We made it. Election Day is nearly here, and in a matter of hours we’ll find out whether this is the end of the campaign — or just the beginning of a protracted fight over who won.
Remember, the grand prize is 270 Electoral College votes, a bare majority of the 538 electors who will meet in December to choose America’s next president. There is no second prize.
At 7 p.m. (Eastern Time, which applies to all times mentioned here), we’ll start to see returns from Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia. Donald Trump won all four of these states in 2016 and needs to win them again in 2020. The good news for viewers is that we should see relatively quick results in these key states, all of which are allowed to start processing (i.e., opening envelopes, validating signatures or even counting) their early votes and mail ballots before Election Day.
Because registered Democrats have voted by mail in larger numbers than Republicans (although we don’t yet know who they voted for), Joe Biden is likely to jump out to an early lead in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina, which report pre-Election Day votes first. But it’s the size of that likely lead that will matter most. The question will be whether, with votes still to be counted, Biden is ahead by enough to stay ahead.
It will be important for everyone — voters, journalists, pundits and politicians — to resist jumping to conclusions based on these initial numbers. Even if one candidate’s early lead is large, it will still need to be weighed against any outstanding votes.
That said, the major television networks and the Associated Press rely on teams of expert analysts to scour county-by-county returns and determine when enough votes have been tallied to call the state for one candidate or the other.
If Ohio, Florida, North Carolina or Georgia is called for Biden, Trump will likely have a very hard time getting to 270. If, on the other hand, the president wins all four of those states or they remain too close to call, the nation’s eyes will turn to the Rust Belt, where Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania put Trump over the top in 2016 but where Biden has consistently led in the polls.
There, Trump is likely to claim an early lead after polls close at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. because each state’s Republican-controlled Legislature refused to allow mail ballots to be processed the way they are elsewhere: as they arrive, or at least a week before Election Day. Michigan allowed one day. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania both did nothing, so officials can’t even start to count mail ballots until Nov. 3, when many clerks will be preoccupied with running the election.
If the presidential contest comes down to Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, then we almost certainly won’t know the winner on election night — and chaotic court battles could ensue.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party currently holds 53 U.S. Senate seats. To regain control of the Senate, Democrats need to net either three or four seats on Election Day: three if the Biden-Harris ticket wins; four if Trump and Vice President Mike Pence return for a second term. (The sitting vice president breaks a 50-50 tie.)
Can the Democrats do it? Or will the GOP keep power? Recently, things have been trending in the Democrats’ direction. In South Carolina, challenger Jaime Harrison, propelled by progressives’ frustration with Republican incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham, raised more money in one quarter ($57 million) than any Senate candidate in U.S. history; a few days later, the nonpartisan race handicappers at the Cook Political Report moved three GOP seats — in Alaska, Texas and Georgia — a step toward the Democrats. Right now, forecasters expect Democrats to pick up roughly five seats.
At the final presidential debate, Trump predicted Republicans would retake the House of Representatives, which is currently controlled by the Democrats. But projections show that has almost no chance of happening. Instead, Democrats are benefiting from a number of Republican retirements and fundraising advantages that will likely lead to a six-to-20-seat expansion of the 30-plus-seat majority they achieved in the 2018 midterms.
Here’s your definitive guide to how to watch election night 2020 — hour by hour, state by state, race by race. Let the games begin.
6 P.M. ET
INDIANA (Counties on Eastern Time): Most of the Hoosier State is on Eastern Time, and it’s in those parts that the first polls of election night 2020 will close. We won’t start seeing statewide vote counts until an hour later, when the counties on Central Time catch up.
None of this will directly affect the presidential race, as Biden doesn’t have a prayer in Pence’s backyard. What does matter is that Indiana’s initial batch of returns may offer the evening’s earliest glimpse at the overall direction of the election, depending on how the U.S. House race in the state’s Fifth District shakes out.
One of the biggest questions for Tuesday night will be how decisively the suburbs break against Trump. Polls suggest that droves of suburban women in particular are abandoning the president, despite his pleas for them to “like” him and his racially tinged vows to keep low-income housing out of their neighborhoods. Indiana’s Fifth District, which encompasses the northern suburbs of Indianapolis, could be a bellwether in that regard.
