US election viewing guide: the top ten states to watch – and what time to watch them

Staying up to watch the US presidential election results? Here are the key states to look out for, and when.

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After all the polls and predictions, from 11 o’clock tonight we’ll get cold, hard vote counts and each state will finally be shaded red or blue. But which ones really matter? Here is a guide to the ten states most likely to decide this election, in order of the times the polls will close and the votes will start to roll in:

Florida

In 2000, it wasn’t until five weeks after election day that the battle for Florida was decided. The US Supreme Court ordered an end to the recount there, handing victory to George W Bush by a mere 537 votes. This year, Florida could well prove pivotal once again – both because the polls are so close and because its population of 20 million makes it the largest swing state. If Clinton wins, she’s almost certain to win the presidency. But if Trump wins, it doesn’t guarantee him the White House: Clinton would still have a good chance of getting the electoral votes she needs elsewhere. We shouldn’t have to wait long tonight for a decent indication of which way the state will go. 6.4 million Floridians have voted already (8.5 million voted in total in 2012), and a big chunk of those will be tabulated straight after the polls close at midnight.

New Hampshire

  • Electoral votes: 4
  • Polls close: 12am
  • 2012 result: Obama +5.6
  • Polling average: Clinton +3

Though New Hampshire’s four electoral votes are unlikely to prove decisive, it’s a state worth watching. New Hampshire is the swingiest of swing states, with a relatively large number of independent voters (43 per cent of those who voted in 2012). And that’s reflected in the wide range of polling, even from the top local pollsters. MassINC’s final poll put Trump ahead by 1 point, whereas the University of New Hampshire’s had Clinton up by 11. This year, New Hampshire also features very competitive races for Governor, Senate and – in the first of its two congressional districts – the House of Representatives.

Virginia

  • Electoral votes: 13
  • Polls close: 12am
  • 2012 result: Obama +3.9
  • Polling average: Clinton +6

Of all the swing states, Virginia has moved more towards the Democrats than any other over the past few elections. In 2008, Obama became the first Democrat to win it since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in 1964. From 2005 onwards, the Democrats have won four out of four Senate races, two out of three gubernatorial races and both presidential elections in the state. Clinton looks likely to continue that trend of Democratic victories in Virginia tonight, helped by the state’s relatively large numbers of black and college-educated white voters and by her selection of the state’s former Governor and current Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate.

North Carolina

  • Electoral votes: 15
  • Polls close: 12.30am
  • 2012 result: Romney +2.0
  • Polling average: Clinton +1

North Carolina has been finely balanced in both of the last two presidential elections. It provided Obama with his narrowest win in 2008, and his narrowest loss in 2012. It looks like it’s going to be one of the closest states again this time, with Clinton just narrowly ahead in the polls. Like Florida, most of North Carolina’s votes have already been cast (3.1 million people voted early, compared to the 4.5 million who voted in total in 2012), and signs from early voting are mixed. The bad news for Clinton is that 66,000 fewer black voters have voted early than did so in 2012, but 331,000 more white voters have. So there are 19,000 fewer registered Democrats among the early voters, but 119,000 more Republicans. However, the Upshot estimates that Clinton won the early vote by about 192,000 votes. We’ll find out whether it’s right soon after 12.30.

Ohio

  • Electoral votes: 18
  • Polls close: 12.30am
  • 2012 result: Obama +3.0
  • Polling average: Trump +2

Ohio has the longest current streak of picking Presidents, voting for the winner of every election since 1960. That streak is sure to continue if Clinton wins the state, but – as I explained recently – Trump could well become the first candidate since Richard Nixon to win Ohio but lose the White House. That’s because the polls show that Ohio is about 5 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole this year, so if Trump is losing there, he’s almost certainly behind in most of the other swing states too.

Michigan

  • Electoral votes: 16
  • Polls close: 1am
  • 2012 result: Obama +9.5
  • Polling average: Clinton +4

Michigan is important not just because of its own 16 electoral votes, but also because it has very similar demographics to the other Midwestern swing-states: Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota. If Clinton is significantly outperforming her polls in Michigan, that might suggest she’s also winning Ohio and, with it, the election. If Trump is level or ahead in Michigan, though, that means he’s very likely won Ohio and Iowa and could be close in Wisconsin and Minnesota too.

Pennsylvania

  • Electoral votes: 20
  • Polls close: 1am
  • 2012 result: Obama +5.4
  • Polling average: Clinton +4

Every four years, we see the same strategy: a last-gasp effort by the Republican candidate to win Pennsylvania. McCain tried it in 2008, only to lose by 10 percentage points. Romney tried it in 2012, and lost by 5.4. Now Trump’s trying it: he and running mate Mike Pence were campaigning in the Keystone State yesterday. It’s the second largest state on this list (after Florida) and one of the closest to the national popular vote in the polls (along with Colorado and New Hampshire), and has a very competitive Senate race. It therefore made sense for both parties to target their efforts here, and the Democrats were more than covering Republican efforts, with both Clintons and both Obamas campaigning together in Philadelphia last night.

Colorado

  • Electoral votes: 9
  • Polls close: 2am
  • 2012 result: Obama +5.4
  • Polling average: Clinton +4

Every Colorado voter gets a postal ballot, and 1.8 million have returned theirs already – compared to the total turnout of 2.6 million in 2012. That could provide Clinton with a particularly good opportunity to outperform the polls with a strong get-out-the-vote operation. And it means that, like Florida and North Carolina, we should get a good sense of how Colorado will go soon after the polls close there.

Wisconsin

  • Electoral votes: 10
  • Polls close: 2am
  • 2012 result: Obama +6.9
  • Polling average: Clinton +5

It’s easy to forget – after Obama won Wisconsin by 14 points in 2008 and by 6.9 in 2012 – that this state used to be very, very close in presidential elections. Al Gore won the state by just 0.2 points in 2000, and Kerry held it by 0.4 points in 2004. If it’s that close this time, that’s bad news for Clinton. The polls have her up by about 5 points and – given its demographic similarities to Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota – underperforming badly there would suggest she’s also struggling in a number of key states. Conversely, a big win in Wisconsin would bode well for Clinton across the Midwest.

Nevada

  • Electoral votes: 6
  • Polls close: 3am
  • 2012 result: Obama +6.7
  • Polling average: Clinton +1

Nevada’s record as a bellwether rivals Ohio’s: it has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1908 bar one: the 1976 election, when it went for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter. The polls show Trump doing significantly better in the state than John McCain or Mitt Romney managed against Barack Obama – in fact, they have him almost neck-and-neck with Clinton. However, most of Nevada votes early, and the statistics suggest Clinton’s campaign has been doing a better job of getting its vote out. 770,149 votes have been cast in Nevada already, compared to the 1 million cast in total in 2012. Of those, 324,285 are registered Democrats, and 278,689 are Republicans, giving the Democrats a 45,596 edge. That’s not far off the 48,227 advantage Democrats had among early voters when Obama won the state by 67,806 votes (or 6.7 percentage points) four years ago.

***

So these are the ten states to watch closest, but how do they all fit together? If Clinton wins all the states where the polls have her 3 points ahead or more, she’ll have at least the 270 electoral votes she needs. If she wins Nevada, she could afford to lose New Hampshire, while winning North Carolina would mean she could do without both New Hampshire and Colorado. And if she wins Florida or Ohio, we can pretty safely start cracking out the champagne.

Jonathan Jones writes for the New Statesman on American politics. 

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