Fired Up, Ready to Go

By Sean Carroll | November 4, 2008 4:04 am

Every four years we have the Olympic Games, and we have a U.S. Presidential Election. And I think we can all agree on one thing: they both make for great TV. So after those of you in the U.S. have gone out and voted, then fidgeted through the rest of the working day, we can settle down to watch what happens.

Here is a finding chart (made using the tool at RealClearPolitics) to help keep track of the important action.

Let me stress that this is not a prediction; it’s a guide for interpreting the results as they come in. Blue states are ones that Obama will almost certainly win, red states are ones that McCain almost certainly needs to win if he is to have a shot. If, as is perfectly plausible, Obama wins North Carolina or even Georgia, the rout is on, and we can settle down to the glorious task of nationalizing the means of production, collectivizing the farms, and redistributing the wealth.

But let’s imagine that we find McCain winning all of these red states. Note that the blue states add up to 243 electoral votes, while 270 are needed to secure victory, meaning that Obama needs to score 27 or more electoral votes from the gray states. Three plausible ways that could play out:

  1. Florida. That’s 27 electoral votes right there, and the election would be over. However, voting in Florida rarely seems to go smoothly, and the race there is very tight.
  2. Two states from Pennsylvania/Virginia/Ohio. Obama is way ahead in Pennsylvania and Virginia, so this is the most likely way for things to unfold tonight. If he wins any two of these three states, it’s over.
  3. One state from Pennsylvania/Virginia/Ohio , and one or more smaller states to the West. This is the only real nail-biter scenario; note that it presumes that McCain wins Florida and all the red states. Overall not probable, but possible.

There are other possibilities — Obama loses all of PA/VA/OH/FL, but wins Indiana + Missouri + Colorado? — but those are not the way to bet. If PA/VA/OH/FL all go for McCain, gloom and doom will be the order of the day. (It’s worth emphasizing: not bloody likely.)

Poll closing times are listed here, so you can plan the evening’s festivities. Figure most results will be announced within an hour of poll closing. Florida is mixed, closing in some places at 7:00 Eastern time and in others at 8:00 Eastern, but nobody will be surprised if there are delays. So the most relevant times are Virginia (7:00 Eastern), Ohio (7:30 Eastern), and Pennsylvania (8:00 Eastern). The thing could be over early for us Left Coasters.

Recommended reading while the hour approaches: canvassing for Obama, vs. rallying for McCain. Recommended viewing: Girls 4 Obama at Shakesville.

  • mjn

    It may very well be that they both make good TV, but at least in the Olympics we have some participation. As a non-American not even living in the US I am at this point seriously tired of the endless reports on TV from an election I cannot even vote in. I don’t think even our elections get this much coverage in our networks. I am glad it’s over soon.

    And if you start making the same fuss as in 2000 after the vote, American politics should be banned globally from TV for at least a decade!

  • Michael Lugo

    Actually, every *two* years we have the Olympics, and every *two* years we have an election.

    But I think by now the Winter Olympics and the midterm elections are used to being forgotten.

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Given all indicators it looks positive for Obama. The only open question is something analogous to dark matter, dark photons and ghost particles: will Diebold and ES&L throw the election by stealthy software changes?

    While MJN can’t vote in this election it is interesting to see how the world would vote if it could:

    1/20/09, if the cards are honest we might start to work our way out of this hole we have dug ourselves into over the last eight years.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • CosmicVarianceFan

    The thing could be over early for us Left Coasters.

    That may be true, but you Left Coasters still have the luxury of watching sports events at earlier times in the day.

  • beke

    Yeah California, NJ, Mass (with both senators endorsing obama) + others were supposed to go to obama in the primaries but they did not!!
    all the polls are wrong. the polls ALWAYS lean democratic. obama youth vote will not come out to save him. mccain will win ohio, virginia, florida and colorado
    many people i know on the ground know that PA will go to mccain.
    this election (thanks to obama) is about integrity, honesty and loyalty not issues.

  • Neil B. ?

    Reporting in from VA, ZIP 236** areas (SE). No long line for me or other issues in midtown Newport News. We ink in circles on sheets, which are fed into a reader. (Heh, there’s a write in space and circle, but since they’d get no Electors, what does it do?)

    However, disturbing reports heard already about machines (Diebold!) failing and backup paper balloting required in some regions, which curiously happen to be black sections of town. Also, a woman voting in Grissom Library reported that when she fed her sheet into such a machine, it sucked in but the *counter* didn’t turn over. She told an election official, that means the vote wasn’t counted. The official claimed, yes it was because the machine took in the sheet! (wrong) The local Obama campaign has reported this. Folks: there is no excuse for simply placing out trust in the hands of mfrs of these machines. If the vote goes really far from what polling predicts, I will think the vote was scammed. I also think intelligent people should have the guts to say so and proceed accordingly.

    In VA there’s a law forbidding wearing campaign buttons/clothes etc. into the polls. A big-bellied fellow went to my precinct room wearing a Ron Paul tee. They insisted he take it off or turn it inside out (what most people do.) He said, I’ll show them, and took off the shirt and then voted bare-chested. They let him do that, at least! I talked to him later, and wish I had a pic of him voting like that!

