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What to look for on Nov. 2

Now that everyone is thoroughly confused, Election Day is finally at hand.

Polls say that John Kerry is clearly ahead and that John Kerry is clearly behind, that he is winning Florida by four or losing it by four, that Kerry leads Ohio by six or trails by two. In North Carolina, Senate candidate Erskine Bowles (D) either leads or trails, as does Sen. Tom Daschle (D) in South Dakota.
Now that everyone is thoroughly confused, Election Day is finally at hand.

Polls say that John Kerry is clearly ahead and that John Kerry is clearly behind, that he is winning Florida by four or losing it by four, that Kerry leads Ohio by six or trails by two. In North Carolina, Senate candidate Erskine Bowles (D) either leads or trails, as does Sen. Tom Daschle (D) in South Dakota.

But with real votes about to be cast, what should observers look for on election night?

While the networks are (appropriately) bound by ethical obligations to not make any decisive statements about the presidential election or congressional control until polls have closed in enough places to be definitive, here are some early signposts to watch for on election night:

First, look at the Monday and Tuesday polls. Surveys are pretty good at revealing attitudes but less effective in predicting behavior. That distinction is sometimes lost when it comes to pre-election polls. But as we get closer to Election Day, attitude and behavior become one.

The Election Day polls tend to be more accurate than pre-election polls. Last cycle, so many polls put Bush ahead in the last week that analysts mostly ignored the Monday and Tuesday surveys that indicated an even race or a slight Gore lead.

Those late surveys proved to be more accurate than polls earlier in the week.

The Kentucky polls close at 7 p.m. (East Coast time). The decision on the top of the ticket won’t tell us much about the eventual presidential outcome, but Kentucky could say something about control of the Senate. Earlier this cycle, few saw Sen. Jim Bunning (R) as threatened. Now his own bizarre behavior has raised questions about his mental stability, and he is locked in a tough race.

Some polls have him tied with challenger Dr. Dan Mongiardo (D), but most have him below 50. To me, that suggests an upset for Democrats. If Bunning does lose, Democrats’ chances of taking back the Senate will get a huge boost.

The early Kentucky presidential results, though, could provide some portent of what is to come in the race for the White House. Get your calculator (or just a pencil and paper) and figure out whether Kerry’s percentage is higher or lower than Gore’s four years ago.

If Kerry is doing less well, it won’t necessarily mean much. Red states could just be redder. But if Kerry is doing better than Gore did it could provide a hint of victory to come. Repeat this exercise for other states to see if a pattern emerges.

Senate results from the Carolinas and Florida should also come in early. Polls close in South Carolina at 7 p.m., in North Carolina at 7:30 p.m. and in Florida at 8 p.m.

Democratic wins in any two of these three states will make winning the Senate even more likely.

Speaking of Florida, the Sunshine State — along with Ohio and Pennsylvania — is one of the big electoral prizes among the states whose polls close at 8 p.m. No one knows how quickly we will have definitive results in any of those states, but if Kerry wins any two of those three, he will be well on his way to winning the White House.

The networks may not call the presidential contest until very late in the evening.

But by the time Iowa and Wisconsin are in, those in the know will likely know who will occupy the White House in 2005.

After months of polls, commentary and debate, it’s hard to believe it’s almost over.

But then again, maybe it won’t be.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry this year.