On Tuesday November 3rd voting will conclude in one of the most unusual and fiercely contested elections in American history. It is not possible to predict what will happen on November 3rd, but below are some things to look for that evening and the following days.
New York (Brussels Morning) The White Vote-Exit polls are not great at predicting winners of close races because it is difficult to predict the relevant turnout of different groups of voters, so early exit polls, particularly national ones, will not reliably tell us who won. However, exit polls are good at indicating how different groups of Americans voted.
One major group to watch in this election is white voters, who are still big majority of the electorate, roughly 70% in 2016, and who generally give a big majority of their votes to the Republican candidate. Trump won white voters by 20 points in 2016. Some high quality polls from this cycle, show Trump winning white voters by fewer than five points. If that number stays below 15 points, with early polls showing Biden with over 40% of the white vote, that would be a very strong sign that Biden is poised to win. If that margin is fewer than ten points, then we can expect a big win by the Democrat.
Florida hotly contested
Florida – Beginning the evening of the 3rd, east coast time, news agencies will start reporting numbers. Some of these states are not contested, so early wins for Biden in the eastern seaboard from Virginia to the Canadian border and for Trump in conservative eastern states like Kentucky or Alabama will be reported very quickly – and will tell us very little about the election.
However, there is one state on the east coast where we may be able to get a quick sense of where the election is heading. In 2000 the count in Florida was a mess with the Supreme Court ultimately stopping the count and awarding the state and the White House to George W. Bush. This year Florida will again be an extremely important state as it is a hotly contested swing state with fully 29 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. In Florida mail and early vote ballots can be processed before Election Day with counting starting when the polls close at 7PM.
This means that Florida could have most of its votes counted by late Election Night. If Biden wins Florida by enough for it to be announced that night, Trump will lose the election. There is almost no path to victory for the president without Florida. However, the reverse is not true. Biden can win without Florida, so if the state is called for Trump it does not necessarily mean that he will be reelected, but is a good indicator that we may not know the results for a few days.
Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – In 2016, all three of these states went for Trump by very narrow margins and together provided Trump with his margin of victory. They are once again crucial swing states in 2020, but are looking slightly better for Biden.
If an early Biden win is not reported out of Florida, all eyes will turn to these states. Unlike Florida, none of these three states begin processing ballots until Election Day. This means that it is very unlikely we will have decisive results from these states until sometime Wednesday at the earliest, but very possibly even later than that. These three crucial states are where we can expect to be focusing our attention late next week and are also the states where demonstrations and even confrontations between supporters of the two presidential candidates may occur.
Projecting Winners – Because of the large number of mail-in ballots, the major networks are unlikely to be able to make an official decision about the outcome of the presidential race on the evening of the 3rd, and have been preparing their viewers for that. On balance this is a good thing, but there are several ways this could lead to problems. One scenario that would create enormous problems would be that if Trump decided to declare himself the winner before any of the networks did.
Although most voters would not take Trump at his word, his base would and would then view any defeat of Trump as clear evidence of electoral fraud. If other Republican leaders then support Trump’s premature declaration of victory, as they almost certainly would, tensions could quickly escalate around the country. Additionally, Fox News could make an early call for Trump before the other networks believe they have enough information to make a final decision. This would have a similar result and would make Trump even more likely to declare victory before a winner accurately determined.
Donald Trump – Regardless of what happens in Florida, what the networks announce or anything else, Trump’s behavior will remain a major story after the polls close.
At any moment beginning late Tuesday night, he could declare victory, continue his penchant for yelling about imaginary voter fraud, encourage his most ardent supporters to harass voter, engage in or encourage violence, interfere with the counting or otherwise disrupt the electoral process. While it is almost impossible to guess precisely what Trump will do, we can be reasonably confident that he will not be graceful or calming on Tuesday night.
The Senate – The race for control of the senate is almost as important as the presidential race. Many of the contested senate races are in the western or central part of the country in states like Montana, Alaska, Arizona, Iowa and Colorado, so we will not know results from there until Wednesday morning on the east coast at the earliest.
However, there are several states on the east coast that have competitive senate races including South Carolina, North Carolina, Maine and Georgia where there are two competitive senate races. If the Democratic candidates are projected as winners in two of those states early in the night, they will almost certainly win back control of the senate, but Democrats lose all those seats, the Republicans will be well-positioned to maintain their majority.
Counting all votes?
The Streets – Beginning late Tuesday it is likely that Americans will go to the streets of many towns and cities. Some of these demonstrators will be protesting against Trump, particularly if he declares victory, while others will be Trump supporters answering his call to support his alleged victory and to stop further votes from being counted.
This is without precedent in American history. These demonstrations might be a minor and only occur in a few places, but these demonstrations could become massive. Strong calls by Trump to stop the counting, backed up by the Vichy like Republicans, could send millions of Americans to the streets demanding fairness, democracy and that all the votes be counted. This could lead the country to be in a stalemate, but the longer the stalemate goes on, the greater the potential for violence.
This might take the form of local police or other security forces cracking down on demonstrations, but additionally, radical right wing and white supremacist groups could very possibly take up arms against perceived threats from pro-democracy demonstrators. The possibility of sporadic violence on the part of anti-Trump demonstrators cannot be ruled out either.
Possible Outcomes – The questions of who will win the presidential election and which party will have a majority in the senate will be on many people’s minds on Tuesday night into Wednesday and the rest of the week, but there is a lot more that might happen in the hours, days and weeks after the voting ends. The US is entering a period of great uncertainty and potential instability with the sitting president repeatedly indicating he will not guarantee a peaceful transition and partisans on both sides believing that a defeat for their candidate is prima facie evidence of election fraud.
All of this is occurring during a pandemic that has devastated the US. The massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations this year were a reminder that the American people will only tolerate so much. Those demonstrations could well be dwarfed by post-election demonstrations if Trump refuses to accept defeat. We have already seen political violence rear its ugly head in Kenosha, Portland, Charlottesville and other parts of the country in recent years.
That violence could also increase after the election, particularly if encouraged by a president who feels cornered, desperate and defeated. Moreover, there are fully 11 weeks between the election and the inauguration, so there is more than ample opportunity for a Trump administration to create problems for an incoming president. For all of these reasons, we should not be surprised by anything that occurs in the next few weeks, except perhaps a smooth few days and a graceful concession by Donald Trump.