Consumer's Guide To Election Night

Actors David Arquette, left, and Zach Braff greet each other at the launch of The Cheesecake Factory's Drive Out Hunger Tour benefiting Feeding America in Culver City, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009.
AP's Dick Meyer offers a quicky guide to the trends and twists to look for on election night, in his latest Against the Grain.

Campaign 2002 hasn't exactly shivered the timbers of the voters or TV audiences thus far.

But there will be plenty of opportunities for mischief, mockery and nail-biting Tuesday night. Here's a cheat-sheet:

Control Freaks

It's the control game that gives this election whatever juice it has – control of the House and Senate. Congress is as narrowly divided as it has ever been. If a few Senate seats fall their way, Team Bush could gain control of the Senate. If the Republicans can hold their squeaker margin in the House, they can win back the trifecta they scored in 2000, before Sen. Jim Jeffords abandoned the party.

The smart-pundit money is betting on the status quo in the House – no change, the Democrats fail to seize control.

In the Senate, it's too close to call. Republicans may be the statistical underdogs simply because they're the ones who need to pick up seats. But some polls out the weekend before the election gave the GOP a last minute boost. At stake: who gets more C-Span time, Tom Daschle or Trent Lott.

Bush Tails

President Bush is poised to make a little history Tuesday night.

Presidents almost always lose Senate and House seats in midterm elections, often in big ways. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the naturals, got shellacked in their first midterms in 1982 and 1994, respectively. No Republican president has ever – ever – gained House seats in an off-year election. Bush might. He might gain Senate seats too.

Since 9/11, President Bush's popularity has been at epic levels. It's trailed off a bit this fall. On election night, we'll see if Bush can translate popularity into midterm coattails. If he can add seats to the GOP column in the House or Senate, he'll do what no Republican president has done and he'll set his table nicely for 2004.

Counting the Votes: the Nets

Election Night 2000 was not a stellar night for broadcast journalism, thanks to Florida. As a result, Voter News Service, the consortium that counts the votes and runs the exit polls for the five broadcast news networks and the Associated Press, is in the process of retooling its operations. Unfortunately, that process won't be finished until 2004.

So the networks are holding their collective breath, hoping that VNS gets them through the night with a steady flow of accurate data. If the VNS system crashes, it could be a hard day's night on TV and a lot of fun for anchor-watchers.

But no matter what, we networks are going to be much more careful with our language and our predictions on election night. The smart viewer will be alert for new election night linguistic hedges and qualifiers. The smart viewer will also watch carefully as the night progresses to see if all the networks remain careful when the competition to call the Senate gets stiff.

Counting the Votes: the States

If the Nets had a problem counting votes, Florida had a full-scale debacle. And they managed to repeat the feat in this year's Democratic gubernatorial primary. Fasten your seat belts.

Both parties will have legal SWAT teams ready to be dispatch to voting trouble spots, and every political reporter in the country is looking, too. Students of such things are telling us to expect lawsuits in several states contesting Tuesday's results.

What are the likely hot zones besides Florida? Minnesota, which had to change its ballot because of the death of Paul Wellstone, would be at the top of the list. There have already been allegations of vote fraud in North Carolina and Arkansas.

Too Close To Call

Tight races make good stories on election night, and 2002 is loaded with toss-ups – real toss-ups, not pretend ones where the insiders really think they know who's going to win, even if they don't.

A batting order of nine Senate races promises to make a frisky night and keep junkies up late: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota and Texas.

In fact, it's highly likely that even unofficial results for some of these races won't be available until well into Wednesday. And quirky Louisiana may be forced to have a run-off election in December if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote. So apart from the lawsuits, control of the Senate might not be clear until Christmastime.

Kennedy Alerts

So far it's been a bad year for Kennedy's in politics. Mark Shriver, son of Eunice and Sarge, brother of Maria, lost a House primary in Maryland. Kennedy-in-law Andrew Cuomo dropped out of the New York's gubernatorial primary when it became clear he was getting creamed.

Next up is Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, daughter of Robert Kennedy. She is in a close race to be governor of Maryland against Republican Bob Ehrlich. Townsend should be a shoo-in Maryland, one of the most Democratic states there is. But the race is a toss-up. Could be a bad day for the dynasty.

Turn Out, Turn Down

Will the naysayers win and will voter participation be at a new record low?

In the 1962 midterm election, 50 percent of eligible voters actually voted. In the last midterm, 1998, only 38 percent voted.

Trend-spotters looking at requests for absentee ballots and other electoral tea leaves think we could hit a new low this year, despite all the barnburner races.

Geezer Patrol

The Democrats are looking to the Geritol set for salvation this year. In New Jersey, 78-year old former Senator Frank Lautenberg bailed out the Dems when Robert Torricelli quit the campaign. In Minnesota, 74-year old former Vice President Walter Mondale replaced Wellstone on the ballot.

If these guys win, it could be a new last-ditch trick for campaigns of the future. Wouldn't that be fun?

Stay tuned, log in, and watch the fun.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of based in Washington.

E-mail questions, comments, complaints and ideas to
Against the Grain.

By Dick Meyer