In this edition: How our key counties voted on Tuesday, the ongoing oddity of Republican election challenges, and Democrats return to disarray.

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One week ago, before the polls were closed, this newsletter broke down the electoral map for the last time. We focused on counties that could tell us a lot — and possibly tell it early, in the likely case that it would take days for the race to be called.

That second bet paid off, and so did the first. The 10 counties we hoped could give us insight into a 3,141-county election revealed President Trump's resilient strength with his 2016 supporters and gains with non-White voters, while explaining how shifts in the suburban vote could deliver the election to President-elect Joe Biden. Here's what happened, with nearly all votes counted.

Vigo County, Ind.

The “bellwether” status that Vigo enjoyed for decades was hanging by a thread before the election. Since 1952, it had always supported the winner of the presidential election, no matter who won the popular vote. In 2016, for the first time, it diverged wildly from the popular vote — Hillary Clinton won that by two points, while losing Vigo County by 15 points. If Joe Biden was going to make real headway with working-class White voters, including many who'd backed him for vice president twice, he was going to dramatically improve his numbers around Terre Haute.

He didn't. Trump actually gained more votes here between 2016 and 2020 than Biden gained relative to Hillary Clinton. Biden did outrun the last Democratic nominee, but he did so with fewer votes here, total, than any winning Democratic nominee since Bill Clinton in 1996. “I was surprised,” said Joseph Etling, the Democratic Party's chair in the county. “There was a lot of enthusiasm for President-elect Biden's campaign, compared to what we saw four years ago.” Etling pointed out that straight-ticket voting for Republicans was up, but in county races, which aren't among the offices voters pick on a straight ticket, Democrats did well. The theory in Vigo County was shared by Democrats across the country: When Trump appeared on the ballot, voters who skipped other elections showed up and backed Republicans.

Trump: 24,512 (+2,575
Biden: 18,080 (+2,149) 
Third parties: 897 (-1,362)

Pinellas County, Fla.

We said before the election that the results here would show whether Biden was making gains in the Florida suburbs and cities along Interstate 4, and we noted that the early vote here was a mirage for Hillary Clinton; she did very well in the early count, only for Trump to storm past her with Election Day votes. And that nearly happened again this year. Biden dominated the vote count when mail ballots and early votes were counted — before Nov. 3, as Florida law allows. His total with that pile of ballots was actually a bit larger than the total vote for Clinton, overall, four years ago.

The result was a narrow win for Biden in the county, breaking Pinellas's not-that-long streak of backing the eventual winner of presidential elections. (It started in 2004.) The reason, though, was repeated across Florida: Biden did a bit better in the state's suburbs and in places with fewer Latino voters, while getting crushed in Miami-Dade County. In about half the state, Biden improved on Hillary Clinton's margins, but he appears to have done a bit worse in the I-4 corridor overall, due to some losses in heavily Latino parts of Tampa and Orlando.

Biden: 277,191 (+43,490) 
Trump: 275,949 (+36,748
Third parties: 5,981 (-18,602)

Cobb County, Ga.

Democrats, who had barely been competitive in these north Atlanta suburbs until 2016, needed to win them big to have a chance of statewide victory. They pulled that off. Biden won more votes in Cobb County than any candidate for president of either party, ever. In a fast-growing county, that wasn't necessarily hard to do. But the sheer size of Biden's victory was unprecedented for a Democratic candidate. The growth in Biden's vote, compared with Clinton's, was more than double his current lead statewide; down the ballot, Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath was one of few swing-seat freshmen to get a bigger share of the vote than she did two years ago.

Biden: 221,746 (+61,625) 
Trump: 165,195 (+12,283) 
Third parties: 6,432 (-14,593)

Wilson County, N.C.

We'd highlighted this, a place visited by Vice President Pence last month, as one of the counties where the president was trying to cut into Democratic strength with rural Black voters. He pulled it off, adding more than twice as many votes as Biden did, compared with Hillary Clinton. Trump repeated that across most of the “Black Belt,” here and in much of the South — even Georgia, where Biden holds a statewide lead unlikely to be reversed by a recount. Some of Trump's overperformance came from new White voters who'd skipped the 2016 election. But the pattern across rural Black counties is clear, even if exit polls don't yet have enough data to be used. Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who represents a majority-Black district in the region, led the initial vote count by eight points; in 2016, Clinton carried that district by 11 points.