Republican Rep. Susan Brooks shocked her party last year when she announced her retirement after a series of double-digit wins, triggering a contest between Republican businesswoman Victoria Spartz and Democrat Christina Hale, a former state representative. While Hale has outraised Spartz, the Cook Political Report rates the race as a Toss Up; a strong showing by either candidate could indicate whether Biden’s Democrats are, in fact, on track to dominate the suburbs — or if Trump’s Republicans can hold on to them.
KENTUCKY (Counties on Eastern Time): Democrats have long fantasized about unseating Mitch McConnell, the deeply unpopular GOP Senate majority leader who single-handedly stopped the Senate from even considering Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee at the start of the 2016 election year — then did away with the judicial filibuster and installed a third Trump justice with just weeks to go until Election Day this year. Analysts will start looking for clues as soon as the counties on Eastern Time close at 6 p.m. But to find out whether challenger Amy McGrath can actually pull off an upset, we’ll have to wait until after 7, when the polls close in the rest of Kentucky and statewide results start to roll in.
7 P.M. ET
Also: Virginia; Vermont
KENTUCKY (Counties on Central Time): With statewide voting now wrapped up, we should start to get a sense of what’s happening in the Senate contest between McConnell and McGrath. For a time, McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, looked like the only candidate who could beat the Republican leader. But she emerged bruised from a tough primary battle against progressive state Rep. Charles Booker, and despite raising more cash than her rival, she has trailed by wide margins in recent polls. Across Kentucky, counties expect to report all in-person votes and mail ballots by midnight. Barring an unforeseen Democratic surge — which would foreshadow blowouts elsewhere — we should know McConnell’s fate sooner than that.
FLORIDA (Counties on Eastern Time): Remember the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy “Sliding Doors”? The movie’s premise is that a simple twist of fate — like catching or not catching a train — can radically alter the future course of events.
Think of the poll closings at 7, 7:30 and 8:00 p.m. as a series of “sliding doors” — moments when the election could go one way or the other depending on what happens in four pivotal states that voted for Trump in 2016 and should report their results relatively quickly on Nov. 3: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Georgia.
If Biden wins any one of these early-closing, quick-to-report states, his chances of winning the election go from about 90 percent to more than 99 percent, according to the forecasters at FiveThirtyEight.
With 29 electoral votes, Florida is probably the most important of these states. The first polls close here at 7; the rest close at 8. Watch Miami-Dade, Pinellas and Osceola Counties for clues about how the state’s Hispanic and swing voters are breaking. Crucially, Florida officials were allowed to start processing early-arriving mail ballots weeks before the election, so all early-voting and previously tabulated mail ballots should be reported by 8:30. If Biden wins Florida, Trump’s chances will plummet toward zero. And that could happen before Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania even start reporting their results.
The data suggests that that’s possible, as both candidates are well aware; they crossed paths in Tampa last Thursday. Trump has never led in the polling average, and Biden is currently ahead by 2.3 percentage points. Gold-standard surveys by Marist and Monmouth even showed the former vice president hovering above 50 percent in the final days of the campaign.
Yet the Florida polls underestimated Republican support in both 2016 and 2018, and that could happen again. If it does — and if Trump wins early in Florida and the other early states, or if they remain too close to call — then election night is going to get a lot longer (and potentially stranger). And a clear, quick Trump victory here would suggest that the polling elsewhere might be wrong again.
On the House side, there aren’t any true toss-ups in Florida. But two races might suggest a swing one way or the other: if Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsell-Powell is trailing in the 26th District (South Florida) or Republican Scott Franklin struggles to fill the open seat in the 15th District (a stretch between Tampa and Orlando).
GEORGIA: If Biden and his fellow Democrats have a big night in front of them, we could find out in Georgia first. No Democratic presidential nominee has claimed Georgia’s 16 electoral votes since Bill Clinton in 1992; no Northern Democrat has won the state since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Yet a diversifying electorate helped Hillary Clinton finish within 5 percentage points of Trump here four years ago, and Biden has been performing even better than his predecessor. In fact, every Georgia poll conducted over the last week shows Biden ahead or statistically tied; on average, he leads Trump by 1.3 percentage points.
Biden may still be an underdog in the Peach State. But last week the former vice president visited for a series of eleventh-hour events, implying at least some internal optimism. If the polling holds and he pulls off a historic victory, it could spell trouble — if not outright disaster — for Trump, who probably can’t afford to lose Georgia unless he goes on to sweep the three key states that close their polls within the next hour: North Carolina, Ohio and Florida. Considering the kind of demographic similarities that transcend state borders, the chances of that are exceedingly slim; a loss for Trump in Georgia would probably portend losses elsewhere.
