FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
And with a big picture on how Americans are voting on this long awaited day. We've got NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Hey, Ron.
RON ELVING: Hey, good to be with you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Well, Senators Obama and John McCain cast their ballots in their home states today. So what kind of turnout are we seeing?
ELVING: Big. Now we always say the turnout looks like it's heavy, and usually it turns out not to be so great. So take this with a grain of salt, but the anecdotal indicators are that we are seeing a lot of turnout, and let's remember that we've already had a big turnout election just in terms of how many people came out and voted early. More than we've ever seen before and by leaps and bounds. So when we put it all together, I think that most of the experts do expect that we will have at least 130 million American's votes cast this fall either early or today, and that that will be a new record by about eight million.
CHIDEYA: Now this race could come down to a few key battleground states including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania. Do we have any sense of those battleground states and how turnout has been, how people are responding to this election?
ELVING: Here again, in Florida and North Carolina we saw a lot of early voting. We saw a lot of people turning out to cast their ballots. They were standing in line, they weren't avoiding the wait, they weren't really avoiding inconvenience by doing this. They just wanted to do it at a time that was a little better for them perhaps than this particular Tuesday in November. And they were willing to stand in line four hours sometimes to cast that ballot. And we're seeing again in each of those states a very substantial turnout this morning. For example just anecdotally, here in the Washington, D.C. area, one of the people coming to work at NPR this morning on an early shift got to her polling place at 5 AM and found 40 other people already waiting for the doors to open.
CHIDEYA: Wow. Now, latest polls. What are things saying about battleground states? I mean after all, the electoral college means that it's really, as you've put it and other people have put it, state-by-state races rather than just one national race with a, you know, an outcome based on the popular vote. So do we have any sense, if you take the battleground states plus everything else, what the map's looking like?
ELVING: Yes. We do have a fairly clear sense. Now this of course depends on the accuracy of the polling, the science, the honesty of the people responding to the questions. But just for the moment, let's take all that at more or less face value and say the polls show a clear lead for Barack Obama. The Gallup Poll, longest standing public poll in our history has right now among all registered voters an 11-point lead for Barack Obama. Double digits put him over 50 percent at about 53 percent. And while that's not inconsistent with where he has been in the Gallup Poll, we also see that among likely voters, which is a somewhat smaller group, people who have generally voted before or shown very strong indications they'll vote for the first time this time, that number is nearly as high.
So for Gallup to be up around double digits in their prediction is just about the gold standard as far as a national number goes. Now if we look at the states, it seems to be pretty well distributed among the big 10 states, among the top 10 states in terms of population. Barack Obama is doing well in most of those states. Now he's not going to carry Texas. He's not going to carry Georgia. I don't believe, although Georgia is fairly close, at least relative to Texas. But he has a shot in Florida. He has a shot in Ohio. He has a good shot in Pennsylvania, he's well ahead there. He ought to win in Michigan, Illinois, New York, California. In the big 10 states he looks strong.
And then in the second tier of population states, that looks good for Barack Obama as well. So at this juncture it looks as though, if the states go as most people are leaning them, he should be up around or well over 300 electoral votes. And of course he needs 270 to win.
CHIDEYA: All right. Now looking ahead, the New York Times is reporting that some of the networks could call the race before the polls close in all of the western states. And with Obama in the lead nationally in these polls - well this isn't the first time this issue has come up of when you should call a race. What do we know historically? If the races are called before the polls are closed for some people, do people just stop going out and voting?
ELVING: There's been a great argument about this back over the years. in 1980, there were very early indications that Ronald Reagan was going to win in a landslide, at least a landslide in the Electoral College. And that did come to pass. It was clear from some of the results as early as 7 o'clock Eastern time - which, of course, would be 6 o'clock Central, 5 o'clock Mountain, 4 o'clock on the West Coast,- that Ronald Reagan was just carrying all before him. And quite early in the evening, Jimmy Carter actually came out - he was president at the time - he was losing that election, and made a concession speech.
Now once the loser makes a concession speech, it's a little tough to make the case to people to go out and vote for him. So on the West Coast there was some drop off in turnout that year, and a lot of Democrats felt that they had been ill used. And so the networks made a pledge that they would never call the national election again until the polls had closed at least in the lower 48 states, if not necessarily waiting for Alaska, and they have more or less tried to respect that ever since.
It's going to be tough to do that tonight if there's a clear trend early, and there's a reason why, it's the Internet. Everyone's going to be look at the Internet. The Internet's going to be full of all kinds of numbers, exit polls, there are going to be all sorts of people predicting one way or another.
And the cable operators, the cable television news operations, CNN, Fox, MSNBC are going to in a tremendous competition to see which one of them can call it first, and that's going to pull the broadcasters over. So I don't think people in California can expect that the East Coast will not be talking about a winner, if there is a clear winner, before the polls close in California. Now, that isn't necessarily a good thing, I'm not trying to put a...
ELVING: Put a happy face on it, it does make people in California feel angry to hear the race declared over hours before the polls close in that state. But because it's going to be on the Internet just about every where, and I suspect we'll start seeing it on cable television, it's going to be hard for the networks to resist the temptation to do the same.
CHIDEYA: Ron just quickly, there's been some last minute news. Senator Obama's grandmother passed away after a long battle with cancer yesterday. And a state personnel board in Alaska issue a report saying that Governor Sarah Palin didn't abuse her power, did not abuse her power, in the firing of a public safety commissioner. Do things like this, last minute developments like this, affect the race at all?
ELVING: Conceivably they can, if there is an issue or something that's hanging fire that is of tremendous interest to the voters. I don't think Troopergate up in Alaska has ever really captured the voters' imagination. There are some people who have been following it closely, there was one determination by the legislative committee that was looking at it, now we have a somewhat different one from the executive committee. I don't think the election has been about Troopergate.
As for the death of Senator Obama's grandmother, certainly that is a tragic timing of this event, if in fact Barack Obama were to be elected president tonight, for his grandmother to have died just one day shy of having witnessed this, would be sad indeed. But whether that is going to change people's votes again, I think is unlikely.
CHIDEYA: Well Ron, we look forward to talking to you as the result unfold and we continue our coverage.
ELVING: Indeed we will.
CHIDEYA: That was NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving, and he joined us from our NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.