What to Watch for on Election Night

by Jacob Rubashkin November 3, 2020 · 10:45 AM EST

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It’s Election Day in America, and there’s a lot riding on the outcome. Not only is control of the White House and Congress at stake, Americans everywhere will have the opportunity to choose state and local politicians who will lead us into the next chapter. 

The events of the past eight months — the coronavirus pandemic and the economic havoc that followed, the national reckoning on race in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and so much more — have made as clear as day the impact politics has on all of our personal and professional lives.

Today is an incredibly important moment in politics, but we’ll likely go to bed knowing less about the outcome than we have in previous election years. 

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, nearly 100 million voters have already cast their ballots, either by mail or at in-person early voting centers. Each state has its own procedure for tabulating ballots and releasing vote counts, and because in-person Election Day voting is expected to skew heavily Republican while early and mail-in voting is heavily Democratic, reported vote totals could swing pretty significantly over the course of the night.

What that means is that the media might not project a winner in the presidential race this evening. A candidate has to be projected to win enough states to total 270 Electoral Votes before a winner is called, and some key states will take much longer to call than previous years because of the volume of mail-in voting.

If there’s no “call” on election night, that’s okay, and perfectly normal. In 2000, 2004, and even 2016, it took until at least Wednesday to project a victor. What’s most important is that the states count every eligible vote, and that the networks make correct, rather than speedy, calls. That takes time.

So truly, the best advice for how to do election night is have a nice dinner, go to sleep early, and read the news Wednesday morning. 

If you do plan on staying up into the wee hours of the morning, here are some things to watch for that should give us an indication of how the night is going. Remember, raw vote totals don’t mean much until entire states, districts, or counties have counted all their votes, including early and mail, which for some counties and states won’t be for several days.

Early on
Polls close in most of Indiana at 6pm Eastern Time, but we won’t begin getting results until 7pm, when the last polls in the state close. The race to watch here is Indiana’s 5th District, currently rated Tilt Democratic. 

If Democrat Christina Hale wins the open seat in this traditionally Republican district, it will be a clear sign that the suburban backlash to the president we saw in the 2018 midterms is still ongoing. That’s good news for Biden, but it’s especially good news for House Democrats, who are targeting more than a dozen districts similar to this one. We may not get an early call here, though, as the two largest counties in this district, Hamilton and Marion, have warned it will take some time to count their absentee ballots.

Two other districts that will give us a status update on the mood of the suburbs are Georgia’s 6th and 7th Districts. Polls close in the Peach State at 7pm and we could have quick results, since counties started processing absentee ballots two weeks ago. In the 6th, Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath is favored in her rematch against former GOP Rep. Karen Handel, while in the open 7th, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux is the slight favorite against Republican Rich McCormick. A speedy call for McBath is a good sign for Democrats. A speedy call for Bordeaux, running in the more Republican 7th district, could augur serious issues for Georgia Republicans.

The next place to look is North Carolina, where the polls close at 7:30pm. North Carolina expects to count most of its ballots quickly, though they do allow several days for absentees to arrive, so the last couple percent could take a while, affecting close races. 

The two districts to watch here are the 8th District, where GOP Rep. Richard Hudson is facing a spirited challenge from Democrat Pat Timmons-Goodson, and the 11th District, a vacant seat where controversial GOP wunderkind Madison Cawthorn faces Democrat Moe Davis. The 8th now includes Fayetteville and the surrounding suburbs, giving natural opportunity to Democrats. The 11th is a tougher climb for Democrats, but a close race there could be a sign that rural areas are rebounding for Democrats after swinging hard for Trump in 2016. 

In a similar vein, look to West Virginia, where the polls also close at 7:30pm. While there aren’t any competitive congressional races, and the state should be called for the president very quickly, watch how Biden’s support matches up to Hillary Clinton’s. In 2016 West Virginia saw the second-largest rightward shift of any state — if Biden materially improves on Clinton’s abysmal 40-point loss, that may signal he’s regained ground among white working-class and poor voters.

