Election Night Scenarios

Thinking about what we might know on the night of the election.

There is a lot of understandable anxiety about election night. For a lot of folks who voted Democratic in 2016, it is a sort of PTSD to be associated with Trump pulling out unexpected wins in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. For others is it the cumulative effects of Trump attacking our electoral democracy couple with the fears that Covid-19 or some other issue will damage the process.

On top of all of that are concerns about how the onslaught of voting by mail will either slow the counts or open the door for legal challenges. While I always council patience when it comes to letting voter be properly counted, I think there is actually a greater chance that we will some level of clarity on Election Night than we might have thought some weeks back. This is especially true if Biden continues to lead Trump by double-digits in national polling (and even if he can stay in the upper single digits, should any narrowing take place).

Fundamentally, the process of calling election results is based on projecting likely outcomes based on partial results (both what has been counted and what hasn’t in terms of known partisan lean) and historical understanding of the jurisdiction in question. There is also exit poll data and other metrics used to make the calls.

Some of it is easy. Known historical patterns backed up exit poll data and statistical trends will make it pretty easy to call Alabama. Indeed, it would hardly be a stretch to call Alabama for Trump today (and, for that matter, not all that big of a leap to call it in 2024 for whomever the GOP nominee is).

Here is my current educated guess of what we might finally go to sleep to early Wednesday morning. It would be an inconclusive map, but one that would clearly be in Biden’s favor, a mere 32 EVs away from a clear victory and with several pathways in front of him:

This is a conservative guestimate based on which states are likely to be easy to call versus those that might take longer to count due to a combination of closeness and dealing with a deluge of mail-in ballots.

At a minimum, I think it will be difficult for Trump and his supporters to get the media to construct a narrative that gives him a real chance of winning with a map like this. Even if Texas is called that night for Trump, it would still only have him at 160–over a hundred EVs away from a win.

Such a scenario would preclude an Election Night concession, but that is fine. (Indeed, unless he is crushed, I do not expect a concession that night–and even then, it would not shock me if he didn’t concede).

In regards to the ones that could take a while, I would point to this piece via the NYT: How Quickly Will Your Absentee Vote Be Counted? A State-by-State Timeline.

This graphic is of special interest. It seems wildly unlikely we will know PA and WI on election night. Several others could drag out.

Nevada might be able to resolve things in a reasonably quick fashion, since they are allowing processing as they go and they should, theoretically, be able to therefore count ballots fairly quickly (indeed, the NYT piece states that they can start tabulating on October 20th). The only reason I left them off my election night guestimate is that this is the first time the state has engaged in mail-in voting at this scale.

A result with at least 270 being called for Biden on Election Night would require Nevada handling the mail-in ballots without any problems and Michigan doing so as well and then either North Carolina being called on election night (which strikes me as possible) or Wisconsin coutning its mail-in ballots quickly (which strikes me as less likely). (In this scenario I am assuming Biden wins those states).

We can discuss the potentiality of Election Day chicanery or post-election legal challenges later, but at the moment it seems to me that we should have a pretty solid idea of who is winning that night, with a winner being clear relatively quickly (barring some black swan event).

For anyone interested, here is the timeline of the AP’s calls in 2016.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Campaign 2020, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Indeed, it would hardly be a stretch to call Alabama for Trump today (and, for that matter, not all that big of a leap to call it in 2024 for whomever the GOP nominee is).

    Trump

    He’ll run again in 2024 if he’s still alive, and even if he’s reelected this year (gods forbid).

    (Indeed, unless he is crushed, I do not expect a concession that night–and even then, it would not shock me if he didn’t concede).

    I don’t expect him to concede in any eventuality, even if he loses all 50 states and DC (which he won’t). He’ll even claim he won California, if you don’t count all the voter fraud and votes by illegal aliens.

    I assume the various states know how many mail-in ballots were issued, and in some states this info may be available. If so, given a big enough lead by Biden that not all the mail-in ballots would change the outcome, such states may be called earlier.

    What I do wish is some minimum of sense by the networks and news channels, so they won’t label every uncalled state “too close to call,” but rather “too many ballots left to count,” or something along those lines.

    I expect more Democrats to vote by mail. If so, and given that many more people will vote by mail this year, a state that seems “too close to call” may be decided for Biden by 6 percentage points or so. Calling it “too close” gives ammunition to Trump and his cultists to claim some form of chicanery.

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  2. Gustopher says:

    Because this is 2020 and everything has to be worse than normal, I expect that Wisconsin and Ohio will be called for Trump on election night, and then swing back with mail-in ballot counts the next day.

