Here is a guide for what to look for in tonight's election night coverage. This is more or less a companion post to yesterday's analysis, so I recommend reading it first if you haven't yet:
1. Question Marks: First off, a caveat: since there are a lot of new voting rules (namely early voting and Voter ID laws), what has happened in the past may not happen in the same order this time around. A state that posted early in 2008 might end up taking an extra few hours now. In addition, many of the battleground states are going to be close, so reporting may take longer than normal--it would not surprise me if some tight east coast states aren't declared until we are well into the Rocky Mountains. Since it's a bit unpredictable, things may not happen in the below order, and don't necessarily interpret unusual delays as anything more than administrative issues.
2. Unexpectedly Close States: That said, if any states have vote totals that are being declared as unexpectedly close which had previously been considered safe for one candidate, that's a pretty good omen for the other candidate. For example, if Connecticut is very, very close, that's bad news for Obama. If South Carolina seems like a tight race, things may get bad for Romney very quick. If one of these states actually goes for the other candidate, all bets are off.
3. Indiana: The state of Indiana has always been an early reporter; they are often first save for a few New England states. Their polls close at a remarkably early 6pm (7pm EST) and in the past it's almost always been a Republican blowout. Not last election, though, when the state unexpectedly went for Obama. It's unlikely to happen again--Romney has had a large lead for a long time--but if the results are slow (indicating a tight race) or the state goes for Obama again, it will be a long night for Romney.
4. Maine: It's possible that Romney will win Maine's 2nd Congressional District. In an election year where a tie is possible, this may be significant, but probably not. Still, it will provide a signal to things to come.
5. East Coast Battlegrounds: New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. These will be the first to report (their closing times range between 7pm and 8pm EST). The biggest story is Florida--as noted yesterday, if Romney doesn't win it, he is all but defeated. Of course, we should find out in short order: the other three states listed here will report as well. Romney should be safe for North Carolina, so if he loses this he has few other options. He can lose both Virginia and New Hampshire, but it will be a lot closer. Expect there to be delays either way in Florida and particularly Virginia, which has a new Voter ID law, so don't take these delays as an indication of results.
6. Pennsylvania and Michigan: These are wild cards for Romney. While they are both probably going for Obama, his lead has been very, very close to the margin of error. Especially in Pennsylvania, where Hurricane Sandy might depress voter turnout in Philadelphia, Romney might find some breathing room. A win in either of these states would be good news for Romney. Obama still has a few more options if he loses either one, though.
7. Great Lakes: It is entirely possible at this point to declare Obama a winner. Depending on the results from the east coast, a win in Ohio will effectively declare him the victor. (The same is not necessarily true of Romney.) If there is a split decision--say, Romney wins Virginia, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Florida and Obama wins Ohio--it's not quite over. Wisconsin in particular will be interesting; no Republican has won it for decades, and it's unexpectedly close this year. In addition, a win here will blunt the necessity to win Ohio. Still, it will be difficult, and Ohio is very, very close to a must-win for Romney. (Again, see my post from yesterday to see Romney's very poor Ohio-less victory conditions.) Expect this to clinch it one way or the other.
8. The Rest: At this point, if there is no clear winner, it will come down to the last few small swing states, namely Colorado, Nevada, and Iowa. Chances are the race will be decided by then, but in case it's not this will be a very long wait--polls close much later. It's also possible that, in the event that either candidate has won a lot of the battleground states but just needs one more state to put him over, this could be a dramatic night. (One scenario: Obama wins PA, MI, OH, and NH, while Romney wins FL, NC, VA, and WI, making it 259 Obama-258 Romney.) There aren't a whole lot of surprises from the Midwest onwards; only Minnesota, Arizona, and Oregon are even close, and they really aren't--only if there is an odd blowout will these change, so it probably will not matter.
9. Recounts! There is an almost 100% chance that some states will have to do a recount. Too many battleground states are too close to call, and many states have an automatic trigger for recounts. Depending on the math, it's not entirely unusual that we don't have a winner Tuesday or even Wednesday night. Think back to 2004, when the Ohio results were close enough that it came down to the absentee ballots; and this year, with early voting in Ohio, it will probably be worse.