What do I know about elections? Not as much as I’d like! But I needed a cheat sheet for watching, so I created one. What’s below borrows and steals heavily from three FiveThirtyEight sources: their election forecast, their guide to when to expect election results in each state and their timeline for knowing the winner.
I wrote what’s below as dispassionately as possible, but know that I’m anything but. Your vote for Biden or Trump is only the second-most important vote you’ve got this year. You’ve heard both sides say it and it’s the rare instance that everyone is right: your vote is a determination of the future of this country. Trump has introduced a new American ideal– one that is built off of fear and hate of those that are different or disagree with you. It’s an ideal of exclusion and it’s a complete break of the values we espouse as Americans. 2020 has brought into clearer focus many of the long-standing issues we have in this country, but it’s also giving us the opportunity to drive a stake into the ground: are we united enough to face down some of our deepest demons? Or is it finally time for us to give into our divisions and admit that America as an ideal was never possible? That choice is your most important vote this year.
So with high stakes, here’s how I’m watching the election this year. But first, some assumptions.
- The legitimate winner of the election… wins the election. (i.e. if Trump loses, he leaves office one way or another)
- Using polling averages, races that show Biden up in the polls +6, Biden will win. Races that show Trump up +1, Trump will win.
- This means Biden will win New Hampshire, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada (though we probably won’t know Wisconsin until Wednesday morning and Michigan until Friday).
- This means Trump will win Texas and Iowa
- While I very much subscribe to the thinking that polling errors are correlated, (e.g. if Ohio is going to Biden, it very likely means most swing states are going to Biden), I’m trying to set this up as a simple cheat sheet for election night. So if Biden loses PA, while it’s still possible for him to win the other swings states, it’s likely that he won’t.
[In order to keep things straightforward, I’m assuming Biden wins Nevada, which is the most precarious assumption here as that he’s only ahead +6. But Nevada only becomes important to Biden if Biden loses all the midwestern and southern swing states]
How the election is decided
If the assumptions above holds, Biden is in a very strong position, but there’s still a pretty clear path for a Trump victory. But Trump essentially need to hold onto all of these swing states to win.
- The races in play are GA, NC, FL, ME–2, PA, OH, NE–2, and AZ.
- If Biden wins one of: GA, NC, FL, PA, OH, Biden wins the electoral college
- If Biden loses all of GA, NC, FL, PA, OH, but wins AZ and either NE–2 or ME–2, Biden wins the electoral college
Timeline for figuring out the winner
With the vote count delays in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, we’re almost assuredly not going to know the winner of the election on election night. But what’s below assumes that we will know individual states with some degree of certainty. But be very wary here and don’t accept a state being called as in the bag until 100% of the vote is in (which won’t happen on election day anywhere).
One quick note: I’ve included a section for each of these states on when we can expect the results to be in. This is lifted directly from FiveThirtyEight’s guide to when to expect election results in each state.
Polls Closing at 7pm Eastern
- Georgia: Biden is favored in GA, but it’s the weakest state that he’s currently projected to win. My guess is that Trump squeaks out a win here. But if this state is called for Biden on Tuesday, this election is going to be a pretty decisive Biden win.
- Timing of results: Should be relatively quick. Counties were allowed to start processing absentee ballots on Oct. 19, and only ballots mailed from overseas may arrive after Nov. 3.
Polls Closing at 7:30pm Eastern:
- North Carolina: Outside of PA and AZ, this is the swing state I think Biden has the best chance of winning. Losing it will hurt Biden’s chances, but there’s still plenty of other paths for Biden to win.
- Timing of results: Election officials estimate that up to 80 percent of the total vote could be announced right after polls close at 7:30 p.m., including in-person early votes and all mail ballots received by Nov. 2.
- Ohio: I think there will be a pretty clear Trump win here. But similar to if Trump wins GA, Trump winning Ohio is not a bellwether to him winning the overall race. Conversely, if it’s too close to call or Biden wins, that’s a pretty good indicator for Biden.
- Timing of results: Most results will be announced quickly, but we’ll have to wait for the rest. By 8 p.m. Eastern, each county is required to announce the results of all absentee ballots (including early in-person votes) that were received by Election Day. Results from Election Day polling places will then follow throughout the night.
