What To Look For on Election Day

Forecasts made a day or two before an election are almost always composed for the benefit of forecasters who are attempting to talk themselves into a favored outcome. I am resisting that temptation and instead trying to focus my mind on those factors that will actually matter tomorrow.

I’ve been poring over individual states, looking at early-voting data, sussing out voting demographics, assessing who controls the voting apparatus, and trying to predict the likelihood of a Biden win in each case. At one point I was listening to a podcast in which a statistician was pointing out the possible salience of White Catholic voters in the upper Midwest who might be breaking for Biden when I realized I had gone too far. Given the massive early vote and the unpredictable effect of Covid on voting patterns, the microscopic view is absurd. These tiny shifts may help explain the election once we know the results, but they’re useless to consider now given the massive unknowns. So let’s simplify.

Instead of looking at individual states, it’s valuable to consider the election like a wager: with an electoral college win set at 270, which candidate is more likely to get there? Let’s assume the polling, which has been incredibly, unprecedentedly stable, has some validity. Biden leads Wisconsin and Michigan by 8%. (I’m using 538 for all the numbers here.) If we consider states polling at 8% or more for a candidate our safe zone, nine states and one district are polling within a narrower range, and they account for 154 electoral votes: Arizona (Biden +2.6%) , Florida (Biden +2.5%), Georgia (Biden +.8%), Iowa (Trump +1.6%), Nebraska 02 (Biden +3.7), Ohio (Trump +.4%), Pennsylvania (Biden +4.9%), North Carolina (Biden +1.9%), and Texas (Trump +1.3%). Montana also figures into that window, with Trump at +7.1%, but let’s just assume he hangs onto Big Sky Country.

Biden starts with an incredibly strong advantage here, leading 259 to 125. If you examine any individual state, it’s easy to find reasons to doubt the polling. For Biden fans, that means that even in any of the six states he leads, it’s easy to talk yourself into scenarios where he loses. But all of them?That seems a lot less plausible. Biden can win the election if he carries just one of seven of these states, whereas Trump has to win at least seven of the eight states to reach 270. The President could afford to lose Nebraska’s second district (1 EV) and Iowa (6 EV), but every other state on the board has eleven or more electors. He needs them all. So, again, if you had to take one candidate to get the over, which one would it be? Biden is the clear favorite.

The Presidency isn’t the only prize, and in many ways it will be impossible to govern without picking up the Senate as well. Given our weird Constitution, the Senate becomes a veto point for the President in terms of cabinet and judicial appointments. The GOP currently holds a three-seat advantage in the Senate, and Democrats are defending a seat in Alabama that will almost certainly flip Republican. That means Democrats need to win a net four seats to reach 50 if they also win the Presidency (the Vice President breaks ties in the Senate). Here things look like a toss-up. In order to take control of the Senate, Democrats would need to win four of these nine races:

  • Colorado. John Hickenlooper (D) leads Cory Gardner (R) by 7.1%.
  • Arizona. Mark Kelly (D) leads Martha McSally (R) by 5.2%.
  • North Carolina. Cal Cunningham (D) leads Thom Tillis by 3.1%
  • Maine. Sara Gideon (D) leads Susan Collins (R) by 1.4%.
  • Georgia. In a wild open primary in which appointed candidate Kelly Loeffler is running in a field of four, Democrats are leading in polls.
  • Georgia. David Purdue (R) leads Jon Ossoff by .5%.
  • Iowa. Joni Ernst (R) leads Theresa Greenfield (D) by 1.5%
  • Montana. Steve Daines (R) leads Steve Bullock (D) by 3%.
  • South Carolina. Lindsay Graham (R) leads Jaime Harrison (D) by 5.5%.

Senate races are somewhat independent of presidential outcomes, but correlated with them. If Biden is easily beating Trump, more of these races will be in play — especially if states like Iowa, Georgia, and North Carolina are trending Biden. However, if Trump holds those states, the Senate races will be harder to pick up. It’s certainly possible for Trump to lose while the GOP hangs onto the Senate.

If you’re curious about the early vote, this university professor has a fantastic, comprehensive site with all you need to know. We have all been trained to remain cool as the results start trickling in with the knowledge that it will take days to count the votes in most states. We shouldn’t expect to know who won on election day. That’s true. However, it’s possible to over-learn that lesson. Tomorrow’s results will present a lot of clues about where the election is headed. Florida and North Carolina have already started counting their ballots and we’ll get a tally of a lot of the results there immediately. If Trump shows strong support in those states, that means we’ll be looking at the Midwest for pivotal outcomes. Regions are correlated, so favorable results in NC and FL will tell us a lot about Georgia.

Similarly, Wisconsin will start releasing decent results early, and these may hint at what to expect in MI, OH, and IA. Biden should win Wisconsin, so the question is whether he’s doing better or worse than the polls, which suggest an eight-point Biden lead. Arizona will also have early results — though they’ll come an hour after the East Coast. If one of the candidates is doing especially well there, that may hint at what to expect in Texas. If Biden is getting crushed in Arizona, it’s time to look at Nevada, a state just on the bubble for Trump to snatch.

Finally, the GOP has already telegraphed its plan to challenge votes in competitive states, and hardcore partisans have threatened voter intimidation on election day. All of that is unprecedented, so just be aware of the possibilities. At the same time, also note that election day always features wild rumors and fast-spreading misinformation. That happens even during sedate elections like 2004 and 2012 where an incumbent sailed to re-election. Tomorrow is going to be one long cavalcade of outlandish claims, so beware.

That’s it. Be well, try to get some sleep, and hope for the best.

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Jeff Alworth

Jeff Alworth is the author of several books including The Beer Bible and Cider Made Simple, as well as the co-founder of the political website BlueOregon.