My colleague Liz Cox Barrett previewed the big guns’ plans for tonight’s coverage. But just what should you have in hand as you watch?

Jumping off from the assumption that we need TV guides that go beyond listing programs to actually explaining how to watch them, a number of outlets have today published viewer’s guides for tonight’s election coverage. Mostly, they’re astute summaries, directing readers to big bellwether races worth paying attention to—the idea being that depending on how Kentucky tilts, for one example, you will be able to gauge just how big the GOP wave will be and head to bed early with tomorrow’s media narrative safely in hand.

And there will be a wave, according to these reports. They’re just here to tell you the best, earliest way to figure its size. From the AP’s “Early Clues: What to watch in Tuesday’s elections”:

Not even their mothers expect the Democrats to gain ground. It’s just a question of whether they fall back or over a cliff.

And from Politico’s “What to watch tonight”:

All the outstanding questions of the 2010 campaign boil down to this: How big is this wave?

USA Today rephrases the question and asks “how significant” the wave will be.

So let’s get meta shall we? Here is our guide to the guides. Which should you take to the living room?

If you’ve got other things to do…

Nancy Benac’s AP guide is one to set your clock to—an hour-by-hour in which each chime of the church bell brings a new set of revealing results in the House, Senate, and Governor’s races. As all guides will tell you, 7 p.m. ET should bring news from House bellwethers Kentucky and Indiana, both of which are among six states that close their polls at the hour. And the news will give you a pretty strong indication of where things are headed. Here is why:

If Republicans are riding a wave of support that will carry them to a House majority, they’re going to have to win in places such as Indiana’s 9th Congressional District on the state’s southern border with Kentucky.

Republicans narrowly captured this seat in 2004, when the GOP expanded its majority. Democratic Rep. Baron Hill, a centrist, took it back in 2006, when his party regained control. This year, the outcome will provide some early insight into how well Republicans will fare.

“If the results come in and Hill gets trounced, than you’re thinking a pretty high-number wave for Republicans,” says Gerald Wright, a political scientist at Indiana University, which is in the district.

Hill took 58% of the vote in 2008. Republican presidential candidate John McCain narrowly won the district that year.

At 7.30 p.m. look for the fate of West Virginia’s Democratic Senate hopeful Joe Manchin; if he loses, the wave gains a few feet of height; maybe enough to wash out the Senate. At 8 p.m., look for bad news for Dems from Arkansas. Etc. Etc.

The AP’s is a handy guide for those who want to go about their regular routine tonight—check on the chili, check in with the TV, help the kids with their homework, check in with Florida, brush your teeth, check the tube, and go to bed. But there is this warning:

Even if Republicans show huge strength, the nation still could go to sleep Tuesday night with unanswered questions about the makeup of the Senate: Polls don’t close until 1 a.m. in Alaska, where it could take days or weeks to determine the winner of a three-way race for Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s seat.

If you put your nativity scene up before Halloween…

Politicos’ Alexander Burns—who features in a new CJR video on election coverage—takes a more thematic approach. His is a guide for those interested in trends—the female vote, turnout, the Tea Party, the Democrats’ 2012 must-wins. The approach allows for some pretty grandiose statements:

If two words can sum up the GOP’s hopes for Election Day, they’d probably be: “enthusiasm gap.”

As with everything from the Politico mill, Burns’s guide is heavy on confidence, soothsaying, and the future; it’s a guide for those wondering if Hillary will make a run in 2020.

This vote isn’t just about 2010. About a dozen important presidential swing states are electing new governors, with potentially serious implications for Obama’s reelection prospects. Strong governors mean strong state parties, and strong state parties mean a strong political machine to help national candidates.

The biggest battlegrounds still within reach for Democrats are Florida and Ohio, where a new set of polls since the weekend has shown both gubernatorial races effectively tied. Winning either could be a real help to Obama in 2012. Losing both might be disastrous.

If you like Google Earth…

USA Today offers a geographical bent. John Fritze’s report is notable for its detail in getting into the nitty gritty of local races that you should keep an eye on. Rather than suggesting we watch Indiana’s 9th, we are treated to a detailed explanation of why we should. And we learn:

Republicans narrowly captured this seat in 2004, when the GOP expanded its majority. Democratic Rep. Baron Hill, a centrist, took it back in 2006, when his party regained control. This year, the outcome will provide some early insight into how well Republicans will fare.

“If the results come in and Hill gets trounced, than you’re thinking a pretty high-number wave for Republicans,” says Gerald Wright, a political scientist at Indiana University, which is in the district. Hill took 58% of the vote in 2008. Republican presidential candidate John McCain narrowly won the district that year.

Home to Milan High School, whose 1954 basketball team inspired the movie Hoosiers, the district includes suburbs west of Cincinnati and north of Louisville. What to watch: The margins in Clark and Floyd counties, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, likely will decide who wins.

The level of local detail is typical of Fritze’s impressive report.

If you won your office’s Oscar pool…

McClatchy has the best news for those East Coast politicos determined to get their full night’s sleep. David Lightman and Steven Thomma declare early in their guide: “Between 9 and 10 p.m., it should become clear which party will control the next Congress.” It’s an astute hour-by-hour guide, heavy on polls, and quotes (Larry Sabato gets his nose in). But the best thing McClatchy does is publish this “Races to Watch in Congress” cutout for those who treat their politics like they do their Kentucky derbies:










The idea is to tick off results a they come in. But why not make a bit of an office pool out of it, Oscars style? Will you be your workplace’s Chuck Todd—and rake in some cash?

As someone who will be sitting through tonight’s coverage, anything to alleviate the pain is welcome.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.