Polls Closing at 8pm Eastern
- Pennsylvania: This is going to be a mess. It’s the state that Biden has the best chance of winning, but also the state that Trump is most likely to claim a premature victory. When (if!) all the votes are counted, I think Biden will win. But that’s going to be several days after election day. The Trump campaign has already said he’s going to (illegitimately) claim victory in PA if he’s ahead with those who voted in-person on election day (which he likely will be). Again, this is completely illegitimate: it’s been decided many times that votes received before election day– but counted afterwards– still count. But we all know that’s not going to stop Trump from doing his best to get them thrown out. It becomes tougher for Trump to steal this election if Biden is winning another swing state. For my sanity, I’m not going to factor Pennsylvania into my thinking on election night. For all our sakes, let’s hope it’s not close elsewhere.
- Timing of results: It’ll be slow going. Although around half of Pennsylvanians are expected to vote absentee, those ballots can’t start being processed until 7 a.m. on Nov. 3. Some places aren’t even going to try; Cumberland and Erie counties, for instance, say they won’t count absentee ballots until they’re done with Election Day votes, which could be as late as Wednesday morning. And even counties that manage to count all the ballots in their possession on election night will have to wait until Nov. 6 — the deadline for most mail ballots to arrive — to consider their results complete.
- Florida: I’ll be honest: I lived in Florida for five years and I still don’t understand Florida. At 8pm Eastern, you could tell me Florida is Biden +10 or Trump +10 and I wouldn’t bat an eye. Biden is nominally up, but it’s within the margin of error, so it wouldn’t be a surprise either way. If forced to choose, I say Trump barely wins Florida.
- Timing of results: Should be very fast. Florida is accustomed to handling a heavy volume of mail ballots and has laws (like letting counties process absentee ballots weeks in advance and not accepting most ballots that arrive after Election Day) that encourage an early count. In other words, results should be nearly complete within a couple hours of polls closing.
- Maine 2nd: Maine and Nebraska split up their electoral votes. ME–2’s one electoral vote may not sound like it will make a big difference. But if Trump wins all the midwestern and southern swing states, then Biden wins Arizona, ME–2 or NE–2 become the decisive 270th electoral vote. Think of ME–2 or NE–2 like the tie breakers. Because they very well could be.
- Timing of results: Most results should be known on Nov. 3 — but there’s a catch. Maine uses ranked-choice voting for federal offices, and if a candidate fails to win a majority of first-place votes, officials will need to count up voters’ second choices, third choices and so on — a process that takes place days after Election Day.
Polls Closing at 9pm Eastern
- Nebraska 2nd: I won’t repeat what I said above for ME–2, but it all applies here. Like ME–2, Biden is favored, but it’s not a sure thing.
- Timing of results: Should be quick. Nebraska (where several counties vote by mail even in normal elections) allows absentee ballots to be counted early and requires regular absentee ballots to arrive by Election Day.
- Arizona: This is one of the most interesting states to me. It’s a swing state just as much as the midwestern and southern states mentioned above, but for different reasons. This means the results here are less correlated than with other swing states. So if things have gone really wrong for Biden (i.e. he’s lost everywhere else), he still has a bit of hope if he can carry Arizona.
- Timing of results: Most votes should be counted on election night, but full results may take a few days. Early and absentee votes cast by the weekend before the election should be pre-counted and those results are expected to be released shortly after 10 p.m. Eastern (the earliest time results can be reported in Arizona, under state law). Election Day votes are also expected to be announced on election night.
[Not that we need more turmoil, but if Biden carries Arizona and Trump carries the rest of the races discussed above, we end up with a tie at 269 votes apiece]
Where does this leave us?
Trump has a real path to winning, but everything has to break for him for this to happen. But before you get too confident, remember you only have to look back four years ago for an example of everything breaking for him.
The biggest worry here is with Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania because those states don’t start counting their copious amounts of mail-in ballots until election day proper. Wisconsin and Michigan are probably out of reach for Trump, but Pennsylvania is far from it. But just because Michigan and Wisconsin are probably out of reach for Trump, doesn’t meant that he won’t try to claim victory there anyway. Be wary of a call for either candidate in these three states. Be especially wary of a victory claim by Trump.
I’m way more confident in a Biden win today than I ever thought I would be at this point. There’s a clear road for Trump to win, but there’s so many more and easier ways for Biden to win.