The Crazy Hours
Ah yes, here we are at that magic moment when every Washington Insider is frantically trolling for exit poll data. And numbers are flying around the phone lines and the internet.
But don't get too excited. Some of the numbers are obviously garbled (the above link, for instance, has two separate sets of numbers from Wisconsin and Michigan). It's unclear when they were harvested. We don't know if they include early voting data (which is critical in places like Florida and Iowa). And if past experience is any indicator, this stuff morphs as it is transmitted from mouth to ear to web.
The first semi-official idea we'll have of what's really going on is when the networks begin their coverage and start to release voter responses to questions posed in exit polls. A big "wrong track" number would be a broad hint that Kerry's doing well. A big plurality for "terrorism" as the prime voter concern would be good news for Bush.
But here are some things to keep in mind when the numbers actually start coming in:
1) The networks have said they won't call a state until all polls are closed in it (e.g., no 7:15 calls for Florida this time).
2) They've also said they won't call a state if the margin is within 1%.
3) They will be comparing exit poll data, which will probably include provisional ballots, with raw vote data, which won't.
Because of the conservative nature of the decision desk rules this time, and the fact that provisional ballots counted later will probably break heavily for Kerry, I think it's safe to say that if the race is called for Kerry tonight or in the wee hours of the morning, it will stick, and there's nothing James Baker or the United States Supreme Court can do to change it.
If the race isn't called when most of the non-provisional votes are in, then we could be, as so many of us have feared, back in banana-republic-land.