WASHINGTON — Election Day may well turn into Election Week this year with late returns deciding the presidency, but there still will be a large group of Americans tuning in on Tuesday trying to read the tea leaves of the early results. For those politically-obsessed souls, the Data Download is happy to provide this hourly guide on how we’ll be watching the returns.
There are a lot of ways people try to get an early read on what’s going on Election Day. One of the first is the inevitable early leak of the exit polls. Do yourself a favor and ignore them. Those are the numbers that gave us President John Kerry in 2004 and President Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The real show starts at 7 p.m. when polls begin closing in seven states, including two biggies, Georgia and eastern Florida. A half-hour later polls close in two more states everyone will be watching, North Carolina and Ohio.
Don’t expect Florida to be called early. Even though the early vote should be counted already, it’s Florida, which means it will probably be close. Some things to watch: Can Joe Biden get near Hillary Clinton’s 30-point win in Miami-Dade County? Does more suburban Hillsborough County give Biden a bigger win than Clinton’s 7-point margin? And keep an eye on little Hernando County on the Gulf Coast. In 2016 it produced way more votes and margin for President Donald Trump than expected and was an indicator that Trump had a path in Florida.
In Georgia, the early vote starts being counted on Election Day morning. If Georgia is indeed close when the first votes pour in or the Democrats have a lead, that suggests the polling showing a tight race in the state was correct. Watch the massive sprawling suburbs around Atlanta. Cobb and Gwinnett counties produced more votes in 2016 and narrowly swung Democratic (by 2 points and 6 points respectively). If those margins grow close to double digits, that’s a bad sign for Trump.
There is a lot of early voting in North Carolina and those ballots should be tallied and released within the first hour of poll closings. The vote will likely be close with Democrats possibly holding an early vote lead. Watch Wake and Mecklenburg counties. Clinton won them by 20 and 30 points respectively. Biden likely needs at least that to be in the game in North Carolina.
Ohio polls suggest the state is very close, even though Trump won it by 8 percentage points in 2016. The early vote may be tallied and if it looks close when polls close, that would suggest trouble for Trump in Ohio. If Trump has a big lead, it could be a sign that he is remaking some of his 2016 upper Midwest magic.
At 8 p.m. polls close in 22 states including three that people will be watching especially closely: Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Michigan and Pennsylvania are not particularly experienced at counting early votes and cannot start counting early. We could be waiting for them for some time. However, keep an eye on two of our County-to-County locales. If traditionally Republican Kent County in Michigan tilts toward Biden, that’s probably trouble for Trump. And the president should win Beaver County in Pennsylvania, but wants to try to repeat or outdo his 19-point win in 2016.
Regardless of who wins the White House, Texas is a major story. By Friday it had already produced more votes than it did in all of 2016. That kind of massive turnout makes it difficult to read. But if the early tallies show a close race, that would suggest that polls showing the race neck-and-neck were correct and there could be a long night of counting ahead. It’s been a long time since Texas factored into presidential election watching.
At 9 p.m. polls close in other big battlegrounds: Arizona, Minnesota, Wisconsin and … Nebraska.
Arizona is another one of those states Trump won in 2016 and needs to hold in 2020. The early vote may already be tallied and released within an hour of polls closing. Everyone will be watching Maricopa County, another County-to-County community. The sprawling county produces more than half the state’s vote. It will be crucial.
Minnesota is one of the 2016 Clinton states that Trump was hoping to capture this election and polls show it might be close, but we’ll likely have to wait on the results. The early vote can’t be counted until after polls close.
Wisconsin may also take a while to count, but as the votes come in, keep an eye on Milwaukee, another County-to-County community that has a lot of African-American voters. Biden would like to see far more than the 440,000 votes the Democratic stronghold produced in 2016.
And while there is little doubt as to how Nebraska will vote as a state, there is considerable doubt about its 2nd congressional district around Omaha. It is worth one electoral vote and in a very close race, that could be the difference between a tie and a narrow win for Trump or Biden. Polls show it leans toward Biden.
The 10 p.m. poll closing includes Nevada, which could be crucial to the Electoral College tally. And then at 11 p.m. California closes, which will likely mean a lot for the popular vote.
Nevada is only six electoral votes, but Clinton only won it by a little more than 2 percentage points and Biden needs to hold onto it. A good chunk of the early vote should be counted. Democrats want to see a lead in those votes.
And, of course, no one thinks California is going to be close, but the size of Biden's win here will likely play a big role in the final popular vote tally. We may get a sense of that pretty early; by Friday the state had already cast 9.1 million ballots. But it is probably going to take a long time for the final tally. The numbers usually trickle in for days in the state.
What does all this mean for Tuesday? Will you go to bed knowing who won? Considering all the early votes and mail-in votes and different kinds of ballots this year, probably not. It may take a few days.
But if a few states get their early-vote tallying game together you might have a good idea of what’s ahead. Georgia, Ohio and North Carolina are all-important swing states that could have results Tuesday night, along with Florida. If Joe Biden wins any of them, he would be in a very good position. If Trump wins them all, 2016’s big three of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin will be crucial — and they could take a while to count.