Your 2020 election night guide: How to decipher the results as they roll in

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Adam Wollner
·16 min read
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A presidential campaign unlike any other in recent memory comes to a close today.

Over the past year, Americans have waded through Donald Trump’s impeachment, Joe Biden’s come-from-behind Democratic primary win, the worst public health crisis in more than a century that at one point resulted in the president’s hospitalization, an economic recession, and widespread protests over racial injustice as they determined who to vote for.

And many of them made up their minds well before Tuesday: due to high interest in the 2020 race and concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, an unprecedented number of voters have already cast their ballots, either by mail or in-person.

Millions more will join them by heading to their polling locations today. Before diving into what to watch for tonight, there’s one absolutely critical thing to know: there’s a good chance we won’t know whether Trump or Biden won by the time the sun comes up tomorrow. And that’s ok.

It’s not a sign of fraud or that something mischievous is afoot. It just means that election officials around the country are dealing with a flood of absentee ballots, so many places won’t be able to report results as quickly as usual. To make matters more complicated, the rules for how and when those ballots can be counted vary state by state — and in some cases, were altered at the last minute by court rulings.

No matter when we get the final tallies, the name of the game for Trump and Biden is getting to 270 Electoral College votes. Here is McClatchy’s guide to following along with the results tonight in the battleground states that will decide the outcome of the election, listed in order of when their first polls close.

FLORIDA (29 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 7 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: 22 days before Election Day

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Trump +1.2; 2012 result: Obama +0.9; 2008 result: Obama +2.5

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +2.5

Overview: The perennial swing state is a must-win for Trump, who is hoping to offset potential losses with seniors and women by making inroads with Latino men. Between an early poll closing time and absentee ballot counting process, Florida could provide the first signal of where the race is headed on election night. If the returns here look promising for Biden, it could be a quicker night than some are anticipating.

County to watch: Pinellas, long considered a barometer of the state at large, was the largest county to flip from Obama to Trump in Florida in 2016. The county, which is located on the western end of the I-4 corridor and home to St. Petersburg, has a heavy population of seniors.

GEORGIA (16 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 7 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: After polls close on Election Day, though processing started upon receipt

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Trump +5.1; 2012 result: Romney +8.0 2008 result: McCain +5.2

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +1.2

Overview: Democrats have long dreamed of turning this state blue, and 2020 has provided them their best chance to do so since Bill Clinton won it in 1992. The challenge for Biden will be driving up turnout with Black voters across the state and white college-educated voters in the Atlanta suburbs to make up for the GOP’s advantage in rural areas. If Biden is even competitive here, it would be a bad sign for Trump’s prospects in other conservative-leaning states.

County to watch: The place Democrats are eyeing significant gains with white suburbanites is fast-growing Gwinnett County, just northeast of Atlanta. After Republicans easily carried Georgia’s second-most populous county in 2008 and 2012, Clinton won it with just over 50% of the vote. Democrats think Biden needs to hit 60% here to put himself in position for a statewide win.

NORTH CAROLINA (15 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 7:30 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: Election Day, though processing started five weeks prior

When mail ballots must be received by: Nov. 12 if postmarked by Election Day

2016 result: Trump +3.6; 2012 result: Romney +2.2 2008 result: Obama +0.4

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +1.8

Overview: The traditional battleground has consistently been one of the tighter states in the polls throughout the race. North Carolina is ultimately more important for Trump, as a loss here would cut off his most logical paths to 270 electoral votes. Like Florida, North Carolina’s poll closing and vote counting process may provide an early sign of whether Trump is in trouble.

County to watch: In recent elections, the results in New Hanover County have largely reflected the statewide results. It sits in the eastern part of North Carolina, which is Trump country, but is also home to the city of Wilmington, where Biden will seek to run up the score.

OHIO (18 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 7:30 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: After polls close on Election Day, though processing started Oct. 6

When mail ballots must be received by: Nov. 13 if postmarked by the day before Election Day

2016 result: Trump +8.1; 2012 result: Obama +1.9 2008 result: Obama +4.0

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Trump +0.8

Overview: Some Democrats had written off this former bellwether at the beginning of the cycle. But Biden made a last-minute stop in the state Monday as polls show Trump holding only a narrow lead in a state that has otherwise been trending towards the Republicans. If the president is struggling here, that would not bode well for his chances in less favorable Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

County to watch: Stark County saw a big swing towards Trump in 2016, supporting him by 17 points after narrowly backing Obama the previous two elections. Biden will need to regain that strength in the blue-collar northeast part of Ohio to put it back in play.

