Ever the Pollyanna, Nate Cohn lays out the nightmare scenario:
With the West Coast providing the margin of victory for any Democratic candidate in a close election, Republican presidential candidates outperform their eventual share of the popular vote until the West Coast reports its results. In 2008, California, Washington, and Oregon voted for Obama by a 4 million-vote margin, representing nearly half of his national popular vote victory.
But the time zones are not alone in delaying results from Washington, Oregon, and California. In most eastern states, the overwhelming majority of votes are counted by the end of Election Night, since only a small share of absentee or overseas ballots arrive after the election. But elections in Washington and Oregon are now conducted entirely by mail and 41 percent of California voters voted by mail in 2008.
If Obama performs as strongly in California, Washington, and Oregon as he did in 2008, he could trail by several percentage points in the national popular vote while giving his victory or concession speech and ultimately seize the lead in the popular vote in the following days and weeks. Even a more middling performance out West, closer to Kerry's, would still allow him to make considerable gains. Unless Election Night ends with Obama holding a lead in the popular vote or Romney holding a large enough advantage to withstand the possibility of a predictably strong showing in late ballots, we may not know the winner of the popular vote for weeks.
But on the other coast, some good news. The New York subway map looks a lot better than it did Thursday morning: