Tomorrow, it ends. Or, rather, tomorrow is the beginning of the end. Or maybe it’s the end of the beginning? Who knows anymore.
Though days of counting ballots will ensue, we hope that tomorrow, by the wee hours, we’ll have enough hard data and projectable data to determine who will win the House, Senate, and presidency. But don’t hold your breath.
To best prepare you for the big night, I’d like to give you a viewing guide. (It is now my longest running gimmick. I did it four years ago on PPFA, and I did it four years before that for Construction Literary Magazine. My record is 1-1, which technically is with the margin of error of 2-0.) This viewing guide will highlight battlegrounds for control of the presidency and Senate (which will be highlighted in green). Though #AllStatesMatter, in an election year some states matter more than others.
When consuming election coverage, you’ll want to know the following:
- Poll closing times. Not only do states have different closing times, but some states’ precincts close at different times, too. I will go off the latest precinct closure, as a state cannot be called until polls are closed across the entire state.
- Some states are called the minute after all its polls close. That’s because exit polls show an overwhelming likelihood that the state has been secured by one of the candidates.
- Another factor in determining how quickly a state is called is whether their state laws allow the processing of mail-in ballots before today. For the states that wait until today, they will likely be catching up for some time. State laws also vary on how long they’ll accept postmarked-by-Election-Day ballots, with many waiting a week or so.
- With that in mind, FiveThirtyEight put together a useful read and graphic on the subject:
And finally, before we get into the details, I’d like to outline five broad pieces of advice, including warnings, about how to watch the night:
- Pivotal states Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin do not process ballots early, so they’ll take a while to count. It’s in those states where the election was won last time, and in many scenarios they will be the difference again. If the Electoral College and those state are close, it’s going to be a while before we know who won this election.
- However, Florida and Ohio DO process ballots early, so we might get a good idea of their fate on election night. Both are considered must-win states for Trump. If he wins both, he “advances” to competing in the upper Midwest. If Biden wins either, he’s a great bet to be the next president.
- In states that process ballots early, Biden will appear to have a HUGE lead early in the counting-process, but President Trump will then erode that lead as they count ballots throughout the night. The question is whether Biden can hold off the President.
- But in states where they don’t process ballots early, it is the President who will build a big lead early and Biden who will charge back as they count mail-in ballots. As I warned a month ago, we need to be vigilant about a narrative where Trump claims victory as a result of leads in enough states to get to 270 but their votes aren’t nearly counted yet. His adviser, Jason Miller, previewed such an argument just yesterday, framing the counting of ballots after Election Day as “stealing it back.” Unlike the President’s plea that we “Must have final total on November 3rd,” we don’t actually need to know a winner on election night, and we rarely have. A couple counties on pivotal Pennsylvania won’t even start counting mail-in ballots until the day after the election. To not count those ballots would be a total disenfranchisement of thousands of American voters. The point: neither Biden nor Trump should claim victory prematurely, just like a basketball team shouldn’t claim victory as a result of their halftime lead.
- Therefore, since every state will have weird momentum swings when counting ballots, we need to be very careful about interpreting early returns. A possible cheat code, however, is to see what precincts and counties are reporting out fully, which happen earlier than an entire state. If we compare a county’s 2020 numbers to their numbers in 2016, we’ll see whether President Trump is running ahead or behind his numbers from four years ago. These counties are particularly relevant in swing states.
And now, finally, it’s time for PPFA’s 2020 Election Viewing Guide.
All times are Eastern Standard Time.
States in red will be won by Trump fairly quickly.
States in blue will be won by Biden fairly quickly.
States in purple will likely take time. If they don’t, it’s a great sign to the candidate who wins it.
5:00 PM: We’ll get some exit poll data. DO NOT TRUST THE EXIT POLL DATA. There are two reasons for this skepticism:
- With so many mail-in ballots coming from Democrats, we can expect day-of exit polls will disproportionately favor President Trump.
- Last election’s exit polls strongly suggested Hillary Clinton had won the election. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Hillary Clinton in fact did not win the election.
6:00 PM: Some of Indiana and Kentucky’s precincts close. No calls yet.
7:00 PM: Six states close: Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia.
- Trump will quickly sport a 28-3 lead. Sizable Virginia might take a little while longer to call for Biden before he uses its 13 electoral votes (EVs) to jump to 16.
- If you’re a Democrat: don’t panic about this early deficit.
- If you’re a Trump supporter, don’t gloat.
- GEORGIA (16 EVs) is the state to watch closely for not only the presidency, but its unique dual Senate races.
7:30 PM: Three states, with two biggies: North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia.
- Trump will continue his Appalachian dominance to ride West Virginia to 33.
- OHIO (18 EVs) is the first must must must watch state of the night. It’s a must-win for President Trump for a few reasons:
- Electorally: Most of his electoral paths to victory include Ohio.
- Symbolically: Across the Rust Belt — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota — Ohio is by far Trump’s best state. A loss in Ohio signals the entire Rust Belt is falling and giving Biden the election.
