No matter who triumphs today -- Election Day -- supporters of both political parties and will have something to be happy about: They probably will not have to stay up too late to know which way the midterm elections are heading.
"The key races in Congress are concentrated in the Eastern and Central time zones, so we ought to have a good sense of the trend relatively early in the evening," said Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
In the Senate, Democrats would have to gain six seats to win a majority, and all but one of the most competitive races are in states in the East or Midwest: Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Ohio and Maryland. The single nail-biter farther west is in Montana.
Most tossup House races are also clustered in states east of the Mississippi River. By watching the fate of Republican candidates in Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio, political enthusiasts will have a good idea whether Democrats will win the 15 seats they need to take control of the House, analysts say.
That is, of course, if everything goes smoothly. And things rarely do. Uncertainties about electronic voting machines and hassles over identifying registered voters could make early predictions about the election precarious.
Cable, Web fill in gaps
Nonetheless, there will be plenty of guessing as the night goes on.
Broadcast networks plan to confine their reports to a single hour starting at 10 p.m. Eastern time, hosted by their national news anchors. ABC will also feature the midterm elections on "Nightline" from 11:30 p.m. to midnight. In addition, the broadcast channels will do live cut-ins throughout the evening when major results become known.
Political junkies will demand a lot more information than that. For them, cable news channels and Web sites will fill in the gaps.
The cable channels are scheduled to provide their usual blanket coverage all evening and into the wee hours. This year, in addition, the Web versions of most major publications and news outlets will constantly update their online election results. Cyber surfers will be able to pop onto a wide variety of Web sites as often as they want and track every tick of the electoral totals.
"If you wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, you can go to your computer for the latest results," said Rajiv Chandrasekaran, The Washington Post's assistant managing editor for continuous news. "People can also wake up first thing in the morning and do the same thing."
For people who want their beauty rest, however, a few contests with early poll closings can be seen as harbingers of things to come. As Kentucky and Indiana go, analysts say, so will go the House. And the good news: The polls in both states will close by 7 p.m. Eastern time.
Nathan L. Gonzales of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report recommends looking at Kentucky in particular. If Rep. Geoff Davis (R) is defeated by former representative Ken Lucas (D), Gonzales said, "the GOP is in serious jeopardy." If Reps. Anne M. Northup and Ron Lewis, both Republicans, also lose, Republican losses in the House could be sizable, he added.
Another bellwether is Indiana. Three Republican congressmen face tough reelection fights there: John N. Hostettler, Chris Chocola and Michael E. Sodrel. Hostettler has been all but given up for lost. But if Chocola, Sodrel or both also go down, the Republican majority in the House will probably fall with them, analysts agree.
Walter of the Cook Political Report sees the electoral fate of Sodrel, a freshman who is facing former representative Baron Hill (D) for the third time, as one of the nation's best predictors of the partisan direction of the House.
"If a Democratic tsunami is hitting, Republicans could realistically lose the majority before the polls close in the 8 p.m. states," such as Pennsylvania, Gonzales said. "But if Republicans can escape these early states down by only three or four seats, it should be considered a moral victory."
Watching Missouri, Virginia
The Cook Report lists nine Senate races as tossups, and Gonzales of the Rothenberg Report names two of them as the ones to watch.
Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) is in a neck-and-neck battle with Missouri state Auditor Claire McCaskill (D). And in Virginia, Sen. George Allen (R) is nip and tuck with Democrat James Webb. "If Talent loses, the GOP majority is in serious jeopardy [in the Senate]," Gonzales said. "And it's gone completely if Allen loses."
Best of all, the polls in both states will be closed by 8 p.m. Eastern time.