The good news for political geeks like us is that Georgia may report its results faster than most people think. A new rule, passed by the state’s Board of Elections in August, allows county election officials to start verifying, opening, separating and scanning absentee ballots 15 days before Election Day. Before the rule change, absentee ballots couldn’t be processed until Election Day. All that’s left to do on Nov. 3 is tabulate them.
And as if the presidential pressure weren’t enough, Georgia will also offer an early measure of how the battle for control of the U.S. Senate is shaping up, with not one but two seats in play on Nov. 3. The first race pits incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue, a former corporate executive, against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, who ran for a U.S. House seat in 2017 and galvanized national anti-Trump sentiment before losing by 3 points to Republican Karen Handel. Perdue and Ossoff have been trading leads in the latest polls, and if Ossoff ekes out an upset it will put Democrats in a good position to flip the Senate and point to an even stronger night for Democrats than most analysts anticipated.
But there’s a twist: Georgia rules state that unless Perdue or Ossoff clears the 50 percent mark — which almost no surveys have shown either of them doing — the race will advance to a Jan. 5 runoff. It’s entirely possible that control of the Senate could hinge on that rematch.
The second Georgia Senate race is weirder: a special election to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Johnny Isakson that pits one Democrat (Raphael Warnock) against two Republicans (appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins). Loeffler and Collins are dividing the Republican vote, which means Warnock, pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, is leading in the polls and is likely to finish first. But Warnock hasn’t passed 50 percent in the polls either, so this race is also likely to remain up in the air until Jan. 5, when the top two finishers will compete in a runoff (and Georgia will become ground zero for every political junkie in America).
Finally, as with Indiana’s Fifth, two congressional districts north of Atlanta could also serve as bellwethers for the broader suburban situation.
In the Sixth District, results swung toward the Democrats by 24 points between 2016 (when Republicans won easily) and 2018 (when Democratic challenger Lucy McBath flipped the seat by a single point). Rep. McBath is facing Karen Handel, whom she defeated two years ago. The Seventh District presents a similar situation, with Democrats slicing a 20-point Republican cakewalk in 2016 to a 0.2 percent Republican squeaker in 2018. Rep. Rob Woodall announced he was retiring shortly after the 400-vote victory, and his opponent, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux, is making another run at the seat.
Democrats are projected to win both, so if the Republicans are victorious or even competitive, that’s probably a good sign for Trump. If, on the other hand, these races turn into Democratic blowouts, it could portend a suburban bloodbath for the GOP across the Sun Belt.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has represented the Palmetto State since 2003, and he cruised to reelection in 2014. But now he’s drawn a formidable foe. Jaime Harrison, a Black South Carolina native who attended Yale and Georgetown Law, has proved to be a skilled fundraiser, bringing in a record-breaking $57 million during the third quarter of 2020.
A seat that was initially seen as safe for Republicans officially became a “Toss Up” last month, according to the Cook Political Report. Even so, Harrison remains the underdog, and the latest polls show Graham pulling away. Officials say their goal is to release 100 percent of results on election night; if, however, an influx of mail ballots pushes processing into Wednesday and the race remains too close to call, Harrison might have a shot. Republicans are almost certain to lose control of the Senate if they lose South Carolina.
7:30 P.M. ET
Also: West Virginia
NORTH CAROLINA: 7:30 p.m. could be the most consequential moment of election night, starting with the results from hotly contested North Carolina. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first Northern Democrat since John F. Kennedy to turn the Tar Heel State blue — then in 2012 Mitt Romney promptly flipped it back into the Republican column, where Trump kept it four years later.
Yet the polls have shown Biden with a slim but consistent lead of 1 to 3 percentage points for the duration of the campaign. Will those numbers bear out? In 2016, polling in North Carolina underestimated Trump’s support by 5 points; if it misses again by the same margin, the president could win here. But pollsters have adjusted their methodologies and there are fewer undecideds left to break Trump’s way, so it’s anyone’s call. Watch suburban Union County, fast-growing Wake County and blue-collar Robeson County for clues.
