My 25-point layman’s guide to getting your politics junkie on today:
In the morning
1) Do not — under any circumstances — turn on your television prior to 6pm. This isn’t specific to the morning, but it has to be first, because it’s absolutely crucial. The only thing worse than the election night coverage on the cable news networks is the election day coverage on the cable news networks. And trailing right behind those two things is the douchebag in your office who watched the Today show on election morning and is now repeating the same drivel outside your cubicle. Don’t be that guy.
In case you are tempted at any point in the day, I’ll save you the time by summing up the coverage for you here: worthless anecdotes about turnout; analysis of rainy weather forecasts that supposedly affect turnout but actually do not; “explanations” of the “science” of exit-polling and election prediction; interviews with senior citizens who voted at 11am in the Midwest; set pieces like “30 years ago this week” about past elections; meta-narratives about the President’s probable reaction to a 5-seat swing in the House vs. a 15-seat swing; exposés on campaign financing, voter turnout, and enthusiasm; editorials on what the election “means,” whether this is a “change” election, a “wave” election, or a “turnout” election; stories about the parties angling with teams of lawyers to oversee recounts; worries on the left and right about voter fraud and voter suppression; some blair-witch style youtube video showing something allegedly wrong; debates over whether this is 2004 or 1992 or neither; debates over divided government and gridlock; anecdotal profiles about who the independents are voting for; questions about why aren’t there more moderates; polemics on whether the Tea Party will play nice in DC during the lame-duck, whether the Tea Party will be a force in politics for much longer, and whether the Tea Party is actually a party; and 35 other things that could be studied with a rigorous methodology but instead will be delivered in the absence (or face) of data, and an equal number of things that should never be studied, period.
Did I mention this will all be delivered to you at a 4th grade comprehension level?
2) Learn the Electoral College landscape cold. There are only 11 states you need to watch (CO, FL, IO, MI, NV, NH, NC, OH, PA, VA, WI). Get yourself knowledgeable about when the polls close in those states, review some recent polling averages, and fiddle around with one of the many online maps to think about different situations. (This NYT tree-branch utility is kind of neat.)
3) Ditto with the Senate landscape. There are only 14 races that are either remotely close enough to have big impacts or are otherwise interesting (MA, IN, WI, CT, VA, ND, MT, AZ, NV, PA, NM, HI, FL, OH, MZ). Learn the candidates and the stakes in each of these. Forget all the rest.
4) Figure out some House bellwethers. Unless you spend your days dealing with the House of Representatives (ahem), it’s hard to be up on all the competitive house races. But it’s a lot more fun to watch returns if you can assess the importance of a given House race result without having to trust Chuck Todd. Throughout the night, there will be a flood of House returns, and if you know that Rhode Island’s 1st district, Kentucky’s 6th district, and Illinois’ 17th district are a lot more important in judging the national result than Rhode Island’s 2nd district, Kentucky’s 5th district, and Illinois 16th district, you’ll be ahead of the game. In the past, this has been a doable-but-arduous task. Two years ago, Nate Silver produced a handy shortcut in the form of a guide; no word on whether such a similar cheat-sheet will be available for laymen this year. (Update: here’s a pretty good one from The Fix). But you can use Cook’s race ratings or RealClearPolitics race ratings or any number of other websites to orient yourself.
5) Make a prediction of some sort — and maybe a bet — but don’t be the “prediction-guy.” Make your prediction public by emailing it to someone (Or heck, post it here in the comments). Here’s mine: Dems pick up a net 12 House seats and Senate control remains exactly 53-47, D’s. Dems win MA Senate seat but lose MT seat. I like Obama for 290 electoral votes, narrowly losing my home-state Virginia. I also guarantee that either David Gergen or some governor-type (Ed Rendell? Haley Barbour? Chris Christie?) will get on my nerves at some point. And yeah, I’ll bet you a drink that I’m closer than you on the EC total.
The trap to avoid here is turning the whole night into a test of your prediction ability. Don’t be that guy who’s only interested in the NCAA tournament because he’s got seven brackets going and $1000 on the line, but doesn’t really give a shit about college basketball. So keep the predictions light and modest. Guess an EC number, predict House and Senate totals, and call half a dozen races. But don’t go crazy. Face it: you didn’t build (you didn’t build!) your predictions from some proprietary model and a whole bunch of insider information, so your success or failure basically reflects zero on your ability as a forecaster. But your behavior tonight can reflect grandly on your status as a douchebag. So let Nate Silver and the British gambling houses sweat it out; your job isn’t on the line here.
6) “Watercooler” the election. I spend a lot of time at work trying to avoid political discussion — and I work on the Hill! So I understand your general impulse to stay away from your wackier colleagues on Election Day. But it might be the one day of the year when talking politics at the office can generate some positive returns. Especially if you go beyond contemporary politics and talk to people about democracy. Obviously, you have to weed out the cynics who want to lecture you on why they didn’t vote and the angry partisans who can’t imagine who would vote for that idiot and the monologuers who won’t shut up about why our democracy is capital-F-fucked, but if you can weather those storms, you might strike gold.
