Who's winning? Here's an election night timeline

Horace Higgins casts his ballot at the Downtown Women's Center on Skid Row in Los Angeles, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2016.
Brian van der Brug | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
Horace Higgins casts his ballot at the Downtown Women's Center on Skid Row in Los Angeles, Calif., on Nov. 8, 2016.

The winning path to the White House is kind of like filling out an NCAA basketball March Madness bracket at work. There are a lot of ways to win, but some state contests turn out to be what people call "bracket busters" if they don't go your candidate's way. With that in mind, let's look at tonight's timeline to see when and where Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton should either start packing for the White House or planning a long and secluded vacation.

The first states to close their polls are Indiana and Kentucky at 6:00 PM Eastern. Both are solidly in Trump's "must win" column, so if any one of those two states turn out to be whisker close or going into the Clinton column, then Trump's chances in the entire election will most likely be dashed very early. But don't count on any definitive results like that from those two states.

At 7:00 PM Eastern we have the polls closing in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia. Four of those states are potential bracket busters, or at least strong indicators of how the rest of the night might go.

Of course, Florida is the big one as it's a crucial swing state with a monster 29 electoral votes. The problem is that Florida is such a big state that it may be long after 7:00 before we have an idea who won it. But if there's a surprise detectable surge for Clinton from the Sunshine State that becomes evident early, we'll have that coveted early indicator. That's because Trump has very little chance to win the White House without Florida, and Clinton has quite a few ways to win even if she loses in Florida. Georgia is an absolute must win for Trump, and signs that Clinton has a significant lead there once the polls close would also be fairly lethal for him.

Clinton would appear to be somewhat vulnerable if New Hampshire tips Trump's way early and she'd be extremely vulnerable if Virginia starts looking like it's going to Trump. Losing New Hampshire seems like it would be less of a blow to either candidate than most of the other toss up states because it's only worth four Electoral Votes. But since New Hampshire has been a Democratic Party state since it went for John Kerry in 2004, Trump's spirits should probably rise if it turns out he's clearly ahead in the Granite State.

Virginia is as close to a "must hold" for Clinton that there is. It went for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and her running mate Tim Kaine is the sitting U.S. Senator from Virginia. Most of the polls show the race had tightened there, but not enough for any prognosticators to call it a toss up. If Trump looks like he is winning Virginia in the half hour or so after the polls close there, it would be a true steal for his campaign and a sign that other states thought to be leaning to Clinton could also fall his way.

7:30 PM Eastern brings poll closings in Ohio, North Carolina, and West Virginia. All three are basically must wins for Trump, but Ohio and North Carolina are expected to be very close and you can't bank on any definitive results from either state just as the polls close. If West Virginia shocks everyone and shows a real challenge from Clinton, Trump's night will be virtually over.

The biggest poll closing hour as far as total states is 8:00PM Eastern. That's when voting ends in Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.

Despite that big total number of states, only two or three at the most could provide much guidance for the election as a whole. But two of them, Pennsylvania and Michigan, could really provide major good news to the Trump campaign. Despite generally tightening polls in both states, almost every election prognosticator has put Michigan and Pennsylvania and their respective 16 and 20 electoral votes in Clinton's column.

A Trump steal in either state would signal a major surprise in the works. No other state seems even remotely likely to surprise, but Trump's path to 270 might need to include the one electoral vote from the split-vote state of Maine. Many polls have indicated that Trump can win Maine's 2nd Congressional District and thus grab one of the state's four electoral votes. So if he loses the 2nd District, it could cost him dearly if he otherwise gets stuck at 268 or 269 electoral votes. At one point in the late summer, there were some polls that showed Clinton weaknesses in Rhode Island, but that trend seems to have ended. If Trump is able to pull off a win or is looking very strong in that state, it would probably be a sign of a Trump landslide nationally.

8:30 PM brings just one poll closing, and that's deep red Arkansas. Only a Clinton shock challenge in her former home state would tell us anything and that's just not very likely to happen.

9:00 PM will be a crucial hour when the polls shut in Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Trump needs to hold his emerging lead in Arizona or he's toast. But he has the chance for two more election-turning steals with Colorado and Wisconsin.

The Colorado polls have been all over the place, and its nine electoral votes could very well put him over the top. Wisconsin looks safer for Clinton, but a surprise result there along with the Badger State's ten electoral votes, would indicate a national surge for Trump. The same is true for Minnesota and its ten electoral votes, and New Mexico and its five electoral votes. Clinton's lead in the polls seems even safer in those two states, so Trump wins or serious razor thin challenges in Minnesota or Alaska would probably only come along with a very strong and unexpected national shift to Trump that we would see before 9:00.

The last two rounds of poll closings are anti-climatic. Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah close at 10:00 PM Eastern and Alaska, California, Hawaii, and Washington close at 11:00 PM. The only possible bracket buster among that group is Iowa, which has been generally leaning Trump for most of the year. That's another state that could tip to Clinton and indicate a Trump collapse, but we'd probably see lots more indications of that before the 10:00 PM hour. The same is true for Alaska, where Trump's polls in that usually solid red state haven't been as strong as other Republicans. But he'll only lose there if he's also losing in several other key states that we'll know about well before 11:00.

What's good about the above road map is that it gives anxious voters a number of other states to look at even if the first few are still too close to call hours after their polls close. And actual state-by-state returns are worth so much more than dicey exit polls, no matter how close each state race might be. Remember, there's only one poll that counts in the end and every voter gets to participate in that one.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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