At least we should find out fairly quickly. Early votes and processed mail ballots will be reported instantly at 7:30 p.m. — and because Democrats have been voting before Election Day in bigger numbers than Republicans, this initial wave should be strong for Biden. The question is how strong, and whether Trump can make up the difference once Election Day results roll in between 8:30 p.m. and 1 a.m. Officials estimate that more than 98 percent of all ballots will be counted and reported on election night, so unless North Carolina is a total nail-biter, we should get a result.
That call could be decisive. If Biden wins North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes, Trump will have few plausible remaining paths to 270, and all of them would require the polls in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (which show Biden ahead by sizable margins) to be even more wrong than they were in 2016. If Biden wins North Carolina and one other early-closing, quick-to-report state — like Florida, Georgia or Ohio — the election will effectively be over.
Conversely, if Trump clinches the Tar Heel State early, it could signal more polling misses elsewhere.
North Carolina is also a top Senate target for Democrats. Challenger Cal Cunningham has led incumbent Thom Tillis by about 5 percentage points throughout the campaign — a lead that doesn’t seem to have shrunk even after Cunningham admitted in October that he had recently engaged in an extramarital affair with the wife of a man he served alongside in the military. If Tillis, a savvy politician who previously served as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, somehow rides the scandal to a win, Cunningham’s personal failings could end up having enormous political consequences. But the North Carolina contest may ultimately prove that partisanship outweighs morality in the age of Trump.
As for the House, there aren’t any true toss-ups in North Carolina, but there are a few races to watch as potential early bellwethers. Democrats are supposed to win easily in the Second and Sixth Districts, which surround the Raleigh-Durham area in the center of the state. Democratic candidates Deborah Ross and Kathy Manning have outraised their opponents by significant amounts in contests for open seats previously held by Republicans who opted not to run after redistricting rendered their districts more competitive. If the GOP makes either race close, that’s a bad omen for Democrats.
On the other side of the ledger, Republicans are only slight favorites to retain the Eighth, Ninth and 11th Districts, located in the southern and western corner of the state. The 11th offers one of the most interesting races in the country: White House chief of staff Mark Meadows vacated the seat after redistricting, and the Republican nominee is 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn, who beat a Trump-backed candidate in the primary and was rewarded with a high-profile speaking slot at the party’s August convention. But a race that Republicans were supposed to win has tightened after fumbles from Cawthorn, including statements described by Sen. Cory Booker as “clearly racist” and Instagram posts from a visit to Adolf Hitler’s vacation home. The Democrats are opposing him with Moe Davis, a retired Air Force colonel.
OHIO: Much like North Carolina and Georgia, Ohio will help determine whether Trump lives to fight on in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — or whether Biden is all but certain to win the White House.
In fact, Ohio could be even more decisive than North Carolina or Georgia. For one thing, the Buckeye State has experience reporting quickly: All pre-Election Day ballots counted and reported within a half-hour of the polls closing, and the Election Day numbers will be tallied and released before election night ends.
Then there’s the electorate itself to consider. In 2016, Trump clobbered Clinton by 8 percentage points here, and no Republican has ever won the White House without Ohio. But the suburbs lurched left in 2018 and 2019 due to anti-Trump backlash, and if Biden manages to win the ring counties around cities like Cleveland, Columbus and Akron while cutting into Trump’s rural margins — a strategy that has served Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown well — he could flip the state. Biden and Trump have traded leads in the polling average; the latest numbers show Trump ahead by less than 1. But even a close result in Ohio could spell trouble for Trump in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, demographically and culturally similar states where Biden has been leading in the polls. And a loss would make it all but impossible for Trump to win reelection.
As for the House, keep an eye on the Cincinnati-area First District. It’s currently held by longtime Republican Rep. Steve Chabot, who survived the Democratic wave of 2018 with a 5-point win, much tighter than his 19-point victory in 2016. This time he’s facing Kate Schroder, a 43-year-old health care executive who’s outraised him in what’s become a pricey contest. Cook currently rates this as Lean Republican.
If Republican Reps. Mike Turner (representing the Dayton-area 10th District) or Trey Balderson (central Ohio’s 12th District) are in close contests, that’s a potential early sign of a Democratic wave, as both are rated likely GOP wins.
8 P.M. ET
Also: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas (counties on Central Time), Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota (counties on Central Time), Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Dakota (counties on Central time), Tennessee, Washington, D.C.