MAINE’S 2ND DISTRICT (1 electoral vote)

When first polls close: 8 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: After polls close on Election Day, though processing started seven days prior

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Trump +10.3; 2012 result: Obama +8.6 2008 result: Obama +11.2

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +2.8

Overview: Maine will almost assuredly remain in the Democratic column statewide. But it is one of only two states (see more on Nebraska below) that also awards an electoral vote to the winner of each of its congressional districts. The result in Maine’s 2nd district, which could be pivotal in a close race, will shed light on whether Trump’s appeal with white working-class voters is as strong as it was four years ago.

County to watch: Trump carried sparsely populated Franklin County by 5 points after Obama won it by double digits in the previous two elections. But notably, Jared Golden managed to bring it back into the Democratic fold during his victorious 2018 House campaign.

MICHIGAN (16 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 8 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: After polls open on Election Day

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Trump +0.3; 2012 result: Obama +9.5 2008 result: Obama +16.5

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +7.9

Overview: Operatives in both parties see Michigan as the Trump state mostly likely to flip to Biden. Team Trump even went dark on the airwaves for an extended period in late summer, while Biden spent plenty of time and resources here down the final stretch. The president doesn’t need to win the state again, but his margin for error in other key battleground states becomes even narrower if Democrats are able to win back this former “blue wall” state.

County to watch: Biden will need to drive up his margins in suburban areas like Oakland County, located northwest of Detroit, to avoid Clinton’s fate in Michigan. She took just 51% of the vote in the state’s second most-populous county four years ago, but given the revolt of white, affluent college-educated voters against Trump, Biden appears well-positioned to outperform that number.

NEW HAMPSHIRE (4 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 8 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: After polls close on Election Day, though processing started as early as four days prior

When mail ballots must be received by: 5 p.m. on Election Day

2016 result: Clinton +0.3; 2012 result: Obama +5.8 2008 result: Obama +9.5

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +11.1

Overview: New Hampshire is an often overlooked battleground state. It hasn’t voted Republican in 20 years and is relatively expensive for campaigns to invest in given how few electoral votes are up for grabs, but Trump only lost it by 2,700 votes last time around. While neither Biden nor Harris have stepped foot in the state since the primary, Trump and Pence both paid visits in the final weeks of the campaign.

County to watch: Hillsborough County, the most populous in the state, has long been a bellwether, supporting George W. Bush and Obama in all of their respective campaigns. Trump edged out Clinton by 424 votes four years ago here, where Manchester and Nashua are located, and would need to beat Biden by even more to have a shot statewide.

PENNSYLVANIA (20 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 8 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: After polls close on Election Day

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Trump +0.7; 2012 result: Obama +5.2 2008 result: Obama 10.4

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +4.7

Overview: Pennsylvania may ultimately serve as the tipping point state of the election, and both campaigns have treated it that way, flooding the state with ads and visits throughout the year. But the result will likely not be known on election night, due to a wave of absentee ballots that can’t be counted until Tuesday and what’s expected to be a tight margin.

County to watch: After Obama carried Erie County by upwards of 20 points in both of his races, Trump won it by less than 2,000 votes. Both candidates have made a strong play for this area in the northwest corner of the state, which is home to many of the white, working-class voters Trump has relied on but Biden believes he can make significant inroads with.

ARIZONA (11 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 9 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: 14 days before Election Day

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Trump +3.5; 2012 result: Romney +10.1 2008 result: McCain +8.8

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +2.6

Overview: This traditional Republican stronghold has quickly turned purple in the four years since Trump became the first GOP nominee to fail to hit 50% in the state since 1996. Arizona is not necessarily a must-win for Biden, but it would serve as the campaign’s best fail-safe option if he falters in a Midwestern battleground. It will report later in the night, but clerks are able to get a head start with absentee ballot counting.

County to watch: Maricopa County, home to Phoenix and 60% of the state’s electorate, has historically been the bedrock of the GOP’s strength in Arizona. But after Trump only managed to win it by 4 points in 2016, Democrat Krysten Sinema carried it by virtually the same margin in her Senate race two years later. Both candidates will be hard-pressed to take the state without this county in their column.

MINNESOTA (10 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 9 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: After polls close on Election Day, though processing started upon receipt

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Clinton +1.5; 2012 result: Obama +7.7 2008 result: Obama +10.2

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +9.2

Overview: The Trump campaign talked up their chances all cycle in Minnesota, which hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1972, after Democrats narrowly carried it and fell short in neighboring states four years ago. While limiting polling shows Biden in the lead, the president’s team increased their ad spending and dispatched Trump and Pence to the state in the final week. And a cautious Biden campaign sent the Democratic nominee there on Friday.

