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A Viewer's Guide: Race Times to Watch for Election Night

The 2016 election has been a wild ride from the very start, and Election Night promises to be a whirlwind.
Image: Voters arrive at polling station in Christmas, Florida
Voters arrive to cast their ballots at a polling station in Christmas, Florida, on November 8, 2016.GREGG NEWTON / AFP - Getty Images

The 2016 election has been a wild ride from the very start, and Election Night promises to be a whirlwind of exit polls, anecdotes from polling places, concerns about voter suppression or fraud and a cascade of results beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

Here’s your hour-by-hour guide for making sense of Election Night.

DURING THE DAY: All about turnout

Yes, there is no greater cliché in American politics than the solemn pronouncement that the results of an election “will all come down to turnout.” But just because it’s all-too-familiar doesn’t mean it’s not mostly true.

It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s campaign hopes that Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable numbers — perhaps combined with the recent revelation that the FBI will review additional material “pertinent” to its investigation of Clinton’s emails — will depress turnout from her base. Long lines in diverse and highly-educated areas of key swing states (think Miami, Charlotte and the Philadelphia and Atlanta suburbs) would be generally good signs for Clinton. Reports of crowds in whiter, more blue-collar areas (the Rust Belt) could be a sign that Trump is mobilizing more of his own base. One caveat: 1) Millions of voters will have already voted early, so don’t forget how they factor in to turnout calculations.

5 p.m. ET: Exit polls

At 5 p.m. ET, news network number-crunchers will get their first peek at early exit polls. Exit polls are surveys based on interviews of voters leaving their polling places. The exit polls provide the most complete picture of voter attitudes on Election Day. Keep your eyes peeled for what the early exit poll data show us about how voters are feeling about the direction of the country and the big themes both candidates have been pushing.

7 p.m. ET: The first results

Now it gets really interesting! Six states have a FINAL poll close at 7 p.m.: Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. Here are some key things to watch:

  • Positive early numbers in Virginia would be a great sign for Hillary Clinton, whose consistent advantage in the traditionally purple Commonwealth has been a significant part of her overall swing state advantage heading into the election. Keep in mind that the voter-rich DC suburbs may take some time to count votes, though.
  • For a good early indicator of how the Trump effect may be factoring into down-ballot races, keep an eye on VA-10, where incumbent Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock is in a tight race with Democrat LuAnn Bennett in a district with a lot of affluent suburban voters who might not be big fans of Trump.
  • Georgia, which could be far closer than in previous elections, is a particularly important state to watch: Look at how big minority turnout here was, and keep an eye on county results in Atlanta’s affluent suburbs, where Trump could have turned off the high education white voters he would need to hold off a big Clinton surge.
  • Indiana’s Senate race between former Democratic Sen. and Gov. Evan Bayh and Republican Todd Young pits experience and high name ID against GOP-led change. It’s looking like a close race.

7:30 p.m. ET: Two biggies: North Carolina and Ohio

  • In the Tarheel State, keep an eye on population centers around Raleigh and Charlotte to see if Clinton is reaching or surpassing Barack Obama’s 2008 margins (He narrowly won North Carolina in 2008 but lost to Mitt Romney in 2012.)
  • Don’t miss the Senate race in North Carolina either; the match-up between incumbent Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Deborah Ross could be one of the closest in the country.
  • Ohio’s relatively low share of college-educated white voters could make it a ripe pickup for Trump. Watch Clinton’s margins in key swing areas like Hamilton County.
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8 p.m. ET: Florida, and more Clinton firewall states

More than a dozen states have final poll closings now, but here are the most important ones: Florida, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. All three have close presidential contests as well as Republican Senate incumbents fighting to hang on to their jobs.

  • Florida’s famed I-4 corridor (running horizontally through the state between Orlando and Tampa) will be one of the top regions to watch.
  • In Pennsylvania, keep an eye on the Philadelphia suburbs — places like Bucks and Chester Counties. If Clinton runs up the score there, it’ll be exceptionally difficult for Trump to swing things his way in other parts of the state.
  • Like Pennsylvania, New Hampshire is a firewall state for Clinton that could help insure against Trump wins in states like Nevada or Iowa.
  • Keep an eye on the competitive Senate races: New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte vs. Maggie Hassan; Florida’s Marco Rubio vs. Patrick Murphy; and Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey vs. Katie McGinty. In all of these races, watch how the Republican incumbents perform compared to Trump; they’ll probably need to outstrip him by a pretty good clip.
  • Missouri’s presidential contest is looking less close these days, but its Senate race between incumbent Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Jason Kander could go down to the wire. This is one case where a good Trump performance could buoy a Republican to victory.

9 p.m. ET: Watch the Rust Belt — and demographics are destiny in Arizona?

If Clinton is headed towards a historic sweep, we’ll have a better idea of how big it is once we hit the 9 p.m. poll closings. If Trump is going to take things down to the wire, we'll know by watching the Rust Belt, too. A series of Midwestern, usually blue-leaning states close at this hour: Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Colorado, a big insurance-policy state for Team Clinton, closes as well, along with typically blue New Mexico.

  • Trump has hoped to make states like Wisconsin and Michigan competitive, predicting that a surge of white working class voters who had previously stayed home on Election Day will flock to support him. Trump will almost certainly have to flip one of these blue states red to get to 270 electoral votes.
  • The demographics-are-destiny crowd will have a lot to look for starting now, when both Arizona and Texas close. Despite both states’ GOP leanings, Democrats hope that the growing share of Latinos in both states can tilt them purple. (Keep in mind that Arizona tends not to release votes til around 10 p.m. ET, though.)
  • Clinton has been polling well in Colorado, but Trump also looked to make a late play in the state. Watch whether Latino turnout approaches 2008 and 2012 levels early, and keep an eye on the split among younger voters.
  • An interesting House race to watch in Colorado is Denver-area incumbent Republican Mike Coffman, who’s distanced himself from Trump in this growing Latino area.

10 p.m. ET: Suspense in… Utah?

Don’t let the kids go to bed yet! No matter what happens, there’s plenty of suspense with later races.

  • For example, if Evan McMullin bests Trump and Clinton in Utah, he would be the first third party candidate to win a state since 1968.
  • If it’s a very good night for down-ballot Democrats, Nevada’s Senate race could be what clinches the majority for them; if it’s a good night for Republicans, it could give the GOP assurance that they’ll keep the gavel.
  • Another 10 p.m. ET poll close: Iowa, which could be Trump’s best swing state of the bunch.

11 p.m. ET: Lights out in every state but Alaska

The five states that close at 11 p.m. ET — California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon and Washington — are all solid Republican or Democratic states. But there could be some excitement in California, where House Democrats hope to oust a handful of Republicans who have been clinging to congressional districts despite growing Latino and college-educated populations.