FLORIDA (Counties on Central Time): The 8 p.m. poll closings could be a make-or-break moment. If the networks call one or more of the first wave of key states for Biden by, say, 9 p.m., Democrats will be sitting pretty. If not, the uncertainty will persist into a second, messier phase as the early-closing states continue to tabulate their Election Day ballots and we await returns from the pivotal Rust Belt battlegrounds of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — states that may not finish counting their heavily pro-Biden early ballots and mail ballots for days, even as Trump’s Election Day numbers temporarily inflate his standing. The final poll closings in Florida could theoretically nip this scenario in the bud — if the state turns out to favor Biden.
PENNSYLVANIA: If the first wave of results doesn’t point to a quick Biden victory, no second-wave state has more potential to sow confusion than Biden’s birthplace. For one thing, the polls here don’t show the former vice president leading by as much as in the Upper Midwest — about 5 points in Pennsylvania vs. more than 8 points in Wisconsin and Michigan. So while Biden would still win the latter two states even if pollsters missed by as much as they did in 2016, he might not survive that sort of miss in Pennsylvania. Counties to watch include white working-class Westmoreland County, suburban Chester County and rural/postindustrial Erie County, along with Biden’s margins in Philadelphia.
Secondly, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature and conservative courts have done everything in their power to prevent the state from getting a head start on processing the more than 2 million mail ballots that have already been returned, of the 3 million that voters requested. Officials can’t even start opening envelopes — let alone tabulating votes — until Election Day. As a result, Trump is likely to jump out to an early lead based on the in-person Election Day returns, and Secretary of the Commonwealth Kathy Boockvar has said she doesn’t expect the state to finish counting “the overwhelming majority” of votes until Friday, Nov. 6. Unless Biden is on track to win big, Pennsylvania is likely to take some time to sort out.
Chaos could easily ensue. Trump has already said he wants states to stop counting votes on election night, falsely alleging that any mail ballots not tabulated that day could be fraudulent; his campaign has also sought to limit how late mail ballots can be accepted and tried to intimidate Pennsylvanians who want to vote early. This is clearly an effort to disenfranchise a million or more voters. But if the rest of the map is close — a big if — and the election comes down to Pennsylvania, expect 2020 to make the 2000 Bush v. Gore recount look quaint in comparison.
MICHIGAN (Counties on Eastern Time): As with Pennsylvania, most of Michigan can’t even start to process early ballots until Election Day (though a few jurisdictions can get the ball rolling on Nov. 2). As with Pennsylvania, this could mean an early lead for Trump — and all the turmoil that might come along with that. And as with Pennsylvania, officials in Michigan say full results could take until Nov. 6 to tabulate.
Most of the state is on Eastern Time, but its westernmost counties are on Central. At 8 p.m., look at Biden’s margins in Detroit and the bellwether communities that surround the city — blue-collar Macomb County and more affluent Oakland County — then stay tuned for statewide results starting an hour later.
NEW HAMPSHIRE: Trump came within 3,000 votes of winning the Granite State in 2016, and it topped the list of Clinton states he hoped to flip in 2020. But the polls show Biden leading by about 11 percentage points on average.
TEXAS (Counties on Central Time): If Biden somehow rides a diversifying electorate and a robust Democratic voter registration effort to victory in Texas — a state Clinton lost by a closer-than-expected 9 percentage points and that Trump now leads in the polls by 1 point on average — then it’s game over for the president. But a Democratic victory remains a long shot, and increased turnout could create delays in counting every vote: By last Friday, more Texans (9 million plus) had already cast their ballots than in the entire 2016 election. So other states will probably be more decisive on election night.
Another long shot for Democrats is the seat held by Republican Sen. John Cornyn. Polling shows Cornyn with a single-digit lead over Democrat M.J. Hegar, but it’s possible the Biden campaign and national Democrats will give her a boost on Election Day. After Hegar, a former military pilot and House candidate, outraised Cornyn, he was spooked enough that he acknowledged some criticism of Trump, stating that the president “let his guard down” when it came to COVID-19 and suggesting he had privately disagreed with him on the deficit and border wall.
Texas has roughly a dozen House seats worth watching, but to divine an impending Democratic surge, keep an eye on Republican Reps. Van Taylor (Third District, outside of Dallas) and Michael McCaul (10th District, between Austin and Houston). If they go down early, we could be looking at a blue wave.