- Legally: It’s one of the few big states to allow early mail-in processing, so we could have Ohio’s results on election night, though perhaps early the next morning like in 2004. If Trump wins it, that’ll embolden his position to challenge the election in the days to come. If he loses it, there’s a good chance the writing is on the wall and such challenges would be embarrassing.
- NORTH CAROLINA (15 EVs) is nearly a must-win for Trump, as losing a state he won in 2016 could signal a national rejection is coming. Still, with no regional significance (unlike Ohio), it’s possible he can lose there while maintaining success up north and in the Sun Belt swing states of Florida, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona.
- The state is also important as one of my six toss-up Senate races.
8:00: Hello, 8:00! Seventeen states close: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, DC.
- With the 8:00 states, Trump tacks on 43 more electoral votes, giving him 76.
- Biden climbs into the lead, however, adding 75 EVs to get to 91. (Reminder that we haven’t slotted in Georgia, North Carolina, or Ohio, which combine for a hefty 49 EVs. Either candidate could win them all, but likely not by 8:00.)
- MAINE has a tight second Congressional district that gets an electoral vote (did you notice my purple e in Maine??).
- It also has a toss-up Senate seat.
- NEW HAMPSHIRE is technically a swing state according to the big website, but I expect it to go Biden and fairly quickly. I haven’t allotted it here, though.
- Finally, perhaps the two most important states of the election close their polls here as well:
- FLORIDA and its 29 EVs is the largest swing state of the night. (This statement operates under the assumption Texas is not a true swing state, despite Democrats’ hopes.) Like Ohio, Florida can process ballots early, so we could know the winner on election night. Also like Ohio, it appears to be a must-win state for Trump. Few electoral paths exist to 270 for him without it. If Trump wins Florida, he’s alive. If Biden wins Florida, it’s likely over.
- PENNSYLVANIA is frequently cited as the “tipping point” state. If Trump wins every state Biden leads by less than three points, he’d still need to flip Pennsylvania, which Biden leads by an average of 4 points. Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes were depended on by Hillary Clinton four years ago, but Trump took the state by less than one percentage point. From Biden’s perspective, this is the state keeping his team up at night. If he loses it, it likely signals we’re again in for a Trump surprise in the Rust Belt. Ohio would certainly go toward Trump at that point, and Michigan and Wisconsin might not be far behind.
- Four years ago, in my 2016 Election Night preview, I said, “if Trump wins Pennsylvania, he’ll quickly become the favorite. The Keystone State is the lock he wants desperately to pick. It is the state for you to keep an eye on.” That feels applicable again today.
8:30: Arkansas shares the spotlight with no one. Trump gets 6 more to move up to 82. We have 91-82 Biden, but without factoring in FL (29), PA (20), OH (18), GA (18), NC (15), NH (4), and ME-CD2 (1). By 8:30, it’s possible a couple of them are determined. New Hampshire is the likeliest candidate, which would give Biden 4 more EVs.
9:00: Another big one: Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming
- Trump obviously needs Texas (which, again, I don’t see as swingy as Democrats hope) and its 38 EVs. He should get it, along with these other red states which combine for 24 more to give him 62 from the 9:00 slot and 144 in total.
- Biden tacks on 43 to get to 134, so Trump is back in the lead.
- Of course, that still leaves a bunch of swing states to monitor.
- Nebraska’s second Congressional district gets an electoral vote and is a toss-up.
- ARIZONA is extremely close
- And provides us another toss-up Senate state.
- MICHIGAN, MINNESOTA, and WISCONSIN finish off the trek across the Rust Belt. If Trump wins most of these (he took all but Minnesota last time), that forces Biden into an undesirable situation of needing to take Florida and either North Carolina and Arizona (and perhaps both depending on some other breaks).
10:00: Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Utah.
- Trump tacks on 9 electoral votes to get to 153, while Biden is stuck at 134. But don’t worry, Democrats: Big Daddy Cali and the Pacific Coast is on deck.
- IOWA gives us a swing state that I expect to go red.
- It also has another toss-up Senate race.
- Nevada is our latest swing state. On a normal election night, I’d say something like “If Trump and Biden break even across the country, Nevada can determine the winner.” But with counting for days, Nevada’s late time slot isn’t too relevant.
11:00: California, Idaho, North Dakota, Oregon, Washington.
- Biden surges into the lead. His three states here combine for 74, while Trump’s two tiny states give him just 7. Without swing states, we’re at Biden 208, Trump 160.
Midnight: Hawaiians give Biden 4 more electoral votes before resuming their lives in Eden.
1:00 AM: Alaskans give Trump 3 more electoral votes before resuming their contemplation of suicide.
It’s therefore Biden 212, Trump 163, but without calculating a slew of swing states:
Tomorrow, I’ll lock in my final predictions and fill in the blanks. We are no longer measuring the distance to Election Day in months, weeks, or days. Now, it’s just hours away.
I hope to see you then.