Election Night Viewing Guide

There may not be a definitive answer on Tuesday, but we can have a good sense of where the election is headed

Brace yourself. I know you have heard this many times before, but it was all theoretical until now.

It’s very possible — perhaps even probable — that we won’t officially know who won the election on Tuesday night. I know its seems like cruel and unusual punishment to not get an immediate answer to perhaps the most important question in American history. But just because we won’t know everything doesn’t mean we won’t know anything. There will be some signs in the data we see on Tuesday night that will tell us a lot about how things are going.

Here are some things to keep in mind as the results come in:

Order of Operations

This election is unprecedented in so many ways. It’s happening in the middle of pandemic. A huge portion of votes will be cast early by mail or in person long before Election Day. One of the candidates has repeatedly tried to kill his supporters in the waning days. And that same candidate has spent months trying to convince his voters to not avail themselves of a safe and easy way to vote.

The result is that there is a huge partisan divide in how and when voters are casting their ballots. In the most recent Crooked Media/Change Research poll, 57 percent of respondents had already voted. Biden led Trump by 28 points among those voters. Among those who had not yet voted, Trump was ahead by 18 points.

Ultimately, a vote is a vote. It counts the same whether it shows up in the tally when the polls close or hours or days later. But if we want to know what the results mean on election night, we need to know which votes are being counted when. Some states count votes cast before election day first. Others count them last. The following battleground states start counting mail ballots well before Election Day:

  • Arizona;

  • North Carolina;

  • Georgia;

  • Florida.

The rest either start counting the avalanche of mail ballots on Election Day or have differing rules per county within the state.. The New York Times has a handy guide on the rules and timing for every state.

States that Will Shift

The degree of this dynamic is going to differ by state, but in general the votes cast before Election Day will favor Biden and those cast on Election Day will favor Trump. Without context, it’s easy to look at early results and get false hope or undeserved despondence. There will be big shifts over the course of the night(s) as different types of ballots are counted. Some states will look very blue when the first results come in and then get redder over the night as more in-person votes are tallied. Other states will look very red on Election Night and then get bluer as the mail votes are counted in the days to come (seriously).

CNN’s Marshall Cohen wrote up a very helpful piece that breaks down how the process will play itself out on Tuesday night (and beyond). Here is the short version:

States that will shift from red to blue: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

States that will shift from blue to red: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa and Texas.

You may remember going to bed on Election Night in 2018 thinking that Kyrsten Synema had come up short in her bid for the Senate. By lunch time the next day, it was clear that she would win. As Cohen points out in his piece, Arizona officials made some changes to count ballots faster this time so the shift may be less dramatic or at least quicker.

Watch Florida

While I like beaches and Disney World and have very fond memories of visiting my grandparents there, I hate Florida. It’s nothing personal. One of the first campaigns I worked on ended with 37 days in Florida for a recount that was cut short by a partisan Supreme Court. Florida was one of the rare dark spots in an otherwise excellent 2018 election. As much as I hate Florida, it’s the state that will likely tell us the most, the earliest about how how things are going to go.

I was in the “boiler room” in 2012 with the Obama campaign leadership on Election Day. We were counting down the moments till the polls closed in Florida. For months, the campaign had been fine tuning a model of the electorate. Using data from a wide array of sources, the campaign had estimates about how many Democrats would vote, how many Republicans would break with Romney, and how the large share of voters with no partisan affiliation would cast their votes. When the polls close in Florida, all of the mail/early vote are released at one time. This was going to be the first proof point of our model’s accuracy. If that model was right in Florida, it was likely right everywhere. Those initial results were within a point of what the model predicted. We knew at that moment that Obama would be reelected.

In 2016, those same results presaged the impending doom. The first email I received after those first Florida results was from a political operative steeped in the data.

Shit. The model was way off. Hillary might still pull it out, but I don’t know…

It was immediately clear that everyone from the Clinton campaign to the media pollsters (and some podcasters who will go unnamed) underestimated Trump’s share of the White working class vote. Trump was running up huge margins in counties that had been very close four years prior.

On election night, the first numbers from Florida won’t necessarily tell is who will win the election or even who will win Florida. But they will let us know if the reality differs greatly from what the campaigns and the pollsters expected.

Key Counties to Watch

Dave Wasserman of the Cook Report has a great rundown in the New York Times of the ten counties that will determine the election. I highly recommend reading the whole article (and following Dave on Twitter). For all the reasons stated above, the results on Tuesday night will be an incomplete and misleading picture. But there are two counties on Wasserman’s list where we are likely to know a lot on Election Night — Maricopa County, Arizona and Pinellas County, Florida.

Maricopa is the tip of the suburban spear that has buoyed Democrats in the Trump era. Romney won Maricopa by 11 points in 2012. Trump won it by only three points in 2016 and Sinema won it by four points in 2018. If Biden has a Sinema-like margin, he likely wins Arizona and Trump’s path to 270 becomes even more treacherously narrow.

Obama won Pinellas County by 6 points in 2012, but Trump won it by one point in 2016. The county is chock full of the older voters with whom the polls show Biden is over-performing. Pinellas will be a key indicator of the accuracy of those polls that show Biden leading nationally and in most of the key battleground states.

More generally, Texas is worth watching. Turnout is through the roof in that state. More votes have already been cast in Texas than in all of 2016. The turnout numbers have befuddled a lot prognosticators because unlike most other states Texas doesn’t include the partisan affiliation of the voters that have voted in their public records. What that high turnout means and who it benefits will start to reveal itself on Election Night. The answer will speak volumes about the who the next President will be.

While we may not know who won Tuesday night, we can have a sense of where things are likely headed in the coming days as more ballots are counted. My main piece of advice is focus on the numbers, follow the data-savvy analysts, and ignore Trump’s inevitably irresponsible tweets and the ensuing panic from those prone to panic. The votes are going to get counted. We will have a result and nothing Trump tweets is going to change that fact.

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