MAINE: Sen. Susan Collins’s roots here go back several generations, and she has represented the Pine Tree State in the U.S. Senate for 24 years. But the Trump presidency may have broken her bond with Maine. Two moments in particular served to crystallize frustration with Collins and compromise her reputation as an independent-minded centrist: her vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and her vote against convicting Trump in the Senate impeachment trial earlier this year. When it has counted most, critics say, Collins has been more loyal to Trump than to Mainers, who gave three of the state’s four electoral votes to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Collins’s Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, is the speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives and 20 years Collins’s junior. Polling has shown Gideon with a consistent lead, though her edge has shrunk to about 2 points in recent days. Collins is trying to make the race less about national politics and more about the ways she helps procure federal assistance for the state, most recently in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Collins also criticized Trump’s decision to try to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg so close to the election and voted against his nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. But it may not be enough to save her.
Expect some presidential action Down East as well. While the state as a whole isn’t a battleground (Biden is heavily favored), its rural, upstate Second Congressional District (which awards a separate electoral vote) is. Biden leads by a few points in the latest polls, but Trump can’t be counted out.
ALABAMA: This is the only Senate race where a Republican looks likely to pick up a seat held by a Democrat. In a cycle with few certainties, Doug Jones has been considered a long shot ever since the GOP managed to keep former state Judge Roy Moore from securing his party’s nomination. It was Moore who lost the seat in 2017 in a special election to replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions, making Jones the first Democrat in 20 years elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama. Jones is a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted two of the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. But Republican Tommy Tuberville, a former college football coach who spent a decade leading Auburn, one of the state’s two great programs, emerged from the GOP primary this year ahead of Moore and then defeated Sessions himself in a runoff — with Trump’s backing.
8:30 P.M. ET
ARKANSAS: Nothing to see here; Trump is expected to win Arkansas as soon as the polls close. Time to refill the salsa and rip into another bag of chips. Depending on how crazy things have gotten, an adult beverage might also be helpful — or necessary — at this point.
9 P.M. ET
Also: Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota (counties on Mountain Time), South Dakota (counties on Mountain Time), Wyoming
WISCONSIN: Of the three “blue wall” states that flipped to Trump by tiny margins in 2016 — the ones that put him over the top in the Electoral College even as he lost the popular vote by millions — Wisconsin is the most likely to flip back. For months, Biden has led in every reputable poll of the Badger State, and his average margin has grown to 8.2 points in recent days; critically, most of the recent surveys show him well above 50 percent. Even a 2016-style polling miss wouldn’t be enough to swing the state to Trump.
But that doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly on election night. Like Pennsylvania and Michigan, Wisconsin can’t process its early or mail votes before Election Day, meaning it may take a while to count the huge number of ballots that have already been cast. (As of Monday afternoon, more than 1.8 million Wisconsinites had already voted.) Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has said he expects to know the results on election night, or by the day after at the latest; the election director in Milwaukee County has said results could take until 6 a.m. Wednesday to land.
If Trump has held onto Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia — and if Michigan and Pennsylvania are still in play — Wisconsin could become yet another focal point for misinformation, mischief and court battles in the hours and days ahead. Drill down on Biden’s margins in Milwaukee and Madison and Trump’s performance in COVID-ravaged Green Bay and suburban Waukesha County for hints of who may win the state, and by how much.
ARIZONA: Outside of the Rust Belt, Arizona represents Biden’s best chance to flip a state Republicans won in 2016. Clinton came within 3.5 points of Trump, and the state has only gotten more diverse — and its suburbs more Democratic — during Trump’s presidency. Biden has led by more than 2 points for the entire campaign, and those numbers may be understating his support; in contrast to Florida and the Midwest, polls in the Southwest have recently undershot Democrats’ final margin in 17 of 19 cases, including by an average of 1.4 points in 2016 and 4.2 points in 2018. One possible reason? The voters pollsters are more likely to miss tend to be Hispanic, young and Democratic-leaning.
This could prove decisive. If Biden wins Michigan and Wisconsin but loses Pennsylvania and the rest of Trump’s 2016 states, flipping Arizona could (barely) get him across the finish line. To wind up with exactly 270 electoral votes in that scenario, Biden would just need to add a single electoral vote from one of the standalone congressional districts in either Maine or Nebraska.
