Every election around this time, pundits and media watchers offer guides as to how to watch the election-night coverage on TV: what states to look out for, what signs to watch in the exit polls, what key phrases and insinuations to note among news anchors. Let me, instead, offer you a guide as to how to watch Election Day coverage this year:
By all means, watch the returns tonight. It’s good that you care how this election turns out. Settle in with your family or friends, grab your beverage of choice and wait to see what billions of dollars of campaign funds have bought America this year. Tonight.
But it is quite possible that daytime election coverage is the most excited and useless news that TV outlets bring us in a year, and that’s saying something. With no actual returns coming in until this evening, that leaves a lot of hours to fill, a lot of tea leaves to read, a lot of viewers to hook. You will hear many, many indications of what voting is looking like today and what that portends for the outcome. You will hear a lot about long lines here and short lines there and what that means for each candidate. You will hear one pundit and reporter after another attempt to measure “enthusiasm” by sticking a finger in the wind.
Almost all of it will be useless. Also useless: whatever leaked exit-poll information you start seeing on Twitter or elsewhere online over the course of the afternoon — it may not be legitimate and (as 2000 and 2004 showed us) will likely be worthless even if it is.
But the most useless of all will be the hot air pumping from the bellows of cable TV today as the on-air talent try to tease out hints of tonight’s results on the basis of anecdotal and ephemeral clues. I wrote a while ago about the tension this year between traditional journalists and the poll analysts, like Nate Silver, who have argued that data is a much better and more reliable way of laying odds on an election than the gut metrics used on CNN, Fox and MSNBC.
This, in a way, is what that tension is about: there is an entire political-entertainment industry whose existence is premised on gut, whose claim to authority lies in journalists and partisans claiming they can intuit where an election is going, and damn whatever the polls say. It gives them a special claim to knowledge, and it’s also a way of generating excitement — whether the polls are close or not — and thus keeping viewers tuning in, day after day.
I’m not saying those pundits and journos are necessarily right or wrong. But they’ll be equally right or wrong tonight regardless. In the meantime — unless you’re crazy or professionally obligated like me — just do something, anything else, until we actually get election returns tonight. Even if you care a lot about this election — especially if you care a lot — it will just make you crazy and possibly a little dumber. I speak from experience.
Instead: vote, if you haven’t already. Then let it go for a while. If you’re off work today, go take in a movie. Call up some friends and family and remind them to vote. Or go out and volunteer — if you’re in the Hurricane Sandy affected areas, there are relief agencies that can use you more than Wolf Blitzer can. Go out to lunch. Read a book. Remember that there is an entire world out there beyond this election.
Then, tonight, you can turn on the election returns. You can give it a while — at least until 8 p.m. E.T., if not later. Yes, some polls close earlier. (Spoiler alert: Mitt Romney wins Kentucky.) But you can probably give it much later. The first states called will be foregone conclusions. The battleground states, where the vote will be closer, are not likely to be called until a good while after the polls close. You may be able to tell something from the early returns there, but you may not, and all the caveats above apply.
No news network, in any case, will be calling the race before 11 p.m. E.T. — and, if the polls are to be believed, it will likely be much later, since the decisions in the most consequential states tend to be the longest in coming, absent a blowout. I can’t vouch for his methodology, but in the video above, one number cruncher has given an estimate of when each state is likely to be called tonight, on the basis of poll closing times, past election history and the polls as of a few days ago. His guess: don’t expect a winner until after 3 a.m. E.T.
So let me add one more thing to my list of Election Day suggestions. If you really, really care about the results of this presidential race, the best thing you can do for yourself this afternoon may be to take a nap. If you’re working, tell your boss I said it’s O.K.