Given that, how does one begin watching tonight as candidates hope to snag those 270 electoral college votes to win? A good rule of thumb is to focus first and foremost on Florida and North Carolina.
The rules in these states and their early poll closing times mean we’re likely to see lots of results quickly. Elections officials in North Carolina have estimated we’ll have about 80 percent of the votes reported shortly after polls close at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time. In Florida, where most polls close at 7 p.m. and the rest close at 8 p.m., election officials are allowed to count mail ballots beginning weeks before Election Day and are otherwise adept at counting ballots quickly, meaning we could have the vast majority of results within a few hours.
(For a great primer on when all the states are set to report their votes, see here from The Washington Post’s Elise Viebeck.)
The other swing state that is expected to be counting its ballots rather quickly is Arizona, where mail ballots can also be tallied early. But its polls close later, at 9 p.m., and the mail ballots can’t be reported before 10 p.m. The state also has a history of things being drawn out in the days after an election.
So what might Florida and North Carolina mean? And what can we glean if they appear to be going one direction or another?
Florida’s value is less in telling us which way the country might be headed than in its sheer size. It’s almost always close, and its polls haven’t shifted as much as the rest of the country relative to 2016. The past two presidential elections and the 2018 governor’s race were all decided, for example, by about one percentage point or less, and polls suggest this race could be nearly as close as those races were. The state is quite simply too singular to apply many lessons to other states.
The big reason to follow Florida is pretty simple, though: its electoral votes. Were Joe Biden to win all 29 of them, President Trump’s path to victory would be significantly curtailed. Even if you leave all the other semi-competitive states undecided, Biden would be up to 230 electoral votes, needing just 40 of the remaining 183 — about one-quarter. And if you just give him Florida and the competitive states that seem pretty likely to go blue (Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada and New Hampshire), Biden is up over 260 electoral votes, meaning he probably would need just one more state.
In that way, Florida is even more crucial for Trump. If you award him its electoral votes, he still has work to do. Even if you give him Florida and the traditionally red (but close!) Texas, he’s only on about equal footing with Biden in the electoral vote (Biden 201, Trump 192). But it would give him a fighting chance.
The most recent high-quality polls in Florida have Biden leading but often within the margin of error. FiveThirtyEight’s current polling average has it at Biden 49.1 percent to Trump 46.6 percent. But virtually all the polls in 2018 had Democrat Andrew Gillum winning the governorship, and he lost narrowly.
And now North Carolina. Unlike Florida, this could be read more as an indicator of where things might be headed in other swing states. It went for Trump by 3.7 percentage points in 2016, but the polling averages show Biden ahead by about two points. If Biden swings it in his favor, that not only gives him a big 15 electoral vote prize but also could suggest good things lie ahead for him, given that the state looks somewhat more similar to other swing states.
The final NBC News-Marist College poll in the state, for instance, shows Biden leading among White, college-educated voters 61 to 38, while a New York Times-Siena College poll shows Biden up a much tighter 49 to 45. That’s a big variance (and data on smaller groups in polls like these can be noisy), but Trump won these voters by 17 points in 2016. Were we to see anywhere near such a swing in this demographic to Biden (which was nearly 4 in 10 voters in the state in 2016), it would be huge and might suggest we’ll see something similar in other states.
Ditto the suburbs, which Trump won by 24 points in 2016 but look vulnerable in this year, with Biden currently favored by 22 points in the NBC-Marist poll.
The other reason North Carolina is so important is the second federal race on the ballot. Defeating Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is big for Democrats’ path to a Senate majority; it’s in a group of four states (along with Georgia, Maine and Iowa) where Democrats probably need to win two seats. And polls suggest Democrat Cal Cunningham is one of their best hopes in this group, with a current average lead of around three points.
If North Carolina gets its votes counted as early as promised, victories for Biden, Cunningham or both would seem to set the tone for the rest of the country. Of course, if it’s as close as it looks, we may be waiting on the Tar Heel state just like everywhere else. The state, after all, accepts mail ballots that are postmarked by Election Day as late as Nov. 12.