Either way, Arizona shouldn’t be one of the states where it takes days to sort things out. A new law allows officials to count mail votes starting two weeks before the election. Expect those numbers to boost Biden immediately after the polls close. We’ll see if Trump can catch up.
As for the Senate, Arizona is also one of the likelier flips for Democrats. Astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot and gravely wounded in an assassination attempt in 2011, has maintained a strong and consistent polling lead over Sen. Martha McSally. McSally was appointed to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain after she ran for Arizona’s other Senate seat in 2018 and lost a close race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. She has struggled to keep pace with Kelly, both in polls and in fundraising.
MICHIGAN (Counties on Central Time): This is when Michigan’s polls close statewide, but don’t expect immediate clarity: Trump is likely to look relatively strong as Election Day votes roll in first and officials then rush to count a massive surge of mail ballots: more than 2.5 million at last count. The polling average shows Biden ahead by 8.1 points with more than 51 percent of the vote, so his position should improve drastically — and Trump’s should deteriorate — as those early votes are tabulated. It just might take a few (potentially tumultuous) days.
Aside from Alabama’s Doug Jones, Michigan Sen. Gary Peters was the only other Democratic senator forced to play serious defense this cycle. Peters and national Democrats started sounding alarm bells in mid-October when a New York Times/Siena poll showed challenger John James down by just a point. James, a Black Republican, ran a competitive race in 2018, staying within 7 points of Sen. Debbie Stabenow despite a Democratic wave, and he has received shoutouts from Trump during his visits to the state. Recent polling has shown Peters with a more comfortable lead — the latest Times/Siena survey put him up by 8 — but if Trump surprises in Michigan, James probably will as well.
COLORADO: Not long ago, Colorado was considered a top swing state. Not anymore. Obama pried it away from the GOP, and ever since, Democrats have won here by comfortable margins. Biden’s should be even more comfortable than Obama’s or Clinton’s: The latest polling average shows him leading by more than 12 percentage points.
The same goes for the state’s Senate race, which was supposed to be one of the hottest tickets of the cycle. Sen. Cory Gardner rode a Republican wave to a narrow win in 2014, then watched his state move further and further left during his tenure. The Democrats have fielded former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who repeatedly insisted that he had no interest in running for Senate during his failed run for the presidency. No matter — the polls have shown Hickenlooper leading by high single digits or low double digits for the duration of the campaign, and Republicans consider Gardner a lost cause.
NEBRASKA: Like Maine, the Cornhusker State awards some of its six electoral votes by congressional district. And while Trump is sure to win the rest of this solid-red state, Biden is looking strong in the Omaha-based Second District. In fact, the polls show him leading Trump by an average of 6.3 points — even though Trump won by 2 in 2016. Last Tuesday, the president was forced to travel to Omaha to defend his turf.
KANSAS (Counties on Mountain Time): The last time a Democrat won a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas? 1932. But Barbara Bollier could make history in November. Despite its hard-core conservative reputation, Kansas has been inching away from the GOP in the wake of Gov. Sam Brownback’s disastrous 2012-13 Kansas tax cut experiment, which blew a $900 million hole in the state budget and forced schools to shorten their schedules. In 2018 the Sunflower State elected a Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, and the first openly gay Native American member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids.
The moderate Bollier, an anesthesiologist, state senator and former Republican who switched parties in 2018, is hoping to continue that Democratic winning streak by defeating Rep. Roger Marshall, an anti-abortion establishment Republican who beat far-right Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in the GOP primary. A recent internal Republican poll showed Marshall ahead by 4 points; Bollier’s own internal poll showed her ahead by 2 points. The public polls have been equally close. One sign that Republicans are worried: A few weeks after investing $5.2 million in Kansas, the Mitch McConnell-aligned super-PAC Senate Leadership Fund just shelled out another $7.2 million to bolster Marshall. Overall, Bollier has outraised her Republican rival by more than $5 million, according to the latest figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.
MINNESOTA: Like New Hampshire, Minnesota was nearly picked off by Trump in 2016; in fact, he lost there to Clinton by less than 45,000 votes. And like New Hampshire, Minnesota was near the top of his 2020 wish list. But the polls have never put Trump within 5 points of Biden, on average, and today they show the Democrat ahead by more than 9 with 52 percent of the vote. Unless something goes very, very wrong for Biden on Election Day, Minnesota is probably going to stay blue.
