Most people just want to know one data point: the name of the winner. That information will have to wait at least until Election Day next Tuesday — and possibly beyond that. But there are ways to sift through bluster, spin and punditry to get a sense of how things are going between now and the end of Election Day.
In that vein, here are some things to keep an eye on over the next week.
Biden is on offense, and Trump is on defense.
In the micro-focused world of campaign operations, there are any number of ways to fake out an opponent and the media. Campaigns will reserve advertising time in certain states to suggest those areas are a focus, and then pull back. Early in the process, they will send the candidate or his surrogates to states where they don't really think they can compete.
But the most valuable resource for any campaign is the candidate's time, and that becomes even more true as the window before the election closes. There's no room left for error, and everyone can see where a candidate shows up on the trail.
On modern campaigns, which use complex data models to determine where they can get the most bang for the buck, candidates are sent exclusively to states where they think their presence can make a difference. In that way, voters can tell which states each campaign thinks are in play.
On Monday, Trump held three rallies in Pennsylvania. He won its 20 electoral votes by less than a percentage point in 2016. On Tuesday, he planned to be in Michigan and Wisconsin, states that he also won by tens of thousands of votes. Biden was in Pennsylvania for a small meet-and-greet with voters Monday and in Georgia Tuesday.
So far, the candidates' schedules do not show stops in any states Trump lost in 2016.
The other visible sign of a campaign's priorities is where it spends money on expensive advertising. More telling than a surge of ads in a particular state is the decision to wind down advertising so that the money can be plugged in somewhere else.
Sometimes that happens because a campaign feels like it is winning in the place it pulls ads — and polls should suggest if that's the case — but it's more common to keep ads placed where a candidate is winning and reduce or kill them where the candidate has given up.
It's much easier to tell from polls whether the race is moving in one direction than it is to conclude who will win. Surveys have margins of error for a reason — namely that they can be off the mark by a little bit. Each one is a snapshot, and its accuracy is only as good as its modeling of the electorate. But it is possible to discern shifts in the electorate. If a candidate starts performing better in several surveys in one state, or particularly in multiple polls from one pollster, that's often an indication of voters moving toward that candidate in the home stretch.
Pennsylvania on Election Day
No state is more important for both campaigns than Pennsylvania. Multiple prognosticators have singled it out as the tipping point for both candidates — that is, it's the state most likely to indicate whether Trump or Biden wins. Does that mean neither candidate can win without it? No. Each has plausible paths to the presidency that don't run through Pennsylvania. But they are very narrow.
A little more than 6 million people voted there in 2016, and Trump won by less than 45,000 votes. Clinton got 45 percent of her votes from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties of Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery. Trump's forces were strongest in rural parts of the state, but he also did well in smaller cities and suburbs.
One thing to watch is how many votes Biden racks up in the Philadelphia area. If he tops 1.4 million in the city and those surrounding counties, it may be hard for Trump to offset across the rest of the state.
Another is the margins in and around smaller cities that provided huge boosts for Trump in 2016. Trump won Erie County by about 2 percentage points four years ago. But Obama won it by 16 points in 2012 and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf won it by more than 20 points in the 2018 midterms. Lancaster County, a traditional Republican stronghold, has shown signs of Trump fatigue. Can he win it by 47,000 votes again — a figure that represented more votes than his statewide margin of victory — or will Biden trim that number?
Florida on Election Day
Trump can't afford to lose Florida. Period. On paper, he could win without it, but the odds are next to zero. If there's an early call for Biden there, the rest probably doesn't matter.
The good news for Trump is that he has pursued policies that are tailored to Republican-leaning Floridians. His recent prohibition on drilling is a good example. So is his anti-socialist rhetoric. In recent cycles, the state has been like the football in the Peanuts comic strip: Democrats are Charlie Brown, always expecting to nail it, and Republicans are Lucy, always swiping it away at the last moment.