    BTW there were three city policemen hanging around right outside the doors, I wonder why someone thinks we need that much protection from voters or challengers around there. Also, flags half mast at library I voted, who died or what else? I can’t imagine they’d do it for Obama’s grandma, but if so a nice gesture.

  • greg suggests that Pennsylvania is pretty much a lock for Obama. Given that, if Obama picks up both Ohio and Florida and then either Virginia or North Carolina, he’ll have already won.

  • Justin

    Frequent reader, first time commenter. I find it disheartening that it seems everyone is concerned about “evil Republican” voter fraud. I live in Ohio, specifically Cincinnati, and I must tell you I have seen Democrats pull the same kind of crap with my own two eyes. No matter what the party, fraud is evil and must be quashed.

    If you can’t admin that both sides cheat then you are not thinking critically. Both parties stand to gain from cheating and the process of monitoring and addressing issues of fraud are ridiculous. Right now there are tons of examples across the web of folks registering and voting in states they are not residents in, Diebold machines not working properly, all sorts of crap. They are all equally guilty.

    Repeat after me – there is no such thing as an honest politician. They will all cheat if given the opportunity and deniability.

  • Neil B. ?

    Justin, you have a point. However, it is known from recent experience (such as OH in 2004) that Republicans have been behind the worst of *recent* voter fraud/intimidation. (BTW, check electoral map for 1960 and confirm that JFK still would have won even with loss of Illinois.) What is especially disturbing, the owners of Diebold are known Republican activists and have made suspicious statements about supporting the Republican ticket, etc.

    Voting Machine Controversy

    by Julie Carr Smyth

    COLUMBUS – The head of a company vying to sell voting machines in Ohio told Republicans in a recent fund-raising letter that he is “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.”

    The Aug. 14 letter from Walden O’Dell, chief executive of Diebold Inc. – who has become active in the re-election effort of President Bush – prompted Democrats this week to question the propriety of allowing O’Dell’s company to calculate votes in the 2004 presidential election.

    O’Dell attended a strategy pow-wow with wealthy Bush benefactors – known as Rangers and Pioneers – at the president’s Crawford, Texas, ranch earlier this month. The next week, he penned invitations to a $1,000-a-plate fund-raiser to benefit the Ohio Republican Party’s federal campaign fund – partially benefiting Bush – at his mansion in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington.

  • Luke

    Regarding “nationalizing the means of production”, etc.: The Republicans have made it clear to the nation that Obama is advocating socialism. So if Obama wins today, that means that the American will have chosen socialism. I hope Obama gets started by implementing “socialized medicine”, which would be supported by 60% – 65% of the population.

  • Costanza

    another nifty polling site is

  • Justin

    Neil B – agreed wholeheartedly. We need an absolutely tamper proof system if we move to electronic voting of any kind. Electronic fraud can swing large numbers of votes with little effort. That being said, extremely committed supporters can easily cross state lines, submit fraudulent absentee ballots, and generally perpetrate fraud pretty easily.

    Clearly machines require less effort, but I submit that in the end it is actually more easily combated. One or two whistle blowers and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Diebold is already taking heat – although I have no idea why they even exist today. They should have been sued into oblivion just for equipment malfunctions alone, let alone malfeseance.

    Distributed, “Army of Davids” style fraud however is much more difficult to police. Compare the resources of a one class-action lawsuit against Diebold, Sequoia, etc. versus 10,000 individual, criminal lawsuits. The later also affords more deniability for the political parties.

    Both are already happening right now in this election and it completely sickens me. At this point every ballot should be done on paper and the voter should be given a paper receipt.

    A few links to get you fired up (as fraud of any color should):

    Machines in Philly switching Obama votes –

    Military folks don’t get enough time to cast their ballots legally because VA didn’t mail them soon enough –

    Just total crazy time in Philly – Repub. monitors tossed because they weren’t the people on the pre-established list – now it’s in court –

    Street Money – legally paying people to vote? Total BS and both sides do it –

    Woman from NY illegally voting in FL – idiot blogged and took pictures of it –

    More machine problems in Philly –

    At least our local paper the Cincinnati Enquirer has a fantastic website that let’s voters post problems out to a public area.

  • tacitus

    Heh, Sean, you must have been channeling that innate Democratic pessimism when you put together that map. You have Pennsylvania, Nevada, Virginia, and Colorado as toss-up states and yet almost all the polls have Obama leading those states at or above the margin of error. Meanwhile you have Georgia, Arizona, Montana, North Carolina, and North Dakota as locks for McCain, yet their polls are all as tight, if not tighter than those above you put in the toss up column.

    I don’t blame you, at all, after the last two elections, but even Karl Rove produced a more favorable map for Obama!

  • Allyson

    Los Feliz, CA and about a two hour wait. A young woman at the coffee bean (why yes, I did get a latte and I am a liberal) was just about jumping out of her skin about voting for the first time.

    I can’t believe I’m at work! I want to go home and watch the election show on CNN and fret about Prop 8.

  • Sean

    As mentioned, the map is not a prediction.

  • Sili

    The poor guy has aged fast lately.

    I really like that picture. I honestly cannot see McCain stooping like that.

  • tacitus

    D’oh! I should learn to read more than half a post before commenting.

  • Serge
  • spyder

    Agonizing because we vote by mail, and i have been waiting a week for the process to run its course. Total and complete relief; even though i know the hard work is only just beginning.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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