11/05/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014 Hour-by-Hour Guide to Election Night 2012

James Hazzard co-authored this Guide.

Part 1 -- Introduction: Signs of a Wave?

Will we see a 2012 Republican wave where Democrats are swept out because Barack Obama was
elected to fix a broken economy and four years later the economy is doubtlessly still struggling? Or will we see a Democratic wave where middle class voters reject the politics of the privileged class. Or will these waves cancel each other out yielding the razor close election many pundits and analysts have been predicting all along -- and leaving voters without any new clear voice in the public policy discussions of the coming years? All of this will be decided as Election Night in the United States of America unfolds.

While both Democrats and Republicans have had good months and bad throughout the seemingly endless 2012 campaign, recent polls and commentary are pointing to a very close race and a long evening before the outcomes are known. But pundits discuss and voters decide elections. As the hours pass and Tuesday night rolls into early Wednesday, we will finally know which way the tides are turning.

Most of the Dozen States that Will Decide the Presidency are in the East

Throughout the year, the two major party candidates and their campaigns have agreed on a short list of states that will decide the election, and these states account for the overwhelming amount of campaign spending and candidate events. Most of these states are in the Eastern Time Zone and polls will be closed by 8 p.m (all times EST). Indeed, polls in the biggest prizes: Virginia, Ohio, and Florida (except the Panhandle region in the Central Time Zone) will be closed by 7:30. This of course is the earliest time the networks could choose to call these states' decisions, and vote counting could go quite late in the night.

Presidential Swing State Poll Closing Times

7 p.m.: Virginia, Florida (most)*, New Hampshire (most)*

7:30 .p.m: Ohio, North Carolina

8 p.m.: Pennsylvania, Michigan (most)*, Florida (all), New Hampshire (all)

9 p.m.: Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan (all)

10 p.m.: Iowa, Nevada

*Polls close at different times throughout the state, so the time listed is the first time when a majority of polls in the state will be closed -- this is the earliest time a network might choose to call a race.

Romney has the narrower path to 270 electoral votes and a call of Florida, Virginia or Ohio for Obama early in the evening could create a road block in his path to the White House, increasing the likelihood of an early call of the presidential race for the incumbent. Florida and Virginia could go to Romney without upsetting Obama's path, but an Ohio call for Romney would be a major setback for Obama. This would put the outcome in the hands of the later closing western states, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada.

Many Senate Races with No Clear Leader

With a slim three-member majority in the Democratic caucus, and twice as many Democratic seats up for election as Republican seats, Democrats began this cycle in a formidable hole. A combination of stronger than expected incumbents and Republican slips, and more than a little luck seems to have changed the trajectory of this election to the point where Republican hopes of gaining control of the Senate have dimmed and Democrats are just as likely to gain a few seats as lose them. Republican seats are in italics and Democratic seats in bold:

6 p.m.: Indiana

7 p.m.: Virginia, Florida (most)*

7:30 p.m.: Ohio

8:00 p.m.: Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, Missouri, Florida (all)

9 p.m.: Wisconsin, Arizona, Nebraska

10 p.m.: Montana, North Dakota, Nevada

Polls close at different times throughout the state, so the time listed is the first time when a majority of polls in the state will be closed -- this is the earliest time a network might choose to call a race.

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New Districts Make Change In House Less Likely:

Every ten years the congressional districts are re-drawn and 2012 continues the trend of ever more partisan districts that group voters in a way that diminishes the likelihood their votes will bring a major change in the makeup of the House of Representatives. Still, there is a possibility that an electoral wave could take shape on election night and deliver the House for the Democrats, or in the alternative, a significantly larger number of Republicans.

The Hour-by-Hour guide to Election Night 2012 lists dozens of the House races views as competitive by the two parties in the hour that the polls close.

Defining Victory in 2012 -- The White House Plus What?

To be clear, whichever side wins the White House wins Election 2012. To disagree is to envy the political aide whose party has just lost the presidency but won, let's say, control of enough House or Senate races to unite both chambers of Congress against the presidents party -- as well as perhaps the majority of Governors or state legislative chambers. It would make for good talking points, but it will not win the news cycle or stand as a convincing case for history. Nor is this likely with late polls suggesting neither chamber is likely to change hands, especially in repudiation of the presidential outcome.

If Mitt Romney wins the presidency, the Republicans will have won Election 2012, and this is just as true for the Democrats if Barack Obama is re-elected as president.

But either could win the presidency narrowly or broadly -- with or without evidence of a wave or a mandate from voters. So what would constitute a real victory in 2012? Our definitions are simple and symmetrical. A party can claim to have won a real victory, rather than a narrow win if they:

1) Win the White House;

2) Hold the Chamber they have (even if they lose a few seats) and;

3) Gain ground in the other chamber (even if they do not win control).

So if Romney wins the presidency, the GOP retains control of the House and gains at least one Senate seat, then they would have earned bragging rights. If Obama wins a second term, Democrats retain the majority in the Senate and pick up seats in the House, then they have the right to claim 2012 as a Year of the Donkey.

Follow Huffington Post bloggers Sheri and Allan Rivlin

When Will We Know?

With most of the key presidential swing states in the Eastern Time Zone, the presidential race could be clear quite early in the 9:00 to 10:00 hour (all times are Eastern). Even if the drift of the key Eastern states is clear, the networks would not call the national race before polls close in most Western states at 11 p.m. in the East. Alternatively, if the race remains as close as many late polls indicate, it could come down to a small number of votes in one or more decisive states that are decided hours, or possibly days or more, after

all of the polling places close.

The story in the Senate is nearly the same. Most of the crucial races that could point to a change in control of the Senate from Democrats to Republicans are in the Northeast, so control of the Senate also could be clear fairly early, even if results from the Western states are needed to declare a winner outright. But again, the races may stay close and counting could go deep into the night or longer. And there are several complicating factors here:

1) The criterion for control of the Senate depends on the outcome of the presidential race because the vice president holds the tie-breaking vote in the upper chamber. If Obama is re-elected, Republicans need a net gain of four seats to gain control of the Senate, but if Romney wins, Republicans need to pick up only three seats.

2) The Maine seat seems likely to be won by independent, Angus King, who would be able to choose which party he will caucus with should he win. Most believe he would join the Democrats but this is not assured, and;

3) As we have seen several times in past elections, any senator can change their party and potentially deliver the majority to their new choice of party.

A potential change in party control of the House is viewed as unlikely by most observers, and if that happens it would have to start early in the evening and would have to continue into the night as the focus shifts westward. The more likely scenario is that individual races in the Mountain and Pacific time zones will determine which party can claim to have gained net seats in the lower chamber.

Hour-by-Hour Guide to Election Night 2012

Part 2 -- 6:00 to 8:00 is here.

Part 3 -- 8:00 to 9:00 is here.

Part 4 -- 9:00 to the end is here.