to re-election.

Texas: There are some nervous Republicans running around the state right now. It's the first time no Bush is on the ballot or governing the state since the '70s and it's showing. McCain's margin may not be as big as Bush's (hurting McCain in the meaningless but significant national popular vote). Also, Republican John Cornyn isn't going to win by a landslide and even a Republican House member or two could lose. Republicans are contesting one Dem-held House seat as they hope to knock off the Tom DeLay-killer, Nick Lampson.

Utah: The story is NOT Utah, Frank. (Note: only "Fletch" fans will get this reference. Hopefully my editors will leave it in). [Editors' note: We will.]

Vermont: It wasn't too long ago that Vermont was a lock for the Republicans. I swear, it was in my lifetime. Go figure. The state has an odd law that if no gubernatorial candidate gets over 50%, the House elects the governor. Republican Jim Douglas always has to worry about that.

Virginia: This state and the Republican Party are just not in sync. I'm convinced if the state GOP were in better shape, McCain would be in better shape. But because the state party is such a mess, McCain's in trouble. Mark Warner is coasting to an easy senate victory and the GOP could lose one to three House seats. Just a devastating time to be a Republican in Virginia.

Washington: Looking for a bright spot on E-night for the GOP? It could be in this state's governor's race, where Republican Dino Rossi is hoping to revenge his close '04 loss to Christine Gregoire. Right now, Gregoire is trying to ride Obama's coattails to victory; it could very well be enough. Tip: Democrats are worried they won't be able to win a House seat that on paper should be theirs in a year like this, the 8th District.

Election A to Z

Washington, D.C.: Can McCain crack 15 percent? Could Obama top 90 percent? That's about the only drama here.

West Virginia: As of late, it appears McCain has righted his ship in this economically depressed state but the fact that Obama closed the margin says a lot about the state of this presidential race. If McCain's voters don't turn out in the numbers he needs, Republicans are also worried they could lose the 2nd District House seat. Right now, it seems like they should survive here but anything can happen.

Wisconsin: Remember when Wisconsin was a battleground state? Wow, have things changed in this state in just four years. Republicans ought to focus on rebuilding the Wisconsin state party before many other states because once they crack the Wisconsin code, they'll be able to succeed in other states.

Wyoming: Looking for a mini-shocker? Democrats could win Dick Cheney's old House seat. Yes, it's that bleak these days for the GOP at the House level.

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