EDIT (11/5/12): At this point, the day before election day, the polls have moved slightly in Obama's favor, to the point where he's much more likely to win the popular vote, if only barely. I'm now thinking it's going to be a rough tie, probably with Obama edging Romney by perhaps a point. Maybe I'm just falling for the groupthink, I dunno. In any case, none of the big aggregator guys think he'll lose it, and like I said, for me evidence trumps gut.
I did one of these in 2008, so I thought I throw up another "signs to watch for when watching election night" post now that we're in the last week and a half, far too late for any significant poll movement.
A couple of notes about this election:
Currently all but one of the big-time poll aggregrator peeps are projecting an Obama re-election, but a squeaker. In fact, there's a significant chance of the Democrats getting karmic payback for 2000, with Romney losing the electoral college, but winning the popular vote thanks to ridiculous margins in the South, where he is on average the 22 point favorite.
In a perhaps correlated note, this is predicted to be the most racially polarized election since 1988.
For my part, I'm struggling between anecdote and data. Every indication I see in daily life, on Facebook, looking at individual polls, etc., shows Romney ahead. Everyone who does the math, however, seems pretty confident that President Obama has the edge. In the end, I'm going with the evidence and against my gut, predicting that Obama will indeed win re-election. That being said, I also think Romney will win the popular vote by about a point. As with the rest of our nation's history, the South will have to be dragged into modernity kicking and screaming.
Still, I'm very discouraged by the way this election turned out. The last thing our country needs is a super-close, racially polarized election centered around the first African American president. No matter what happens, the result will foster long-term resentment within a major demographic of the populace for years to come. Sadder still is the fact that, despite all the whining about how terrible the candidates are, this year both the Democrat and the Republican tickets are better than average. President Obama can boast a list of achievements in one term that most presidents this side of Lyndon Johnson would envy, and Mitt Romney, as cynical and plutocratic as he is, is the best candidate the Republicans have nominated in 16 years at least, and perhaps longer. Both are intelligent, accomplished, pragmatic, and make serious efforts to work with the other side of the aisle.
Since I always say elections are no fun if you don't take a crack at predicting them, I'm predicting 271 EV for Obama to 267 for Romney, with Romney winning the entire south, including VA and FL, along with IA, CO, and NH. It's pessimistic compared to, say, Nate Silver's odds, and Silver's odds are pessimistic compared to most others, but I think white independents are going to break strongly for Romney, putting him over the top in the old Confederacy and in states without a lot of minority voters.
All this being said, remember: they're not saying Obama is going to win. They're saying he has around an 80% chance of winning. I'm going to roll this die, and I'm telling you chances are it's going to come up somewhere between 2 and 6. But I could roll a 1!
EDIT (11/5/12): If you're interested, Ezra Klein has pulled together a great roundup of all of the final predictions of the various big-name poll watchers. Apparently I am pessimistic; the only person matching my prediction is NYT professional conservative Ross Douthat. This will also give you a sense of how little Jim Kramer is taking this seriously (not a bad idea, honestly), and what a nutball Dick Morris has become.
Here's what specifically to watch for on Election Night:
6:00pm ET: Polls close in the eastern time sections of Indiana and Kentucky. There is no chance of Obama repeating his 2008 miracle in the Hoosier State, but my old congressman, Joe Donnelly, amazingly has even odds of beating Jim "God intended for that to happen" Mourdock for the open Senate seat once held by Dick Lugar before he got teabagged. I'm not normally sanguine about Democratic prospects in Indiana, but Donnelly outperforms the polls every time he runs for office, and the latest polls show him up slightly. I don't know what kind of mojo he uses, but it works.
If Lugar had not been primaried, Donnelly would never have had a prayer. If he wins, he should send Michele Bachmann a box of chocolates. Like Tea Party primaries, you never know what you're going to get.
7:00pm ET: Polls close in a slew of southern states, including most of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, and also in Vermont. Virginia is the one to watch here, as I don't think the networks will be allowed to project the winner of Florida until the panhandle polls close an hour later. If President Obama carries Virginia, it becomes very difficult for Romney to pull off the upset. Still certainly possible, but it makes both Ohio and Florida must-wins for him.
There's also a very close Senate election in Virginia between Tim Kaine and George "Macaca" Allen. Yeah, I know, they're considering voting for that guy. Kaine has the slightest of leads, but it's so close it's really a tie. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) are expected to win easily.