As the night progresses
All eyes will be on Florida as the clocks strike 8pm. Florida expects to report nearly all of its vote on Tuesday night, and already has the infrastructure to handle large amounts of early and mail-in voting. If Biden wins Florida — he currently leads in the polls by a smidge under 3 percent — it’s hard to see a path to victory for the president.

Both candidates are walking a tightrope in the Sunshine State. The polling suggests Biden is doing better than expected among senior voters, a powerful contingent in the Sunshine state, but worse among Hispanic voters in South Florida. Watch the vote in three places. In Miami-Dade County, where Trump hopes to make inroads with the Cuban population, Biden may be at risk of losing statewide if he garners less than 60 percent of the total vote in the county. In Sumter County, home of The Villages retirement community, if Trump falls closer to or even below 60 percent of the vote, that’s a bad sign for his electoral chances. And Pinellas County is a longtime bellwether for the state worth keeping tabs on.

Look to the Lone Star
The 9pm hour brings a few interesting morsels — how close will the margin be in Kansas, where polls have shown surprising weakness for the president? Will Biden crack 40 percent in South Dakota, another potential indicator of a rural mean reversion? — but the main event is undoubtedly Texas

More people have already voted in Texas than did early or in-person four years ago, and many more are expected to show up to the polls today. Texas has a robust early vote processing system, so we should have the bulk of results soon after polls close. Be careful; most counties will report early and absentee votes first, followed by in-person, so Democrats could jump out to a sizable but illusory lead early on. Places to watch include Harris County, including Houston, where Democrats have gone from underdogs in the Bush era to double-digit favorites in the age of Trump. Clinton won here by 54 percent and Beto O’Rourke took it by 58 percent, so look for Biden to crack 60 percent. Also keep an eye on Hidalgo County, in the Rio Grande Valley. Biden needs big turnout here from lower-propensity voters; if he gets that while winning by 40+ points, he’s got a shot at the state.

At the Congressional level, Democrats have a good shot at flipping Texas’ 23rd and 24th Districts; if Republicans hold the line in both competitive races, that’s a sign the night won’t be the bloodbath they feared. Democratic wins in the 21st and 22nd Districts would be a strong signal that the GOP is on its heels. If races in the 3rd, 6th, 10th, 25th or 31st are close, Republicans are in dire straits, both statewide and likely nationwide.

And of course, if Joe Biden were to win Texas, currently a toss-up, we could be witnessing a real realignment of presidential politics (that would also be as sure a sign as any that Biden is winning the White House). In the future, if a Democratic nominee wins New York, California, Illinois, and Texas, that’s half of the Electoral College votes necessary to become president, in just four states. A competitive or even Democratic-leaning Texas could radically upend how presidential campaigns are conducted.

The later hours
By the time polls close on the West Coast, we should have a decent sense of how the night has turned out. The last round of poll closings won’t tell us all that much, because states such as California, Washington, and Oregon are conducting all-mail elections that take time to sort out.

At night’s end, we won’t know everything. While Democrats will almost certainly retain control of the House of Representatives, control of the Senate may fall on the ranked-choice tabulation process in Maine, or as many as two January runoff elections in Georgia. And within the presidential race, it’s well within the realm of possibility that slower-counting states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona end up being dispositive in the Electoral College, leaving the race uncertain for days or even weeks as litigation and ballot-counting plays out.

Alternatively, we could be in for a relatively short night that sees Biden win Florida and North Carolina early on, and not look back from there. 

Final thoughts
If you insist on tracking every last vote as it arrives on your screen, keep a few things in mind.

First, just because a candidate is leading in the vote total at one point in time does not mean they are “winning.” Wait for the networks or the Associated Press to call races, and until then assume that the vote-leader could be dethroned as more ballots are counted.

Second, use common sense when interpreting incomplete results. If you see Biden leading in Kentucky, consider that Biden will probably not win Kentucky, and adjust your reaction accordingly.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, remember that neither a candidate’s concession nor a declaration of victory has any binding effect. For that matter, neither do calls from the networks. The states have long-standing processes for evaluating and counting every last vote, and until the results are certified (days or weeks from now), the results are not final.