County to watch: Trump won 78 of Minnesota’s 87 counties four years ago, but Clinton was able to hang on due to her margins in the cities and surrounding suburbs. If the president intends to pull off an upset here, he’ll need to limit Biden’s margins in places like Olmsted County, home to Rochester in the southeast corner of the state, which have been trending away from the GOP.

NEBRASKA’S 2ND DISTRICT (1 electoral vote)

When first polls close: 9 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: Day before Election Day

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Trump +2.2; 2012 result: Romney +7.1; 2008 result: Obama +1.2

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +3.8

Overview: Like in Maine, the candidate who wins each of Nebraska’s congressional districts will receive an electoral vote regardless of the overall result. So while Nebraska will remain comfortably in Trump’s column statewide, he’s in danger of losing the 2nd district, which is filled with the white, college-educated voters who have abandoned him in droves. A scenario where flipping this district is important is not so far-fetched: If Biden wins Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin, but the rest of the 2016 map remains the same, the result would be a 269-269 tie.

County to watch: Biden will need to run closer to, if not above, Obama’s 2008 margin of five points than Clinton’s 2016 margin of two points in Douglas County, home to Omaha, to carry the district.

TEXAS (38 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 9 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: Oct. 30 for counties with a population of 100,000 or more; Election Day for counties with a population of less than 100,000

When mail ballots must be received by: 5 p.m. local time Wednesday if postmarked by Election Day

2016 result: Trump +9.0; 2012 result: Romney +15.8; 2008 result: McCain +11.7

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Trump +1.1

Overview: Even as the Trump campaign has expressed confidence they have Texas in the bag, some Republicans were growing concerned about the second-largest prize on the electoral map heading into Tuesday. Encouraged by the state’s rapidly changing demographics and massive early voting numbers, local Democrats urged the Biden campaign to invest more in the state. They ultimately ran some ads and sent Harris to Texas late last week. A narrow Trump advantage here, let alone a loss, could signal that a rout is on.

County to watch: The growing Tarrant County, home to Fort Worth, has reflected the state’s overall shift in recent years. Once overwhelmingly red, Trump won it by less than 9 points before Democrat Beto O’Rourke went on to narrowly carry it in his unsuccessful 2018 Senate race.

WISCONSIN (10 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 9 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: When polls open on Election Day

When mail ballots must be received by: Before polls close on Election Day

2016 result: Trump +0.7; 2012 result: Obama +6.7 2008 result: Obama +13.9

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +8.4

Overview: Even as conservative states like Texas have come into play, Biden’s most straightforward path to victory is still taking back Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. But like in the other two Midwest states, Wisconsin won’t likely be called in either direction Tuesday night since officials weren’t allowed to process absentee ballots ahead of time. No matter the result, Democrats are at least confident they didn’t take the state for granted this time around, four years after Clinton infamously failed to visit the state.

County to watch: While the statewide picture may not be clear until the following day, Kenosha County, which narrowly backed Trump after voting for Obama twice, may be able to provide some clarity earlier on. Officials there say they hope to have their results by midnight local time.

IOWA (6 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 10 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: The day before Election Day

When mail ballots must be received by: Noon local time next Monday if postmarked by Election Day

2016 result: Trump +9.4; 2012 result: Obama +5.6; 2008 result: Obama +9.3

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Trump +1.3

Overview: Similarly to Ohio, many Democrats were not optimistic about Iowa earlier in the race, even though Obama had won it twice. But as Trump’s support with white voters dropped across the board, the state came back into play, with Biden campaigning there last week. The state home to more counties that voted for Obama twice and then for Trump (31) than any other in the country.

County to watch: And no county saw a bigger swing — 41 points — from Obama to Trump than Howard, which sits along the Iowa-Minnesota border. The rural county is only home to less than 10,000 people, but the results will provide a useful barometer for Trump’s standing in the state.

NEVADA (6 electoral votes)

When first polls close: 10 p.m. ET

When mail ballot counting begins: 15 days before Election Day

When mail ballots must be received by: For ballots postmarked by Election Day, 5 p.m. local time next Tuesday. For ballots with unclear postmarks, 5 p.m. local time Friday.

2016 result: Clinton +2.4; 2012 result: Obama +6.6; 2008 result: Obama +12.4

FiveThirtyEight polling average: Biden +5.3

Overview: Nevada is another Clinton state where Trump is looking for an upset, given his strength with white rural voters and gains with Latinos. But the early voting numbers in the state are providing Democrats with a sense of confidence. Each member of the two presidential tickets made at least one stop to the state, which a Republican last carried in 2004, this fall.

County to watch: The results in Washoe, the second-most populous in the state and home to Reno, have most closely mirrored the statewide results in the last several presidential elections here. One reason it’s been so swingy: nearly a quarter of the county’s voters aren’t registered with either party.