Election Guide: How To Tell What's Happening : It's All Politics Want some early clues to how things are going for the Republicans and Democrats? Here's your hour-by-hour cheat sheet for how to read the results as they come in.
NPR logo Election Guide: How To Tell What's Happening

Election Guide: How To Tell What's Happening

The polls, and the pundits, have already weighed in.  My predictions can be found elsewhere (see my NPR Election Scorecard).

But sometimes, we forget the most important component of Election Day:  the voters. My fervent hope: Vote as you please, but please vote.

Then get comfy in your favorite chair and turn on your radio. On election night, we will be on the air from 8 p.m. ET until 3 a.m. the following morning, giving you live coverage of everything that is at stake in all the key contests for the House, Senate and governor, plus the latest on ballot initiatives and the battles for state legislatures, as the results come in. Whatever you miss on the air you will find on NPR.org. As we said on  Friday, there will be plenty of special features and tools to help you keep up what's happening — and we'll be streaming the radio broadcast too. In fact, you'll get the answers to nearly everything, except for Friday's ScuttleButton puzzle. (Sorry, for that you'll have to wait.)

Want to know what's going to happen? So do we. Use this handy guide of poll closing times to see what the night may look like. If you're looking for trends, if you want to see how it is all shaping up, this might be a good thing to keep in front of you. All times are Eastern.

7 pm: It's an hour before we go on the air, but results will be coming in from six states — Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. It's an exaggeration to say that these early results will tell you what the night is going to look like, but sometimes they are instructive. I still remember Election Night 1980, when I heard CBS' Walter Cronkite announce that Ronald Reagan had easily carried Indiana (and Kentucky), and that Sen. Birch Bayh (D) lost to GOP challenger Dan Quayle. I knew right then that it was going to be a great night for the Republicans, and a long one for the Democrats. Pay special attention to Indiana and Kentucky.

In Georgia, there is no real contest in the Senate race; incumbent Johnny Isakson (R) is seen as safe. But the gubernatorial race is tight, with former Rep. Nathan Deal (R) holding a slight edge over ex-Gov. Roy Barnes (D). There are some House races to watch involving a pair of Democratic incumbents. If Jim Marshall (D), who is always on the GOP hit list, or even Sanford Bishop (D), who rarely is, goes down, then it's going to be a long night for the Dems.

Conversely, in Indiana, if the Democrats can re-elect Baron Hill in the 9th Congressional District (a possibility but I don't think it will happen) or Joe Donnelly in the 2nd (a better possibility), then the GOP may just get a big night and not a tsunami.

In either scenario, it's hard to see Republicans not winning the Senate seat being vacated by Evan Bayh (D).

In Kentucky, all eyes are on the Senate race between Rand Paul (R) and Jack Conway (D). But keep your eyes on the 6th Congressional District, where Rep. Ben Chandler (D) is locked in a tight contest with GOP attorney Andy Barr.

In South Carolina, some history may be in the offing, as Tim Scott (R) is likely to win the open 1st CD, making him the first black Republican from the Deep South to serve in the House since Reconstruction. But don't ignore the race for governor; Democrats say that Republican Nikki Haley's march to the governorship is not a done deal. It's hard to see her losing, but the margin will be something to keep your eyes on.

There's also two very vulnerable House seats in Virginia to watch, those held by freshmen Glenn Nye (D) and Tom Perriello (D).

Then comes the 7:30 p.m. poll closings in three more states: North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia.

Ohio is the major story, as the Republicans are making a big move to reverse the outcomes of recent elections, which favored the Democrats. There doesn't seem to be much of a contest in the Senate race, where Rob Portman should keep George Voinovich's seat in GOP hands. But watch the governor's race (Republican John Kasich vs. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland), as well as the contests involving several Democratic members of the House: Steve Driehaus, Mary Jo Kilroy, John Boccieri and Zack Space. I'm thinking the first two members lose. But if any others go down, that will be a surprise. Similarly, if all four Democrats survive, that will be news too.

Many eyes are on the West Virginia Senate race as well. Republicans haven't won a Senate contest there since 1956 and, on paper at least, there's no reason why they should think they could topple Joe Manchin, the popular Democratic governor. He's running for the seat long held by the late Robert Byrd. But if Manchin goes down in defeat to Republican John Raese, it will be an indication of how unpopular President Obama is in the state, and how the strategy to try and link Manchin with the president was a wise one.

That brings us to 8 p.m., when the NPR special begins. Lots of polls close that moment: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

The big states, clearly, are Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The governor's race in the Sunshine State is extremely tight and extremely important, especially with redistricting coming into play. The Senate race, with Republican Marco Rubio pulling away in a three-way contest, perhaps less so.

Illinois, which saw a Democratic rejuvenation in the last couple of cycles, could turn to Republicans in some key contests — something not likely to please favorite son Barack Obama.

Pennsylvania, like Illinois, could see a GOP comeback in the Senate and gubernatorial contests, as well as in a bunch of House seats.

If the Democrats limit their losses in those states, it may foretell good news for them throughout the night. If not — and, in fact, if there are greater-than-expected Republican showings in those states — it could be a night that rivals 1994, the year the GOP won all the marbles.

By 9 p.m., we should have a good sense of how the night is going.  But that's no reason to turn off the radio. The Colorado and Wisconsin Senate races are airtight. Will Democratic incumbents Michael Bennet (Colorado)and Russ Feingold (Wisconsin) survive? We'll know after 9:00.

At 10 p.m., there are two huge stories. In Nevada, the question is whether Harry Reid (D) will become the first Senate majority leader since 1952 to go down to defeat. Should Sharron Angle (R) win, everyone will then be offering their two cents as to whether it's a victory for the Tea Party or just a repudiation of a senator who was seen as out of touch. (If Angle wins, I would say yes to both.)

And in Arizona, there are at least three, perhaps four, House Democratic incumbents who are in serious trouble, mostly over the battle about illegal immigration. If Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Harry Mitchell or Gabrielle Giffords — or all three — go down, it's another sign of a bad night for the Dems. If Rep. Raul Grijalva loses as well, it becomes a nightmare.

At 11 p.m., Democrats might find results in California to their liking; at least the most recent polls look that way. But will Sen. Patty Murray (D) hold on in Washington? We could be up until the wee hours of the morning, if not later, to find out. Washington is a predominantly mail-ballot state.

It could also be a late night in Alaska, where the polls close at midnight (again, we're keeping things simple by expressing everything in East Coast time). The Senate race is complicated by the inclusion of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who lost the GOP primary, as a write-in candidate. We have no idea how misspellings will be treated when it comes time to count the votes. As it is, Alaska always comes in late, if for no other reason than its spread-out population.

So, enjoy the day, don't forget to vote, and get that radio on for NPR election coverage or join us here at NPR.org.

It's been, at times and depending on your point of view, an exhilarating and ugly and amazing and exciting and contentious and joyous and depressing election year. Thanks for sticking with NPR, Political Junkie and It's All Politics throughout it all.

And guess what? The 2012 campaign starts on Wednesday.