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Four Big Trends to Watch on Election Night

As we start seeing data on Election Night, we’ll be able to get a clearer picture of what the 2014 midterm cycle was really all about for voters.

Well, it’s almost all over but the voting. But as we start seeing data on Election Night, we’ll be able to get a clearer picture – not just about whether Republicans will win control of the Senate – but about what the 2014 midterm cycle was really all about for voters.

This cycle has shattered spending records, lured the biggest political names both sides of the aisle out onto the campaign trail, and prompted unprecedented get-out-the-vote efforts in key states. It’s also characterized by a national mood that can best be described as a stew of frustration and apathy.

So what gives?

Here are some of the most important storylines your NBC political team will be watching as the numbers start flowing in.

What’s the turnout gap between high-engagement states and low ones?

Voters in the top ten states with key Senate races told our NBC/WSJ pollsters that they’ve heard from Republican and Democratic campaigns – quite a lot. While 47 percent of all respondents said they’ve heard from a Republican campaign or political group, and 48 percent said they’ve heard from a Democratic one, those numbers are 63 percent and 61 percent for those living in the most competitive states.

Still, turnout nationally looks like it’s going to be very low. Just 55 percent of voters say they’re very interested in this fall’s elections, compared to 61 percent who said the same this time in both 2010 and 2006. The decline is particularly dramatic for young people (just 26 percent very interested, compared to 38 percent last midterm cycle) and independents (44 percent very interested, compared to 54 percent last midterm cycle.)

High turnout tends to help Democrats, as they mobilize more “drop-off” voters – particularly young people, minorities and single women – who tend to vote in presidential years but skip the polls when the White House isn’t at stake.

So here’s what we’ll be watching: Does turnout in the most competitive states, where the bulk of the money and effort has been spent, blow out tepid national turnout? And by how much?

How far do Senate Democrats in the South run ahead of Obama?

Senate Democrats in the South are facing a tall order: Most of them have to run way ahead of their own party’s leader to create any path to victory. President Barack Obama’s approval ratings are dismal in these states, like Kentucky (32 percent), Louisiana (39 percent), Georgia (41 percent), Arkansas (34 percent), and North Carolina (38 percent).

Candidates in each of these states have worked to distance themselves from Obama, with varying levels of success. (Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes repeatedly refused to say whether she voted for the president, a move largely viewed as a blunder. Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas slammed Obama for failing to understand rural voters, during an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.)

The Democrats who win in these contests will be the ones who managed to disentangle their own campaigns from the president – without alienating too many base voters like African-Americans and liberal Democrats.

Is it an anti-Washington election or an anti-incumbent election?

There’s no question that voters are mad at Washington. In the latest NBC/WSJ poll, 67 percent of voters said they want “a great deal” or “quite a bit” of change from the direction the president is taking the country. Both political parties are substantially underwater, less than a third think that the country is headed in the right direction, and “breaking the gridlock in Washington” one of the overall top issues for voters.

But here’s one thing we’re fascinated to watch: While incumbent Senate Democrats are the ones fighting most fiercely to keep their jobs, there’s a slate of high-profile Republican governors in the same boat. GOP leaders in Pennsylvania, Kansas, Florida and Wisconsin are facing very tough re-election races.

If some state chief executives get booted out of office – including Democrats like the sitting governors of Connecticut or Illinois – it might end up being mostly about how competent each state’s voters believe their governors to be. But if a crowd of incumbent Republican governors goes down along with incumbent Senate Democrats, we’ll be able to point to 2014 being less about anger at Democrats in Washington and more about anger with ALL incumbents.

What does the Democratic margin for white women look like?

There are plenty of indicators that help us determine what the midterm electorate looks like. We look at numbers like: what percentage of the electorate is African-American? How does youth and minority turnout compare to presidential years? How hard do moderates break for Democrats?

But a big number to watch here, especially considering how hard Democrats courted the female vote, will be how women break – and specifically, white women, who typically favor Republicans.

For comparison’s sake, here’s how this key voting bloc, which makes up about 40 percent of the electorate, voted in past midterm cycles, according to congressional exit polls:

  • In 1994 (Republican wave): White women backed Republicans 54 percent to 46 percent
  • In 2006: (Democratic wave): White women backed Republicans by just a point, 50 percent to 49 percent.
  • In 2010: (Republican wave): White women backed Republicans 58 percent to 39 percent.

This year, polling shows Republicans up by eight points among white women, 52 percent to 44 percent.

So this year doesn’t look quite the 2010 numbers (Republicans winning by 19 points) or the 2006 Democratic wave (both parties running neck and neck).

If Democrats can keep this number in the single digits, they’ll be having a reasonably good night. If it creeps higher, the GOP is poised for bigger gains.