My unofficial 18-point junkies guide to having a fun election day:
Before the first polls close (Indiana and Kentucky 6pm EST)
1) Do not — repeat, do not — turn on your television before 6pm. The only thing worse than the election night coverage on the cable news networks is the election day coverage on the cable news networks. I’ll save you the time by summing it up here: worthless anecdotes about turnout; 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 45-seat swing in the House vs. a 52-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 an “anger” 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 1994 or not; 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, whether the Tea Party will be a force in politics fora long time, 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) Go buy some snacks. Pizza and beer is probably best.
3) Get some friends over, preferably one person who shares your politics and one who doesn’t. I don’t recommend getting a lot of people together; that’s fun for the Presidential election, but midterms call for a more refined, thoughtful arrangement. 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-system Europe is like 20%. Yeah, the Senate is anti-democratic, but so is the veto. Get over it. I don’t want to hear it tonight.
4) Know the Senate landscape cold. There are only 13 races that are either close enough to have big impacts or are otherwise interesting (CA, WA, WV, WI, ND, AR, IN, PA, CO, NV, IL, CT, KY, FL, AL). Learn the candidates and the stakes in each of these. Forget all the rest.
5) Figure out the House bellwethers. 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 Indiana’s 9th district is a very important in judging the national result but that Indiana’s 3rd district is not, you’ll be ahead of the game. In the past, this has been an eminently-doable-but-arduous task; this year, Nate Silver has come very close to perfecting an easy shortcut (see #7 below).
6) Learn about a few ballot initiatives. Personally, I’m focused on the following four: Washington Initiative 1098 (to give the state an income tax), California Prop 19 (legalize pot), Rhode Island Question 1 (drop the “and Providence Plantations” from the state’s name), and Colorado Amendment 62 (abortion restrictions). I can’t really get that jazzed about Arizona’s proposition 106 (anti-health care mandate) because, let’s be honest, the health care mandate is going to the corner of 1st street and East Capitol, NE , and no actions between now and then are worth a warm bucket of spit.
7) Arm yourself with the proper printouts. This starts with Nate Silver’s hour-by-hour House guide. It’s indispensable, especially if you aren’t uber-familiar with the House terrain. Nate organizes all the competitive House races by poll-closing time, and makes it easy to see the probable macro-impact that any individual result predicts. Trust me, print it out. Since poll-closing times are not really indicative of vote-counting spedd, this handy chart from Charlie Cook shows when each state had 50% of the vote counted in 2008. I also recommend getting yourself a tally-sheet for House and Senate pickups. And a copy of Cook’s House Race Ratings is nice too.
Vote. Or don’t. It’s utterly not consequential to the election. But you’ll feel better about yourself if you do.
9) 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), a 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), my intrade.com portfolio, and the Virginia official returns site. Anything more than that, and it becomes unwieldy.
10) Forget the governors’ 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 next year. And there’s no real meta-narrative to consider (aside from redistricting). Put your energy into learning more about the House races. It makes for much better viewing.
11) Make a prediction of some sort. And make it public by emailing it to someone (Or heck, post it here in the comments). Here’s mine: GOP picks up 64 House seats and 8 Senate seats. Dems hold WV Senate seat but lose WA seat. I think Fimian will win the VA-11 that I live in. I also guarantee that either David Gergen or some governor not currently up for office (Ed Rendell? Haley Barbour?) will get on my nerves at some point.
After the polls begin to close
12) 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 dinner in front of the television. You’ll regret it. Make the returns background noise and a passive activity early on; by 7:30 or 8, you’ll be ready to hunker-down.
13) Pick a cable news network and stick with it. And I recommend making your choice based 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.
14) 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.
15) Around 9:30, 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.
16) 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?”
17) Watch an unexpected victory speech, and an unexpected concession. Obviously, if there’s an uber-upset (like O’Donnell winning Delaware or Conway winning Kentucky), find those speeches and watch them live. Otherwise, look for the mild-upsets in Senate races in NV, WV, IL, etc. If Barney Frank loses, watch him. And if you can find an internet feed of a political amateur winning a House seat, those are solid gold moments.
18) Turn it off by 1am, after the initial California returns have come in and been digested. Unless you’re prepared to stay up all night, the marginal value of waiting each additional half-hour at that point is really low. If they can’t call the California and Washington races right at 11pm EST, it will probably be sometime until they can. Don’t bother.