7:30pm ET (aka "The Big One"): Polls close in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. As Tim Russert famously said, "Ohio, Ohio, Ohio." There's about a 50-50 chance of Ohio deciding the presidential race, and it's almost certain to if Mitt Romney carries Florida, as is expected. If Barack Obama wins Ohio (where's he's currently up by 2.2%) and carries all of the states where his current margins are higher than that, he'll get his 270 electoral votes.
It's somewhat possible for Obama to win North Carolina again, but it's unlikely enough (Romney +3 in the current Nate Silver aggregate) that we're into "systemic pro-Romney poll bias" territory. That's unlikely indeed. It also means Obama supporters can start celebrating, because there's no way the president carries NC without racking up 270 on the way there.
In the Senate, Sheldon Brown (D-OH) holds a slim but consistent lead, and Joe Manchin (D-WV) is a lock for re-election.
8:00pm ET (aka "Le Deluge"): Polls close in Alabama, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, the Florida Panhandle, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, eastern Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas outside of El Paso. Unless things went horribly wrong for Romney along the way, this should be the first point in the night where Obama starts raking in the EVs. If the Republican party is still winless in the Senate at 7:59, it's almost certain that Harry Reid will remain Senate Majority Leader for the next two years.
This is the first point where there is a realistic chance of either Obama or Romney gaining an insurmountable numerical advantage, and you probably don't need me to tell you which state can deliver it. If one candidate wins both OH and FL -- either candidate -- it's time to pop either the champagne or the Wild Turkey; this baby's over. If the president carries Florida, it becomes all but impossible for Romney to catch him, even if Romney wins all of the other typical battleground states. It will require an upset in Wisconsin for Romney to get back in the game.
Pennsylvania is the other big battleground, but Obama's lead there is pretty solid. If he loses the Keystone State, it's definitely over, but frankly if it's this bad, we will almost assuredly have already gotten an Ohio-sized hint to that effect.
The president has a slight lead in New Hampshire, but it's wildly unpredictable and very, very white. Expect an upset here.
Senate-wise, this hour will feature several unopposed Republicans and a bunch of Democratic blowouts. It also features a couple of races were supposed to be close, but the Republican candidate faded down the stretch, including Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren now appears poised to unseat Scott Brown, and Missouri, where Claire McCaskill has a pretty safe lead on Todd "legitimate rape" Akin.
If Donnelly has already won in Indiana, at this point the night will feature two separate Senate races the Republicans should have won, but lost due to rape-related adlibbing by teabagger candidates. That may be especially relevant when we learn the final tally in the Senate.
Pay attention also to a close contest in CT, where Democrat Chris Murphy has a tiny lead on Linda McMahon of WWE fame.
8:30pm ET: Polls close in Arkansas. You won't notice; everyone will be talking about Florida.
9:00pm ET: Polls close in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, the rest of Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, the rest of South Dakota, the rest of Texas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Colorado is a true swing state this year, and it's anybody's guess who'll win it. Wisconsin is the one place Romney has a shot at stealing a normally reliable blue state. If Romney lost Ohio, Wisconsin is one of his last avenues to the White House. If he lost Florida, it is his last avenue.
There's also a scad of close Senate races at this hour, in Arizona, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Fisher in Nebraska is one of only two Republican Senate candidates currently leading in an opposed race. She's leading the execrable Bob Kerrey, so as long as it doesn't cost the Democrats the chamber, I'm happy to give that one to the GOP.
10:00pm ET: Polls close in Iowa, part of North Dakota, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, part of Oregon, and Utah. Iowa and Nevada are up in the air, but both lean very slightly Obama (+2 and +2.8, respectively). They have the same number of EVs, and they are the final significant states of the 2012 presidential election. In all likelihood, Obama will need one of them to win re-election.
There are also two knife's-edge Senate races here, in Montana and Nevada. Jon Tester (D-MT) is ever so slightly ahead; Shelley Berkeley in Nevada is ever so slightly behind. If Democrats won all the Dem-leaning contests up to this point, they'll control the Senate next session no matter what happens at 10pm. If they win all the toss-ups including these two, they could control as many as 57 seats.
11:00pm ET: Polls close in California, the rest of Idaho, western Oregon, Washington, and Hawai'i. There won't be any surprises here. If the Obama campaign took care of business in the rest of the country, he'll be declared the winner right at 11. If he didn't, we'll already be watching his concession speech by this point.