You’re not looking for anybody specific here, but I recommend finding two people in particular if you can. First: a veteran. Ask him if he ever voted from a combat zone. Then listen. Second, someone who’s run for local office in the past. Ask them what it was like on election day when they ran and how it changed their view of democracy. Then listen. And, of course, if you work with any African-Americans over the age of 60, by all means talk to them about voting and elections. You’re almost guaranteed to get a story worth hearing.
7) Vote. Or don’t. It’s utterly not consequential to the election. But you’ll feel better about yourself if you do. If you need some patriotic inspiration, go read my voting story from last year.
In the afternoon
8) Again, resist any and all temptation to turn the television on. For full explanation, see #1. But remember, they’ll be doing things like using a panel of “experts” to interview David Axelrod for three minutes about who he thinks is going to win the election. You’ve been warned.
9) Figure out who you are going to watch the returns with. People go all sorts of ways with this. I totally respect the people who have to watch alone, in the dark, just them and the TV, like they’re die-hard baseball fans watching game 7 of the world series. But that’s not my scene. Ditto with the election-night-headquarters style parties with you and 200 of your closest friends at a barroom. I think a home get-together is best, preferably with at least one person who shares your politics and one who doesn’t. I don’t recommend getting a ton of people together; think more “friends coming over” than “party” — you want six, not thirty. I also think bringing huge partisans into the mix is a mistake, but strong ideologues can be great if they are not too attached to party labels. Avoid cynics and Euro-philes at all costs. Face it, democracy is the least-worst alternative, and unemployment in parliamentary-systems on the continent is like 15%. Yeah, the Senate is anti-democratic, but so is the veto. Get over it. I don’t want to hear it tonight. And neither do your guests.
10) Get your snack setup straight. This is tricky. It’s not a college football tailgate. It’s sure as hell not a dinner party. It’s not a BBQ. It’s not having people over for The Game. My suggestion is to go simple and traditional. That means, of course, pizza and beer. Fill in with pretzels or chips. The thing to stay away from is really messy food, since you’re going to want access to your laptop (see below) regularly. So probably stay away from salsa, or guacamole. And as much as it pains my upstate heart, wings are a big no-no. You also want a wonkcave configuration that’s amenable to eating and using a computer. You don’t have to go full-blown dork with TV trays and all that jazz, but figure something out ahead of time, so you aren’t sitting on a really deep couch, balancing your laptop and a plate of pizza on your knees.
11) Learn about a few ballot initiatives. Here’s a nice layout of the major questions. Personally, I’m focused on the following: Maine Question 1 and Minnesota Amendment 1 (legalize gay marriage; ban gay marriage, respectively); Colorado Amendment 64 and Washington Initiative 502 ( both would legalize pot and regulate it like alcohol); California Proposition 34 (abolish the death penalty); and Florida Amendment 6 and Montana LR-120 (ban on public funding for abortion; parental notification for minor abortions, respectively). I can’t really get that jazzed about the various Obama-care related initiatives (such as Florida Amendment 1) because states are going to have plenty of chances to mess with Obamacare if it proves unpopular but little room to maneuver otherwise. The small window in which they can make it unpopular by messing with it is, of course, real, but I doubt that the initiative process will be the main driver of that, given the wide latitude that legislatures and executives will have for implementation decisions. Mostly seems like a political sideshow to me.
12) Forget the governors’ races. Once you’ve studied the Senate races and found your House bellwethers, you might be tempted to start looking into some governor’s races. It’s not worth it (unless your state happens to have a competitive race). Maybe pick one that’s really interesting, but don’t bother trying to master them. Invariably, they won’t affect your life and you won’t think about them again until they start announcing for President in a few years. And there’s no real meta-narrative to consider (aside from stuff like “implementing Obamacare”). Put your energy into learning more about the Senate races. It makes for much better viewing.
13) Vote if you haven’t yet done so. Or don’t. It’s utterly not consequential to the election. But you’ll feel better about yourself if you do. If you need some further patriotic inspiration, go read my old State of the Union post.
In the early evening, before the first polls close (Indiana and Kentucky 6pm EST)
14) Again, resist any and all temptation to turn the television on. For full explanation, see #1. But remember, they’ll be doing things like making predictions about national turnout levels based on anecdotal interviews at 2 precincts in the midwest. You’ve been warned.
15) Get your laptop setup with the proper tabs open. My setup is going to look like this: a few live-blogs sitting open on the desktop (probably Andrew Sullivan, Josh Marshall, and Five Thirty Eight), an ideological spectrum of other blogs available for quick consult (DailyKos, Instapundit, National Review), the tally-maps from some major networks/papers (probably WP, MSNBC, and Foxnews), and the Virginia official returns site. Anything more than that, and it becomes unwieldy.