Biden: 20,579 (+916) 
Trump: 17,531 (+1,906
Third parties: 941 (-605)

Erie County, Pa.

Trump's 2016 win in this historically Democratic county showed just how he was able to break Hillary Clinton's coalition — carrying nearly everything outside the city of Erie and cutting into her margin inside it. Biden couldn't climb back to the old Obama margin here, but he ran ahead of Trump narrowly and nearly hit President Barack Obama's 2012 win number: He fell short by fewer than 2,000 votes, while Trump ran 17,000 votes ahead of Mitt Romney. That happened again and again for Biden, across the state, as he improved on Clinton's numbers in eastern Pennsylvania, did a little worse in the conservative counties of “the T” and got bigger margins out of small cities.

Biden: 67,471 (+9,359) 
Trump: 65,972 (+5,903
Third parties: 1,903 (-5,045)

Macomb County, Mich.

It has been decades since the term “Reagan Democrats” meant anything here; it may be time to declare Macomb the land of less-dominant Trump Republicans. The president stopped Biden from winning back the county, carried narrowly twice by Obama and more narrowly in 2018 by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Biden lost by eight points, a four-point improvement on Clinton's 2016 number, and like every modern Democrat he ran stronger in the places closest to Detroit. (Warren, which he visited after local Democrats urged him to stop in Macomb County, went for him in a rout.) Trump had hoped to increase his margin here and couldn't pull it off, even while adding nearly 40,000 votes. That was the story of the state: The president did a little better in northern Michigan and the counties that border Ohio, improved a little around the city of Flint, and lost ground everywhere else.

Trump: 264,535 (+39,870
Biden: 225,561 (+49,244
Third parties: 6,427 (-11,903)

Dubuque County, Iowa

This was the place to watch in case the president's strength in one of his best Midwest states had declined from four years ago. It hadn't. Democrats, who did not win a single Iowa county that they'd lost in 2016, exceeded Hillary Clinton's vote from that year. It wasn't enough to flip Dubuque County, because Trump added even more votes, becoming the first Republican nominee since Dwight D. Eisenhower to carry the county twice. Democrats had hoped that Biden, just the second Catholic to win the presidency, would over-perform in heavily Catholic areas such as this. He did better than Clinton with those voters, but not nearly well enough. Not even Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who endorsed Biden on the premise that he could help down the ticket, was able to match her 2018 performance in the county, and Republican Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson's victory depended, in large part, on Democrats being unable to match their old margins in Dubuque.

Trump: 27,214 (+3,754) 
Biden: 25,655 (+2,805
Third parties: 911 (-2,500)

Waukesha County, Wis.

The joke about Waukesha County playing a “crucial” role in Wisconsin elections dates back to 2011, when a now-removed county elections officer not once, but twice, bungled the count in a close race and released a batch of votes that flipped outcomes in favor of Republicans. Ironically, it's now Republicans casting around for some glitch or error that could switch more than 20,000 votes, and with them the state. Without that, Waukesha County really did sink the Trump campaign, with Biden netting nearly 8,000 votes here over Clinton's 2016 total.

Trump's relative weakness here, in the engine room of Wisconsin's conservative movement, allowed Biden to make up ground after performing fairly weakly in rural areas. He flipped just two counties that Hillary Clinton had lost, and was utterly unable to win the southwest Wisconsin voters who had voted for the Obama-Biden ticket twice. But he cut Trump to the smallest margin in Waukesha County of any Republican nominee since Richard Nixon in 1968 — and Nixon would have won by more had thousands of conservatives not voted for third-party candidate George Wallace.

Trump: 159,633 (+17,090
Biden: 103,867 (+24,643
Third parties: 3,659 (-12,167)

Hidalgo County, Tex.

