Politics & Government

Here's a guide to how to watch tonight's election returns

WASHINGTON — Just a few hours now, and we'll know who will be the country's 44th president. To help you know the real score as it happens, here's quick guide of what to watch for Tuesday night starting at 7 pm EST.

KEEPING SCORE: The best way to keep score is to start with the 2004 result, when the Republicans won 286 electoral college votes and the Democrats won 252.

Then, any time McCain wins a state his party did not win in 2004, add the state's total electoral college votes to the 286 and subtract it from the Democrats' 252.

For example, if McCain wins Pennsylvania and its 21 votes, add that to his column for a running total of 307 and subtract it from the Obama column, for a running total of 231.

At the same time, any time Obama wins a state his party did not win last time, add that to the 252 and subtract it from the Republicans.

So, if Obama wins Virginia and its 13 votes, add it to Obama's starting base of 252 for a running total of 265, and reduce McCain's running total to 273.

STATES TO WATCH: Most states are solidly in one column or the other and can be ignored. New York will vote Democratic, for example. So watch the states that are close and might switch from the 2004 result.

The watch list, from East to West as polls are scheduled to close:

7 pm EST: Georgia, Indiana, and Virginia

7:30 pm EST: Ohio, North Carolina.

8 pm EST: Florida, New Hampshire, Missouri, and Pennsylvania

9 pm EST: Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico

10 pm EST: Iowa, Nevada

11 pm EST: North Dakota

LINES TO WATCH: Many states could keep polls open late if people are still in line.

TRIPWIRES: If Indiana is too close to call, it suggests problems for McCain. It’s the most Republican of the early states Tuesday night, and he should win it comfortably if he’s doing OK.

EXIT POLLS: Ignore them. If you stumble across one on the radio or the web, run away.

Leaked versions often are from early samples. It takes several samples to get the polls right, and even then they have to be used along with other data, such as actual results from certain bellwether precincts, to call a state.

They are a valuable tool for analyzing why an election turned out the way it did, but dangerously misleading when used raw to predict the outcome. Just ask President John Kerry, who led in key exit polls four years ago. Some left wing blogs still think the actual election results must have been wrong because they were different from the exit polls.

WHERE ARE THE CANDIDATES? Barack Obama will watch the results form a hotel suite in downtown Chicago, then speak to supporters at Grant Park on Chicago’s lakefront.

John McCain will watch the results at home in Phoenix, then speak to supporters at a Phoenix hotel.

WHAT ABOUT CONGRESS? Democrats are widely expected to add to their majorities in the House of Representatives, which they now control 235-199 with one vacancy, and the Senate, which they control 51-49 with the support of two independents.

Watch the Senate, where they need 60 votes to be able to pass legislation at will over the “filibuster” objections of Republicans.

SENATE RACES TO WATCH: Republicans are defending seats in close contests in Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Minnesota, Mississippi, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia.