US election night 2012: the key moments and times

It's going to be a long night, so here's our insomniac's guide to when and where the most important results are likely to come

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US election night 2012: the key moments and times
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Although there are fifty states in America, because of the Electoral College system, most US Presidential elections come down to the results of just a few key swing states - and the 2012 contest between Obama and Romney will be no different.

A candidate needs to win 270 of 538 Electoral College votes to enter the White House.  Each state is worth a certain number of votes based on its population - the larger the number of voters, the more votes it is worth.  But with Obama and Romney looking to have around 180 votes each tied up already from solid Republican and Democrat states, the attention tonight will turn to eleven states that collectively return 146 Electoral College votes and will decide whether Obama gets a second term in office, or Romney becomes the leader of the free world next January. 

These states are Colorado (9 - Electoral College votes), Florida (29), Iowa (6), Michigan (16), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Virginia (13) and Wisconsin (10).

Democrat President Obama won in every one of these states in 2008, and his campaign team are confident that Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will turn out in his favour, although the Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been attempting to make inroads in those states in recent weeks.

A number of polls in Eastern states will close at 11:00pm (GMT), though all eyes are likely to be on Virginia at midnight, the first of the battleground states to begin returning results. A further five states also close at the strike of 12:00: four Southern states that look likely to plump for Romney, and Vermont, which is expected to back Obama. Virginia, however, is currently too close to call. If either candidate is significantly ahead in Virginia, a state with 13 Electoral College votes, that result could help to predict the eventual outcome of the election.

Voting will then cease in the competitive swing-state North Carolina and the all-important Ohio at 12:30am. North Carolina is one of the more conservative swing states, and a win for Romney there would stand him in good stead. No Republican has ever entered the White House without winning Ohio, however, so a win for Obama in that state will be bound to rattle Romney and his supporters.

However, between 2% and 3% of Ohio’s votes come from provisional ballots, which aren’t counted until later, and this year won’t be looked at until Saturday 17 November. These provisional ballots were the deciding factor in 2004’s election, which only came to an end at 11am on the morning following the count when the Democrat candidate John Kerry phoned George W. Bush to concede Ohio and, consequently, the presidency.

1:00am will see the most populous swing-state, Florida, wind up its polls along with most other Eastern states. A win in Florida for Obama would be a turn-up for the books, as polls have shown the state to be leaning towards Romney in recent weeks. However, Democratic-leaning areas of Florida are notoriously late in reporting their results, so don’t necessarily be fooled by an early lead for Romney here. Electoral College vote-heavy New Hampsire and Pennsylvania also close at this time.

At 2:00am polls close in 13 states including Colorado and Wisconsin, both of which are battleground states for the two candidates. The Democrats have claimed Wisconsin for the last six presidential elections, so a reversal of fortunes here would be remarkable. Colorado, on the other hand, may drag out the final result as it has always been the case historically that roughly 10% of the state’s votes aren’t counted on Election Night. Both states are also currently too close to call, based on opinion polls.

Voting will end at 3:00am in four states, including the heavily contested Nevada. If Romney loses Ohio and Wisconsin, he will have to rely on support from the Western states. However, Nevada has been leaning towards Obama in recent weeks, thanks mainly to huge labour and Hispanic voting blocks, so a Romney win there would raise eyebrows.

Another five Western states will close their polls at 4:00am, with California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington generally being foregone conclusions for Obama, while Romney is expected to win four electoral votes from Idaho.

And at 6:00am, polls close in Alaska, where Romney is expected to win.

Exit polls will be carried out throughout the night by US broadcast networks ABC, CBS and NBC as well as cable stations CNN and Fox. They’ll be polling 25,000 voters in key states, data which, combined with telephone votes and early vote counts from precincts, will be used in making early predictions.