Election Guide: Obama Takes Key Bellwether County

Correction Nov. 5, 2008

An earlier version of this story said the city of Mentor was the county seat of Ohio's Lake County. Painesville is the county seat.

Tom Oliphant.

hide captionTom Oliphant spent 40 years covering politics for The Boston Globe. His most recent book is Utter Incompetents: Ego and Ideology in the Age of Bush.

Courtesy of Tom Oliphant

Now that the sun has set on Election Day, the tea leaves are beginning to turn blue. With the news of a projected victory for Barack Obama in Ohio, Pennsylvania and now New Mexico, John McCain is laboring mightily to establish his electoral viability.

Of the first nine states to close their polls, eight of them (with the exception of tiny Vermont) are must-wins for any Republican's Electoral College majority. That means Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia — 95 electoral votes. Three of these — Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina still remain too close to call.

With all the votes tallied, Obama has taken the reliable bellwether Vigo County, Ind., by 57 to 42 percent. The county, a small-town America bastion in the southwest (economically struggling Terre Haute is its seat), has the best track record in the country since 1960 for picking both winners and winning percentages.

Closing at 7 was pivotal Virginia. So far, McCain has a small lead statewide, but Obama is ahead very slightly in two counties that have been decisive in this decade — Loudon County and, on the basis of about 10 percent of the precincts, in heavily suburban Prince William County.

A half-hour later, the closing in Ohio put Lake County in play. The smallest of the state's 88 counties has come closer than any other to the winner's vote percentage since 1960 (McCain was in its larges city, Mentor, last week). It is economically diverse, well north of Cleveland between Euclid and Ashtabula on the Erie shore, and a documented bastion of independent voting.

The second half-hour also ushered North Carolina onto the stage. John Edwards couldn't put it in play for John Kerry, but Barack Obama has succeeded this year. No county is more revealing than Wake, containing both Raleigh and its suburbs, home to thousands of well-educated professionals toiling in the state's fabled Research Triangle. Bush carried it very narrowly in 2004.

The first deluge was at 8 p.m. – 16 states with 171 electoral votes, with Arkansas a half-hour later. For barometers it is hard to beat these four: the solidly middle-class town of Claremont in New Hampshire; equally middle-class and sprawling Hillsborough County in central Florida (anchored by Tampa); tiny Lincoln County in Missouri, part of the St. Louis metropolitan area, which, like Missouri as a whole, boasts a spotless post-1960 record of picking winners; and Beaver County in western Pennsylvania north of Pittsburgh, which includes Aliquippa and is the proud birthplace Joe Willie Namath — it is working class, heavily white and the kind of place McCain has to carry by a wide margin to have a chance statewide.

The second deluge, at 9 p.m. – 14 more states with 156 electoral votes – will produce returns from an increasingly critical measure of suburban sentiment. Jefferson County, Colo., has been trending away from the Republicans recently, but this key portion of the Denver area gave Bush a five-point margin in 2004 and John McCain almost certainly cannot carry the state without it this year.

On any network site as well as the AP's and others', you can get returns down to the county and major city level that have been useful clues for years. It is much more instructive to follow the vote in a true barometer than to watch statewide totals of unknown origin flash on the screen periodically.

Coattails for so-called down-ballot races are another big part of election night, and after 9 p.m. a revealing exercise should be possible: compare the Obama and McCain vote with the vote for Senate candidates in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota and New Mexico. Three races for the House of Representatives are also worth a peek: Connecticut's 4th features veteran Republican Chris Shays in another close one where the result could be decided in Bridgeport, not the New York suburbs, and provide an early clue to African-American voting trends; Pennsylvania's 11th (with Scranton-Wilkes Barre in the center), where veteran Democrat Paul Kanjorski has taken heat both on illegal immigration and his vote for the recent bank bailout legislation; and New Hampshire's 1st in the southeastern part of the state, home to one of the most endangered members of the Democratic freshman class from two years ago, Rep. Carol Shea-Porter.

Exit polls may leak onto the Internet during the afternoon, but they have been flawed in recent elections and could be overwhelmed by a huge turnout. Adjusted for the eventual results, they are better as an analytical tool than for projection during the evening. For that, a laptop computer is a much better aid and if used carefully can yield much more information than the television.

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