If Trump was making serious gains with Latino voters, we expected it to show up not just in Florida, but here — on the U.S.-Mexico border, where nearly every voter is Latino and where Democrats win big even when losing statewide. Sure enough, like he did across the Rio Grande Valley, Trump ran far ahead of traditional GOP numbers here, winning even more raw votes than George W. Bush did. The younger Bush was a popular Texas governor who advocated for immigration restructuring. Trump, whose presidency was defined by restricting immigration and moving around money to fund a border wall, held Democrats to their smallest margin here since Bush ran, just 17 points.

Trump's overperformance here destroyed Democratic hopes to win the state, or even close the Trump margin appreciably from four years ago. In nearby (and not very populous) Zapata County, Trump was the first Republican presidential victor in 100 years, and Biden actually ran behind Clinton's total 2016 vote. In no part of the Rio Grande Valley did he do better than Clinton, and Republican overperformance helped save the state's swingiest House seat for the party, the 23rd District. This could have consequences in 2021, when Republicans draw new maps and ask whether, as they did 10 years ago, they should treat this region as a “vote sink,” a place to pack Democrats without putting any Republicans at risk.

Biden: 127,507 (+8,698
Trump: 89,991 (+41,349
Third parties 2,109 (-4,848)

Maricopa County, Ariz.

We said last week that the vote in Arizona would come down to its suburban mega-county, and it did. With fewer than 60,000 ballots still uncounted, Biden won more votes than any presidential candidate in the history of the county; Trump won more than any candidate but Biden. The Democrat simply found more votes and benefited more from the collapse of support for third parties — helped by the failure of the Green Party to get on the ballot, but boosted by endorsements from prominent Mormon politicians. (Four years ago, 11,448 Maricopa County voters wrote in the name of Evan McMullin, a conservative, Mormon, anti-Trump candidate.)

Biden: 1,027,269 (+327,418) 
Trump: 983,690 (+236,329
Third parties: 31,214 (-86,353)

Graphics by Ashlyn Still
Sources: Edison Research, Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Reading list

Why Republicans who'll be in Washington when Trump is gone aren't asking him to concede.

Inside the blue mirage.

A shift that took too many Democrats by surprise.

Worries about a fishing expedition to cast doubt on election results.

Why Cheri Bustos had to go.

Will people ever stop latching on to vote count conspiracy theories?

What unfolded in Robeson County.

Candidates who lost by landslides (and conceded!) start to question the results.

Lawsuit watch

The ongoing effort by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee to challenge the election results in swing states presents a real dilemma for the media — and for Democrats, and Republicans and everybody else.

Start with the impact on the transition. As The Washington Post reported last night, the Trump administration is resisting the transition process altogether, with the General Services Administration not issuing relevant paperwork until the election result, according to a senior administration source, is “official.” 

Readers of this newsletter, or people who are abnormally interested in the election certification process, might be confused by that word. Technically, no state's election is finished until canvasses are completed and all recounts and challenges are settled, or dismissed. Technically, the presidential election isn't wrapped up until Dec. 14, when members of the electoral college, selected by the popular vote of each state, cast their ballots.

Typically, the modern transition process doesn't wait for that to happen, and the precedent the GSA is leaning on here comes from 2000, when no news network was able to call the election pending recounts in Florida. This race has been called, but the president, as he threatened to do before the election, has refused to concede and instead leaned on a series of lawsuits to contest results.

Before Nov. 3, this situation was covered as a looming constitutional crisis. But what was imagined in that scenario was a Florida-style result, with no clear winner and a handful of votes to fight over. That's not what we have now. As of Thursday afternoon, the results in just one state, Georgia, were within the normal state threshold for a recount. Even ignoring Georgia, victories for Biden and Trump in every state where each candidate is now leading would leave Biden with 290 electoral votes, 20 more than he needs to clinch the presidency. 

So what's going on? Start with Georgia. In the six days since election night, there has been no proof offered of illegal voting in the state, and the count has put Biden ahead by the smallest margin of any presidential election in the state since the passage of the Voting Rights Act — 12,337 votes out of around 5 million cast. There's no precedent for a margin that size being reversed by a recount, and it's unlikely for it to flip unless there was a large tabulation error. 