    I might swap Ohio for Florida. But my prediction is two states with Republican governors, pushing early counts as final to Fox.

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  3. @Gustopher: I honestly think that the networks are going to be so skittish that any state close enough for a possible flip won’t be called. And I think they will be especially careful with states like WI (because of 2016) and OH (because it is a traditional swing state).

    Indeed, I see no reason for any reputable outlet to call anything without super solid evidence.

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  4. @Kathy:
    One of the phrases election callers will often use is “too early to call” for when their early data shows a highly probability of an outcome but there is just not enough data to be confident enough that the current 10 point spread that is likely to shrink to a 5 point spread once everything does come in is not really a minus 2 point spread due to differential turn-out or oddities in the outstanding precincts.

    Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are likely going to be too early to call until Thursday or Friday

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  5. CSK says:

    Graeme Wood over at http://www.theatlantic.com has an interesting idea: Trump will never concede, but he will leave the White House because he’s too lazy and cowardly to fight himself: “A civil war sounds like a lot of work. The easiest path is also the most lucrative. Get on Marine One, protesting all the way, and spend the rest of your days fleecing the 40 percent of Americans who still think you are the Messiah…”

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    Good analysis. I hope you’re right. Hopefully it will quickly become clear there’s no possible path to 270 for Trump and the armies of election lawyers will end up twiddling their thumbs.

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  7. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Once one network calls a state, there will be a lot of pressure on the others, and people hear what they want to hear, even at the networks.

    Wisconsin publishes data, underestimates outstanding ballots. Off record talks to Fox saying that they’re sure Trump won. Fox starts with reporting anonymous person in Wisconsin SoS office, then calls Wisconsin a little while later, once a little more data comes in. CBS is now reporting that Fox has called it…

    I hope this doesn’t happen, but I can see how it could, and there are enough people who would have a vested interest in casting doubt onto the legitimacy of Biden’s election.

    OANN will call it before polls close, of course. And Russian interests are in chaos, so they will be trying to muddy the waters. Trump has a greater interest in being a wronged martyr than in being a loser, so he will be piling on.

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  8. @Gustopher:

    Wisconsin publishes data, underestimates outstanding ballots. Off record talks to Fox saying that they’re sure Trump won. Fox starts with reporting anonymous person in Wisconsin SoS office, then calls Wisconsin a little while later, once a little more data comes in. CBS is now reporting that Fox has called it…

    I certainly agree something like this is possible. I just think that the decision desks at all the networks, Fox included, are going to be cautious in their calls. They tend to want to get it right.

    OANN will call it before polls close, of course.

    Well, they don’t fall in my “reputable outlet” category 😉

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  9. inhumans99 says:

    Why are we so worried about a network calling a state early for Trump, it is a non-issue. Biden can refuse to concede just as much as Trump and hey…it would be funny (not really, but y’all get my point) if Trump draws an inside straight and is the clear winner of the majority vote + electoral college but Biden refused to concede and hounds Trump all the way up to the day of inauguration. It could happen, I am just saying that OANN/Fox have no power to prevent Biden from pulling a Trump and refusing to concede.

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  10. Jen says:

    This model has been circulating/being posted by Republican acquaintances.

    In addition to some daft assumptions (LOL, NY going red?), I wonder how many people are genuinely believing in models such as this one. This could be a really hard landing for some.

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  11. Teve says:

    @Jen: there was nothing on that page about New York.

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  12. @inhumans99:

    Why are we so worried about a network calling a state early for Trump, it is a non-issue. Biden can refuse to concede just as much as Trump and hey

    Legally, you are right, it does not matter. I could matter if FNC called it one way, however, and helped create public distrust in the process which could fuel a protracted legal battle.

    OAN, however, is largely a non-issue.

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  13. @Teve: There’s a map linked to that “model” going around FB that shows Trump winning NY.

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  14. @Jen: BTW, as best I can tell, that
    “model” is basically is based on the fact that presidents tend to be reelected. And his overall conclusions are poppycock.

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  15. Joe says:

    I understand that networks do exit polling and I assume they have some analogous study going of mail-in votes. They surely have tested algorithms for how to factor those into actual vote counts. I wonder what the journalistic ethics are of not calling a race when you are reasonably certain within your own tested methods who will win when all the ballots are counted. Just as troubling to me as a network jumps ahead of its own best information would be a network that delays calling a state on its own best information and letting the question linger out of a sense “caution.”

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  16. Teve says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: The conservatives are living in fantasyland then, because New York went 59% for Hillary in 2016.

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  17. @Teve: It is patently absurd.