TEXAS (Counties on Mountain Time): The last polls finally close in Texas — a must-win state for Trump and one that Biden will probably manage to flip only if he’s already won big elsewhere. In the House, keep an eye on the 23rd District, which sprawls along much of the state’s border with Mexico. It’s an open seat following Republican Rep. Will Hurd’s retirement, and Democrats have been targeting the district since Clinton won there in 2016. Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones lost by just 926 votes two years ago and is trying to prevail this time against Republican Tony Gonzales. Cook rates the race as Lean Democrat, but both sides expect it to be close, and it could serve as an indicator of how Texas’s elusive Mexican American vote might break statewide.
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Also: Idaho (counties on Mountain Time) — Second Congressional District, Oregon (counties on Mountain Time), Utah
IOWA: Trump won Iowa by more than 8 points in 2016, but Biden has led as often as not in the polls. The Hawkeye State has been plagued by a surge of COVID-19 cases, which has deepened concerns about local and national Republican leadership among its largely white, well-educated and highly engaged electorate — a demographic that is turning away from Trump nationwide. By this point in the night, Iowa is unlikely to be decisive; other, similar states such as Ohio will probably play a more pivotal role. But officials here are likely to count votes quickly, and it’s possible that if Trump loses Iowa before we have clear results in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, it could give us a good sense of where those states are heading. Even a narrow Trump victory in Iowa would suggest that Biden’s big polling leads elsewhere are real.
Iowa Republicans also have cause for concern on the Senate side of things. Incumbent Joni Ernst, a first-term GOP senator whose debut 2014 campaign ad touted her hog-castrating skills and promised that her comfort with cutting pork would “make ’em squeal” in Washington, has been trading leads with Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield in recent polls — an unusual show of weakness in a state that has a long history of reelecting incumbents. A real estate executive by trade, Greenfield has been hammering Ernst on Social Security, health care and her closeness to Trump.
Meanwhile, Iowa Republicans are also playing heavy defense in the House, with three seats rated either Toss Up or Lean Democrat.
MONTANA: Montana shouldn’t be competitive. In 2016, Trump beat Clinton by more than 20 points in Big Sky Country, and Republican incumbent Sen. Steve Daines has solid approval ratings. But the race immediately became a toss-up when national Democrats finally persuaded a reluctant Steve Bullock, the state’s Democratic governor, to join the fray earlier this year. At the time, Bullock was fresh off a failed presidential bid that saw his middle-of-the-road, middle-of-the-country politics falling flat in a crowded primary. Yet Bullock’s brand is a good fit for populist, independent-minded Montana, and voters there have largely approved of his handling of the pandemic and his health-care-centric message. In a sign of how crucial the contest is, spending so far has topped $75 million — a record in Montana. Two recent polls show Bullock leading by a single point.
General goodwill may not be enough to put Bullock over the top in a crimson state during a presidential election year, and Daines’s strategy — to follow Trump’s playbook and paint his moderate opponent as a puppet of out-of-state donors and “liberal mobs” hell-bent on defunding the police — could prevail. But if Biden rides a national wave to the White House, Montana could tip the Senate in the Democrats’ favor. Of all the red-state races, this one may be the most ripe for an upset.
NEVADA: Another blue state Trump is targeting — and one he probably has a better chance of picking off than either New Hampshire or Minnesota. But Biden still leads by 5 points in the polling average, and Democrats have been hitting their early-vote targets in Clark County (Las Vegas). By this point, Nevada is unlikely to tip the election one way or the other.
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Also: California, Idaho (counties on Pacific Time) — First Congressional District, Oregon (counties on Pacific Time), Washington
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ALASKA (Counties on Alaska Time): Another plausible long shot for Senate Democrats if the night goes well for them. Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan has held consistent single-digit leads over Dr. Al Gross, an independent running with the support of state and national Democrats in a race that’s featured leaked video of mining executives, Chinese ties and a dead bear controversy. If you were planning on staying up for a final result, we’d advise against it: The state isn’t planning on counting mail ballots until next week.
While you’re monitoring Alaska in the days to come, keep an eye on the House race, where GOP Rep. Don Young — the longest-serving member of Congress, having represented the state since 1973 — is facing real competition from Democrat-backed independent Alyse Galvin.
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Alaska (Counties on Hawaii-Aleutian time)
Time to go to bed. If the presidential race hasn’t been called by now, America is going to need all the rest it can get.
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