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Election Night Watch Guide: Your Guide to Understanding Election Night Returns

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This is an election like no other.

About 80 million people are expected to vote by mail — double the number in the last presidential election. A week ahead of the election, more than 64 million had already voted. Because many critical battleground states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania don’t start processing early ballots — nevermind count them — until Election Day, we may not have a winner declared until days after the election. However, there are several early indicators to understand the trajectory of the vote and who is likely to be declared the winner.   

Based on our experience managing campaigns and measuring the results over many years, Precision put together a list of the early indicators, by the hour (all times ET), to help you stay smart on this new kind of Election Night — and in the days and weeks that follow.


6PM: Kentucky Senate Race as an Early Sign for the Night 
The Kentucky Senate race is unique, given Mitch McConnell’s status as the Senate Majority Leader. While Kentucky is not a bellwether in the presidential race, it may tell us something about the direction of other Senate races. To be clear, McConnell will likely win; recent polls show him up 12 points over challenger Amy McGrath. But a stronger than expected showing for McGrath could portend good things for Democratic Senate candidates in other states, as there is a long tradition of Senate races closing in one direction. As a reminder, if Joe Biden wins in November, Democrats need to net three GOP seats to win the majority (which likely means four pickups, as Alabama’s Doug Jones is widely expected to be defeated). If Biden loses, Democrats need to net four seats. Since Kentucky is split into two time zones, expect reporting from the eastern half of the state, including early vote totals, at 6PM ET, and the western half of the state at 7PM ET. In 2016, the Kentucky election was called at 7:05PM ET.


7PM: Signs of a Blue Wave in the Senate? 
South Carolina and the two Senate races in Georgia weren’t among the top priorities for Senate Democrats early in the cycle. But Democratic candidates in those two states have closed strongly, and Georgia is now considered a battleground state in the presidential election. In fact, Joe Biden is doing two events there today (Oct 27th), including a major “closing argument” speech in Warm Springs, Georgia. This means that it is possible for Democrats to win these “long shot” seats in their fight to win a Senate majority. If any of these races looks like a win for the Democrats (especially the Graham-Harrison race in South Carolina and the Ossoff-Perdue race in Georgia; the Warnock-Loeffler race in Georgia has multiple candidates and will almost certainly go to a runoff), it suggests a good night overall and a probable Democratic Senate. Note that in both Georgia races, a candidate must reach 50%+1 to win. If no candidate reaches 50%, we’ll have one or potentially even two run-off elections on January 5th that could, belatedly, decide who controls the chamber.

7:30PM: Our First True Battleground, North Carolina 
Current projections suggest a strong night for Gov. Roy Cooper in his reelection (+9.4 in the RCP polling average), with Biden and Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cuningham running several points behind (+1.2% for Biden and +1.8% for Cunningham). If Cooper’s margin pushes toward or over double digits, a Democratic sweep is possible. And with the overall Senate map tilting toward Democrats, a Cunningham victory could be the majority maker when the dust settles. In 2016, North Carolina was called at 11:14PM ET for Trump. This year, even as 46.57% of registered voters in North Carolina have already cast their ballot amid a projected record turnout, it’s still likely we will know a final outcome on Election Day.

8PM: Eyes on Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania 
These key battlegrounds flipped for Trump in 2016 with extremely tight margins and will be pivotal in deciding the next President. Polling averages show Biden leading by 9.0% in Michigan, 3.8% in Pennsylvania, and 1.2% in Florida. But differing laws make reading into the results a tricky task.

  • Because Florida is accustomed to an early and vote by mail system — and can begin counting ballots 22 days before Election Day — its results will mean we will either have an early night on November 3rd, or the race could drag on beyond Election Day. Only once since 1964 has Florida not backed the national winner, and it is historically always tight (remember the 2000 recount?). But if Trump doesn’t win Florida, he has no plausible path to reelection and we could have a final result on Election Day. If Biden doesn’t win Florida, he has multiple pathways, and it could mean a longer wait for a final tally. Polls close at 7PM (8PM in the panhandle), and as many as three-fourths of votes will be cast early. In 2016, the state was called for Donald Trump at 10:50PM, despite it being a very close contest with Trump winning by only 112,911 votes with more than 9.5 million cast.
  • In contrast, Pennsylvania and Michigan cannot begin counting mail-in ballots until Election Day, meaning that initial totals will only reflect in person votes on Election Day. This could be the first indication of a Red Mirage, with President Trump appearing — from initial results — to be faring well in key states. Look for Republicans to begin pushing the narrative that it’s the Election Night results that matter the most, despite record numbers voting before Election Day. With seven days to go, roughly 41% have already voted in Michigan and about 26% in Pennsylvania. For both states, we are unlikely to know final results until post Election Day. Large counties in Pennsylvania — such as Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, and Delaware — won’t report final counts until later in the week.

9PM: Trump Tested in Wisconsin and Arizona
The Electoral College map begins to come into focus as ballots are counted in the final two battlegrounds. Trump’s path to 270 votes is already fairly narrow, and if he loses these two states that he won in 2016, his chances of holding the White House become more narrow. Both of these states are currently trending toward Biden; the VP is polling +6.9% on average in Wisconsin and +4.4% on average in Arizona. Roughly 50% of the projected vote in Arizona has already been cast with a week to go, with a majority likely for Biden. Due in no small part to major investments in new vote counting infrastructure, we can expect Arizona to be called on Election Night, unless the race is extremely tight. In Wisconsin, 43% of the projected vote is in, and that number is expected to grow. Trump won Wisconsin in 2016 by just 0.7% of the vote, with an active 3rd party candidate. Expect Wisconsin results to be reported in the days after Election Day — given that it won’t count early votes until November 3rd and a number of large counties historically are late in reporting.  

Before You Go to Bed 
Some of us may not be going to bed on election night, or even the days after. However, before you turn in, here are a few items to track:


  • How many ballots are left uncounted in key urban counties? Large, more urban counties like Milwaukee and Dane in Wisconsin, Wayne in Michigan, and Philadelphia are critical for Biden to win. With the surge in vote by mail and early votes, these counties will not be able to process all the votes on Tuesday night. However, if large enough numbers are outstanding, and Biden’s margin is big enough, it may be safe for these states to be called given the high percentage of votes Biden will win in those counties.
  • Did Trump drive a turnout surge in exurban and rural counties? The 2016 race in Florida was defined by increased turnout in key, strongly red counties for Trump. He increased turnout in north central counties like Alachua, Hernando, and Marion and conservative strongholds including Collier County in the South which helped to propel him to a narrow victory. To win again, he must identify and turn out even more voters, likely among the non-college white vote.
  • How many legal challenges are there, and where? On Election Day, lawyers will fan out across the country to prepare for legal challenges. The scope and scale of the challenges — not to mention Trump’s tweets — will inform the likelihood of a lengthy, contested election. Both sides are well prepared to fight out the election ballot by ballot across a broad swath of states.

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