16) Arm yourself with the proper printouts. Some things are just better to have in hard copy. If there’s some variant on Nate Silver’s hour-by-hour House guide form 2010, that’s pretty indispensable, especially if you aren’t uber-familiar with the House terrain. (Update: here’s a pretty good one from The Fix). I also recommend getting some scrap paper ready to use as your own tally-sheet for House and Senate pickups; you can do scratch math on that for the EC too. And a copy of Cook’s House Race Ratings is nice too to have on the table.
17) Get yourself setup on Twitter. I cannot emphasize this enough. Nothing has made following political events more fun in the last 10 years than Twitter. It brings just the right mix of seriousness and humor that democratic electoral politics deserves. Get yourself setup on it and get tweeting. Or just reading tweets. You won’t regret it. Here are a bunch of tweeters I recommend following (for all-around reasons of smarts, humor, and likely volume of tweets tomorrow): @jbplainblog, @speechboy71, @jbouie, @ezraklein, @BrendanNyhan, @conor64, @smouts, @monkeycage, @radleybalko, @pourmecoffee, and, of course, @MattGlassman312. There are hundreds of other good ones too, so find your own!
After the polls begin to close
18) Ease into things. If you plant yourself on the couch at 6pm, you will be brain-dead by 10:30. This is not college football; it is best enjoyed with an active mind. So turn on the TV, get your prep-work out, but don’t sit down. If you absolutely must be plugged in from the get-go, I recommend cleaning or exercising in the TV room. And for god sakes don’t eat a full sit-down dinner in front of the television. You’ll regret it. Have a light snack and order the pizza for 7:30. Make the returns background noise and a passive activity early on; by 7:30 or 8, you’ll be ready to hunker-down.
19) Pick a cable news network and stick with it. And I recommend making your choice based solely on comedy. Who has the stupidest display board, with the most useless bells and whistles? Who has the most commentators lined up in a bleacher-like tier? Which network is doing live-remotes from the most ridiculous places? Who has the funniest name for their “war room”? The bottom line is that the networks have ceased to be journalistic endeavors, and are now only good for getting raw data or being entertained. Everything else — from play by play to commentary to meta-analysis — is better on the Internets. Like fifty times better.
20) Don’t be afraid to get emotional. For some reason, America spent the 20th century trying to remove political intensity from the practice of actually casting and counting the votes. As recently as 100 years ago, polling places were raucous scenes, complete with bands, rallies, and liquor. Now they are like graveyards. And that carries over a lot of the time to how people adsorb returns. Don’t let it get to you. You’re emotionally invested in either politics or policy; you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise. Don’t pretend we’re counting the votes in a vacuum. Go ahead and cheer.
21) Around 9:00pm EST, call someone who’s only mildly into politics, and talk to them about the elections. Or more precisely, listen to them. Ask them who they voted for and why, and what they think of the emerging results. Don’t offer any opinions, analysis, or commentary. Too many junkies live exclusively in the world of the strategic meta-narrative; it’s both insightful and refreshing to hear people on election night who approach things at face-value.
22) Find out who won local office in your town. Contrary to the indications derived from media coverage, your town and school board elections routinely have a bigger effect on you and your family than anything going on in Washington. It’s bad enough that you don’t know who your state rep is, but it’s unconscionable that you don’t know who’s setting the policies for your kids’ school. Take the time and find out who won these races, and promise yourself that you’ll have a better knowledge of them next time around. That way, you’ll at least feel guilty two years from now when you say, “Is he the Democrat or Republican?”
23) Watch an unexpected victory speech, and an unexpected concession. Obviously, if there’s an uber-upset (like Mandel winning in Ohio or Kerrey winning in Nebraska), find those speeches and watch them live. Otherwise, look for the mild-upsets in Senate races in NV, WV, etc. If Allen West loses, watch him. And if you can find an internet feed of a political amateur winning a House seat, those are solid gold moments.
24) Don’t turn it off until you know who the next President of the United States is, but don’t stay up figuring out the House tallies. Even if you have to fall asleep on the couch, you should wait for the presidency to be called. And that only gets truer as it becomes an issue. If it’s 1am EST and we don’t know who will be president, you will be watching dramatic history. Stay up. On the other hand, unless you’re prepared to stay up all night, the marginal value of waiting each additional half-hour to hear the calls of late House races is really low. If they can’t call the California and Washington races by 2am EST, it will probably be sometime until they can. Don’t bother.
25) Light up a joint if pot wins in Colorado. Just kidding! Federal law will still make marijuana possession, sale, and cultivation illegal in the United States, and Gonzalez v. Raich will continue to guarantee for the time being that those federal laws are constitutional, regardless of how much money we throw away in the War On Drugs and how many non-violent drug offenders we put in federal prison in the coming years. Think that’s dumb? Me too. But I voted for Gary Johnson. Next time, will you?