Yet on Wednesday, Georgia's two Republican senators forced into Jan. 5 runoffs issued a joint statement demanding the resignation of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican elected narrowly two years ago. “There have been too many failures in Georgia elections this year and the most recent election has shined a national light on the problems,” said Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Sen. David Perdue. “The Secretary of State has failed to deliver honest and transparent elections.”

They cited no evidence of fraud or even incompetence, and they got an unusually blunt response from Raffensperger, saying the Republicans should “focus on” getting reelected. “Was there illegal voting? I am sure there was,” he said. “And my office is investigating all of it. Does it rise to the numbers or margin necessary to change the outcome to where President Trump is given Georgia’s electoral votes? That is unlikely.”

Georgia's tabulation is wrapping up, and afterward, the Trump campaign could request a recount if, as is likely, it ends the count with less than 0.5 percent of ballots separating it from the Biden campaign. But Republicans have been filing lawsuits for days, across several states. So far, they've succeeded only in getting their poll watchers closer access to a count in Philadelphia — which was followed by another lawsuit, arguing that their poll watchers didn't have “meaningful access” to the counts of absentee ballots in Pennsylvania's biggest cities. The same lawsuit argues that ballots that nobody disputes were cast by valid voters — absentee ballots “cured” by people after their local county officials flagged them for problems — should be tossed out because not every county followed that practice.

Here's the media's problem. Based on the reported vote, Biden has won the election, and by a big enough margin that ordinary recounts can't overturn it. The GOP's legal strategy isn't getting the sort of coverage that the battle over Florida in 2000 got, for that reason. And many of the arguments advanced by Republican lawyers, including statements from alleged witnesses to voter fraud, are based on hearsay. Should the media report rumors that it can't confirm and that courts don't take seriously? In pro-Trump social media and news sites, the answer is yes. Everywhere else, it's a firm and easy no, as Fox News dramatically displayed Wednesday, cutting away from a news conference at the Republican National Committee after White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany began talking about fraud with no evidence.

So, how to deal with this? It's complicated. Some Republicans have hinted that their reluctance to say Biden won the election, and their encouragement for the Trump campaign to make sure no results were altered by fraud, is about humoring the president. That's a political story, about the assertion that Democrats tried to steal the election from Trump becoming a litmus test for Republican candidates, like sticking with Trump through the 2016 “Access Hollywood” scandal or defending him during impeachment. And besides, 60 percent of money going to the RNC's legal fund is being earmarked to retire debt, which isn't what campaigns typically do if they're on the cusp of turning things around on a recount. 

There's another, practical, electoral story, dealing with the election certification. It needs to be done by Dec. 8 so that electors can be confirmed in a timely fashion. In other years, even when there has been a recount, every state has certified its election by then. But a few elected Republicans are arguing for the certification to be halted. That's the Trump campaign's demand in Pennsylvania, too. Its lawsuit yesterday asked for “an order, declaration, and/or injunction” that would prevent the state from certifying the election. Until when? The campaign didn't say, but note the timeline: Pennsylvania is set to certify the election Nov. 23. If it doesn't seat electors by Dec. 8, it's at risk at casting no votes on Dec. 14. 

That's some ways away, and its unlikeliness has meant it is getting measured, minimal coverage. But the official position of the defeated presidential campaign remains that it has not lost yet. All but a few Republicans in Congress agree, and Republican legislators in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have either called for audits of the vote count and special hearings, or already started them, even though the suggestions of “fraud” so far have come down to fake or unfounded claims. Until the Trump campaign concedes or exhausts its legal options, there will be an effort to challenge swing-state vote counts, raise doubts about the count, and potentially throw out the results.

Dems in disarray

House Democrats went into this election expecting to gain seats and lose none. That wasn’t how it played out. Republicans are on track to whittle down House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) conference down to just over 220 seats — a bare majority — with the survivors squabbling over who to blame.