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  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    I actually don’t expect trouble from Fox News. Sponsors aren’t buying into a coup or civil war. Fox makes more money if they just try out a ‘lost cause’ scenario.

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  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    I also wonder how far down the rabbit hole Barr and the GOP Senate will go. Barr threw in the towel on his bogus unmasking investigation. Perhaps he can read the polls. The Senate’s in the same election, is some re-elected Senator going to yell fraud?

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  20. EddieInCA says:

    I’m going to be the contrarian here. I think it’s going to be a bloodbath. Between now and Nov. 3, we are going to have another 15K-25K deaths, mostly in Trump states. This is going to lead to more last minute deciders (whoever is left) to break even more decisively towards Biden. The current trend among seniors towards Biden does not seem to reversing in any way, and, in fact, seems to be accelerating as Covid outbreaks surge across the midwest.

    Trump will probably win Alabama, but do not underestimate the effect of someone like Nick Saban getting Covid. I guarantee you places like Alabama, Kansas, Oklahoma, Montana, South Dakoka, Iowa are all going to be much closer than expected, just due to Covid.

    *Biden has support from the majority of seniors in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while he and Trump are virtually tied in Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio and Florida.

    *Biden leads Trump by 12 points among women ages 65 and older (54% to 42%), compared to a narrower 3-point lead among men in that age group (49% to 46%).

    *A Morning Consult analysis found a high correlation between Biden’s lead over Trump and the country’s number of daily coronavirus-induced deaths.

    https://morningconsult.com/2020/10/15/trump-biden-seniors-voters-polling/

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  21. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    They’d have a point, if Trump Pessimus Minimus* were like any of his predecessors and tried to govern well and fairly with the country’s best interests in mind.

    As it is, he has yet to try to govern.

    * In Latin, the epithet “Optimus Maximus” means “Best and Greatest.” Trump’s epithet is the exact antonym.

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  22. @EddieInCA: I expect the ultimate result to be very blue, but my goal here was to present a reasonable worst case scenario. That is: the likelihood we won’t know on election night, but that it will still be a good night for Biden.

    Trump will probably win Alabama, but do not underestimate the effect of someone like Nick Saban getting Covid.

    Trust me, unless Saban dies and his last words are “it was all Trump’s fault” there won’t be much of an effect. Even then, Trump would win the state.

    To me the issue is seniors in Florida. I think there is a very good chance Biden wins GA.

    The true sign of a bloodbath, so to speak, would be Texas.

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  23. Sleeping Dog says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Eddie, in most electoral years, making reference to a “bloodbath” would be understood to be, one party taking a thrashing at the polls, but this year, with RW militias threatening to police the polls and the Former Reality Show Host, encouraging them to be ready, we may face an actual bloodbath.

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  24. @Sleeping Dog: TBH, I thought he was going down that path at first.

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  25. Mikey says:

    @EddieInCA: I’m with you. Biden will be the obvious, indisputable winner the night of Election Day. The more Trump talks like seniors are expendable nobodies, the more seniors will swing to Biden. Intentionally or not, Trump is conveying that message. Seniors will vote, and they will vote like their lives depend on it, and those votes will be for Biden.

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  26. Kathy says:

    @EddieInCA:

    That’s a good point about seniors.

    If I may quote Nash:

    People expect old men to die,
    They do not really mourn old men.
    Old men are different. People look
    At them with eyes that wonder when…
    People watch with unshocked eyes;
    But the old men know when an old man dies.

    to be unshocked is one thing. To be mocking and dismissive has to be worse.

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  27. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’m with you on the senior impact in Florida. The significance of the pro-Biden golf cart armada at The Villages earlier this week should be seen as a harbinger of bad news for Trump. It’s unprecedented.

    Since Florida is one of the battleground states that can pre-process ahead of Election Day, I think they are going to be in the mix with MI and NC as the tipping points for a call on Nov 3rd.

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  28. Scott F. says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I also wonder how far down the rabbit hole Barr and the GOP Senate will go.

    I believe that Barr’s Holy Grail has always been the Authoritarian Executive, not so much Trumpism. Trump has always made Barr’s core mission harder to achieve, so if the writing is on the wall for an epic Trump loss, I expect Barr will cut bait. All the better to get a quick start grooming someone like Josh Hawley for the next presidential proof of concept for an Executive unrestrained by law or oversight.

    The GOP Senate will be busy triaging all their fallen comrades.

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  29. Mike in Arlington says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: you were far more generous to the author of that model than I would have been.

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  30. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: OAN is, of course, a fringe joke.

