Presenting live election returns as a sporting event makes for good television. At 9pm, Barack Obama & Mitt Romney are tied in the popular vote! The Virginia, Massachusetts and Montana Senate races are tied! Who will win? You have to stay tuned to find out!
But watching election returns minute-by-minute gives a biased view towards the states and even the precincts that count their votes early in the evening. Watching early totals presents a skewed presidential picture in any year, as California (6.2 million Obama votes) doesn't even close its polls until 11pm ET.
This year the problem was even more pronounced than usual as voters in Democratic precincts faced significantly longer lines than voters in GOP precincts. In 59 voting divisions in Philadelphia, Obama beat Romney 19,605 to 0. That meant Democratic precincts were likely to report results later - and in some cases hours later - than their counterparts in Republican areas. Races that seemed surprisingly close early on turned out to be the solid Democratic wins everyone but Fox viewers expected.
So how has what we know about the election changed since Tuesday night?
In the presidential race, the usual California lateness was compounded by slow vote counts in New York and New Jersey, both struggling in the wake of Sandy and both heavily Democratic. While Obama's margin over Romney was around 2 million votes on Wednesday morning, today Obama's lead stands at more than 3.4 million votes - a victory margin a Republican presidential candidate hasn't posted since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
"What's going on in Virginia?" was a frequent theme on Election Night, as early returns had both Mitt Romney and George Allen leading. But Obama and Kaine came back as the night went along and now you wouldn't even call the Senate race all that close - Tim Kaine ultimately won by 6 percent (over 186,000 votes). Meanwhile, President Obama won by 3 percent.
It was a similar story in other Senate races. In Massachusetts, it took hours for the race to be called for Democrat Elizabeth Warren, but the final results show Warren soundly beating Scott Brown by 8 percent. The Montana Senate race wasn't called until late Wednesday morning, but the final tally has Democrat Jon Tester beating Republican Denny Rehberg by 4 percent - not a blowout to be sure, but much more comfortable than you'd have thought on Election Night. (Side note: How has the media "called" Arizona for Republican Jeff Flake when over a quarter of the ballots, many from Democratic areas, still haven't been counted?)
And in the House, while networks raced to declare "PROJECTION: GOP MAINTAINS CONTROL OF HOUSE!" early, today the story is of Democratic pickup. Democrats have already gained 6 House seats and are leading in 4 of 5 uncalled races.
The danger comes when folks start using the election returns to make up their minds about what happened in the election. What you see before 11pm ET isn't a proportional representation of what will happen later in the night - you have to watch those early numbers with a grain of salt. And that salt's just the right color since it's mostly Mitt Romney's angry old white guy America counting the ballots early on.
So on future Election Nights, have fun watching the early returns roll in, but don't make up your mind about the results until every vote's been counted.
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