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President Donald Trump has demanded to know the results of the 2020 election on election night, even though some states warn that it will take days to count their votes. But if there is a winner declared on Nov. 3, it will almost certainly be bad news for the president.
While vote counting could be delayed in many states due to a glut of mail ballots, Biden is challenging Trump in several fast-counting, Republican-leaning swing states the president carried four years ago. Election administrators in those states, especially Florida and North Carolina, are confident they should have most of the vote counted on election night.
Meanwhile, the most important states that tipped the Electoral College to Trump in 2016 — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — allow, at best, extremely limited pre-processing of mail ballots. That means it could take days to actually declare a winner in those states.
The result: Several narrow paths to a fast 270 electoral votes for Biden, and basically none for Trump — barring a major surprise in states he lost four years ago. The president likely cannot win another term in the White House without waiting days to find out, though Trump has hinted that he could try to claim he won on election night based on vote counts that won't yet include many mail ballots, which more Democrats are planning to use this year.
Biden is currently leading in swing state polls, putting him on course to win the Electoral College once ballots are fully counted, regardless of what happens on election night. But his leads are smaller, or the race is tied, in the battleground states that have a better chance of being called soon after the polls close. That may not matter in a vacuum, but the situation has led some Democrats, fearful that the president could sow chaos during an extended period of uncertain vote-counting, to push for extra investment in states that could help Biden notch a clear win quickly after the polls close.
"In the past, the tipping point was the state that got you the Electoral College victory," Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper said. This year, he said, "Given what Trump is doing … people see that if you can make the tipping point ending the nightmare before it starts, make that the tipping point."
Other Democrats are urging the party to resist the push for an election night knockout and proceed without considering how fast votes will be counted. “Our goal is to get the 270 irrespective” of the timing, said Guy Cecil, chair of Priorities USA, the flagship pro-Biden outside group. “We’re not making adjustments based on winning at a particular period of time.”
How Biden’s high floor gives him a narrow path to 270 on Nov. 3
Biden has an election night floor of 226 Electoral College votes from states where some combination of favorable exit polling and fast vote-counting should lead to quick race calls. This includes the nominal battleground states of Minnesota and New Hampshire, where he leads by 9 points apiece in the latest polling averages — and it gives Biden several plausible, if slim, shots of hitting 270 electoral votes before calls in those three critical states with a slower ballot process: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
(The above map has the electoral votes of both Maine's 2nd District and Nebraska's 2nd District uncalled.)
Most of Biden’s paths to 270 before those states are called begin with securing Florida, where election officials are confident in their state’s ability to count the vast majority of ballots quickly. “I think Florida is in a good position to be the shining star on election night,” Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, the current president of the Florida Supervisors of Elections association, previously told POLITICO.
If Biden can net Florida on election night — no sure thing regardless of timing — Democrats could secure the other 15 electoral votes in three ways: winning North Carolina, Ohio or the combination of Arizona and Iowa.
For Democrats bullish on closing Trump out on election night, Ohio, with 18 electoral votes, is an especially appealing target. Trump won Ohio by about 8 percentage points four years ago, and until recently, it was not considered a 2020 battleground. But Biden is now running about even with Trump in the state, according to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll, and ballots are expected to be counted there quickly.
“The opportunity for Donald Trump to cause chaos is in the states where the votes are counted afterwards and it’s drawn out for days or weeks,” said Pepper, the Ohio Democratic Party chair. “Ohio — because it counts first, announces first — it eliminates that opportunity for Trump to do that.”
A victory in Ohio, he said, could make Trump’s efforts in other states “irrelevant.”
If Biden loses Florida, or if the results there are too close to call, it will be very difficult for him to get to 270 electoral votes on election night. He could try to cobble together the remaining votes in a combination of North Carolina, Arizona, Iowa and Ohio, but the likeliest paths all include Florida.
(Biden has also led in polls in Nevada — the only battleground state that is mailing all voters a ballot, regardless of whether they requested one or not — but officials have already warned that they’re not expecting results quickly. “It is unlikely that we will have results on election night,” Jennifer Russell, a spokesperson for Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, wrote in an email.)
There’s also the chance that Biden could win in a major blowout, in which he flips Florida and North Carolina en route to a winning map that includes other big wins like Texas and Georgia.
Some Democrats also remain skeptical about Biden’s prospects in Florida and, especially, Ohio, and have privately groaned about spending in those states. One Democratic strategist who works with major donors said the party would gain more by spending that money in more clearly winnable states and “on a real voter protection program [rather] than spend money on states we have no business spending money on.”
A Biden campaign official said the campaign’s priorities are not determined by what time states report results on election night. And Cecil, the chair of Priorities USA, said the group is not considering trying to land the final blow on election night when figuring out where to spend.
“The reality is that the places where people have suggested that the race can be called either Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, places like Florida, were places that we were already investing significantly prior to this final push by the president to call the election into question,” Cecil said. “We’re just making those investments based on what we believe are the six states that are most likely to lead us to 270.”
Trump’s 2016 path would stretch past election night 2020
Even if Trump is holding onto the electoral votes that went his way in 2016 and gets election night race calls from exit polls and the states expected to count votes quickly, the results would still be likely to leave him shy of an Electoral College majority when he goes to sleep that night.
This map leaves the three crucial Great Lakes states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania remaining uncalled on Nov. 3 because of how long it is expected to take to count a wave of mail-in ballots. Trump won those three states, collectively, by about 80,000 votes in 2016.
In this scenario, Trump’s only path to an election night victory would be to win a state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, such as Minnesota. But he is not running within the margin of error in current polls there.
(The above map does not represent Trump also carrying the electoral vote for Maine's 2nd District, as he did in 2016, but his hypothetical 260 electoral college votes does include ME-02.)
Meanwhile, Trump’s 2016 map is fragile, especially in those three Great Lakes states but also in Arizona, where Biden has built a consistent polling lead. Florida is looking tough for the president too, while polls are close in other Trump states like Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and even Texas.
The president could also very well win states like Florida, Arizona and Ohio, but victories there may not be clear shortly after polls close.
Arizona and Florida count ballots fairly quickly, but both states have recent experience with close races that have gone uncalled past election night. Trump has sought to delegitimize the ballot count in both states in the past.
Days after the 2018 midterm elections, Trump called for Florida to stop tallying ballots as the vote count in GOP Sen. Rick Scott and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis’ races tightened, falsely claiming that “large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged.”
“Must go with Election Night!” he wrote on Twitter, in a refrain that remains seared into Democrats’ minds this year.
Ohio, meanwhile, allows clerks plenty of time before Election Day to begin processing mail ballots. But the state also accepts ballots received up to 10 days after Election Day as long as they’re postmarked by the Monday before Election Day. That means that the state could linger uncalled until that deadline passes if the race is very close.
“So if any candidate has a 4 or 5 percent lead on election night, and they’re winning by a million votes and there's only a couple hundred thousand outstanding absentee ballots, then the contest is over, right? I think numerically, that's pretty straightforward,” Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican, said in an interview in September. “But if it's a tighter race ... well, then yeah, you just can't say that it's a conclusive result yet at that point.”