    But if some of the data analysts at Fox are OAN fans, and think Fox is some RINO crap, that could skew things. And the result would be undermining confidence in the election, and Biden’s ability to lead. Which is exactly what Russia would like.

    Good that there’s no link between Russian disinformation campaigns and the Fox level of the right wing media.

    Also, when Trump is announcing that he won Wisconsin, Fox will cover it. Are they going to be somberly saying “President Trump is allowing his exuberance to get ahead of him, and while he leads at the moment…”

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  31. EddieInCA says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Trust me, unless Saban dies and his last words are “it was all Trump’s fault” there won’t be much of an effect. Even then, Trump would win the state.

    I’m sure you’re right, but my cousin Kathy, who lives in Auburn, AL, and works at Auburn University says that Nick Saban getting infected changed her workplace overnight. Day after his announcement, she says 80% of the people were wearing masks, whereas the day before, maybe 20%. She’s a mask wearer, so she is happy to see the change. But people are taking it more seriously than before. Funny. Trump getting it did nothing. Saban getting it, “Let’s put on masks! This shit is real!”

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  32. JohnMcC says:

    @Scott F.: I live in FL. The local news is carrying quite a bit of footage of mailed-in ballots being ‘processed’ and many claims that the actual counting is not likely to be delayed. That may or may not be propaganda but it certainly seems to be possible. And if true it’s likely that completed vote-counts will be available before midnight 3 Nov.

    Of course, a lot depends on the number of ballots to be counted; a huge turnout might delay the process. A bit of local trivia: 16% of the registered voters in Pinellas county FL have already voted by mail (of some 725,000 voters).

    And here’s a little item demonstrating the administration of Gov DeStupid: Looking for the beginning date of early-in-person voting thru the county site one finds it begins 19 Oct, next Monday. Looking for the same information on the State site one finds 24 Oct, next Saturday.

    It’s possible that’s simply the standard level of Republican governance. It’s also possible that it’s calculated vote tampering. Take your pick.

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  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Jen: I see what you mean. The model doesn’t seem all that plausible to me. 🙁

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  34. Teve says:

    @JohnMcC: here in Columbia County it’s supposed to be exactly one week from today, the 22nd. I will be there on the 22nd.

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  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @EddieInCA: A headline chyron at MSNBC had Biden’s campaign manager quoted as saying that the race is closer than it looks. As much as I would be just as happy with a bloodbath as most any one else on this forum, I think the caution is probably wise.

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  36. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I just want to go on record that I, too, am opposing a bloodbath in the sense you’re talking about. 😐

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  37. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    that
    “model” is basically is based on the fact that presidents tend to be reelected. And his overall conclusions are poppycock.

    But it called every election except 2000 right!

    Our default position is indeed to re-elect incumbents and to turn to the opposition party after two terms, regardless. That “model” predicts all but two modern elections. But factoring in primaries is just dumb—all it does is reinforce the fact that incumbents (who tend to be all-but-unopposed in the early primaries) tend to win.

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  38. Michael Cain says:

    @Joe:

    I understand that networks do exit polling and I assume they have some analogous study going of mail-in votes.

    The analogous thing is what they’re already doing: call people at random and ask them who they’re likely to vote for. I think it’s illegal for them to call on election day and ask if the person has already voted. If the current polling is accurate, it’s going to be a Biden landslide.

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  39. Michael Cain says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Barr threw in the towel on his bogus unmasking investigation. Perhaps he can read the polls. The Senate’s in the same election, is some re-elected Senator going to yell fraud?

    I suspect Barr can read the polls, and his current mode is “I’m not going to do anything else egregious because despite Biden, the incoming AG may be vindictive about cleaning house, including prosecuting ringleaders…”

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  40. John says:

    @Gustopher: This is not how it works, though.

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  41. Jen says:

    @Michael Cain:

    I think it’s illegal for them to call on election day and ask if the person has already voted.

    Why would it be illegal to ask this question?

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  42. @James Joyner:

    That “model” predicts all but two modern elections. But factoring in primaries is just dumb—all it does is reinforce the fact that incumbents (who tend to be all-but-unopposed in the early primaries) tend to win.

    Indeed.

    The usage of primary totals for incumbents is ridiculous since they tend to be unopposed (or even if opposed, they still are essentially guaranteed to win the primary vote).

    Really, as best I can tell (I did not spend a lot of time on it), the “model” is just stating: incumbents tend to be re-elected and the pattern is that the same party does not win more than 3 terms in a row.

    Wow!

    (And I have no idea how that translates into an EV count, let alone the one that he provides).

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