In separate phone calls, The Trailer talked to Democrats representing the party’s centrist wing and its insurgent left wing, Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania and Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman of New York. Bowman triumphed easily, in a safely Democratic seat, after ousting a more moderate incumbent; Lamb narrowly won reelection in the suburbs and exurbs of Pittsburgh, after a campaign in which Republicans made frequent use of his appearance at a Black Lives Matter rally, where one protester held a sign reading “Defund the Police.” We asked some of the same questions, and a lightly edited transcript, merging the interviews, is below.

The Trailer: A lot of the arguments since Tuesday about what went wrong have focused on the party’s left and how Republicans linked it to every Democrat in a swing seat. And the blame’s often gone to the slogan “defund the police,” which came from activists but was pinned to Democratic candidates. How harmful was that? 

Jamaal Bowman: If you're running in alignment with the needs of your constituents, and you have deep relationships with the people in your district, and they're very clear on where you stand on all of the issues — then, it doesn't matter what somebody hundred miles away is running on. It's all about you and your connection with constituents.

So, whether it's “defund the police,” Medicare-for-all, socialism or whatever you want to call it, we all have a responsibility to run on the demands and the mandate of the constituents in our districts. And we have to do that as effectively as possible. That includes phone banking, text banking, door-knocking, social media usage — a whole lot of things. 

Conor Lamb: It certainly didn't help. I don't know how to quantify it. I think in my own case, we were able to explain to people the truth about that photo and about my position, and all of that. But that's not an easy thing to do. It takes a ton of work and a ton of resources. The problem, I think, is that nationally, that message just became overwhelming. And, frankly, not everybody in our party was as clear or as forceful in response as we were. So, it affected Democrats as a whole.

TT: When did you realize that you’d had your picture taken with somebody holding a “defund the police” sign?

CL: When I saw it on social media. Look, what happened with the police union, in our race, was that they endorsed us in our primary and then kind of didn't do much after that. But the issue was on people's minds everywhere. I went to a big police event probably 10 days before the election, which was a fundraiser for a police officer who has cancer. And it was just overwhelmingly supportive of President Trump and Republican candidates. They were nice to me. They were courteous. They welcomed me. But I could tell I wasn't getting a lot of votes out of that crowd. And it shouldn't be that way. 

We need these people to be partners in whatever we want to do. And I think if you look at the way we reacted to the murder of George Floyd, the response to that at the legislative level was not, in fact, to defund the police. I had long phone conversations with people like [New York Rep.] Hakeem Jeffries and [California Rep.] Karen Bass and [Louisiana Rep.] Cedric Richmond, and they put together a bill that they could support in their communities and that I could support in mine. That's the only kind of thing that's ever going to become law and actually help both the people who have had bad experiences with police, as well as police themselves. The promise that some of these people make about “defunding” the police is a false promise. There is a messaging and policy problem here, because that's not only an unpopular policy, it's an unrealistic one.

TT: What do you say to people who say: We lost seats on the quote-unquote “law-and-order” argument, that proves that the president’s messaging was at least partly successful?

JB: We have to continue to organize for police and criminal justice reform. Right? That's not stopping and that cannot stop. Biden, first of all, by being better than Donald Trump in every way, just in terms of competence and steadiness and compassion when it comes to policy, I think that's essential. But I think it's also essential that Biden is adopting policies that are more progressive than previous presidential candidates, and I think the American people responded to that. Whether it's environmental racism, racial equality, universal child care, fully funding education — you know, Joe Biden's running on that. That’s why he won. In addition to Donald Trump being horrendous.

TT: There’s already a debate unfolding about how to approach divided government. One idea is pass whatever you can in the House and run against Republicans in 2022 for blocking it. The other is to lower the temperature and pass bills that can make it through the Senate. Where do you think the party should go?

CL: I think that in my three years in this business, it has never been clearer that the American people just voted for compromise. They sent us a Democratic president by an extremely large majority in the popular vote, and they sent us a Republican Senate, knowing full well what that would mean. People want us to work together and get things done.  On police reform and the stuff that was in our George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, there was a ton of overlap back in June. I mean, there wasn’t a complete overlap, but there some, and we just didn't have the leadership at that time coming from the White House to get it over the line. But now we do. And so I think we will get some of this stuff done.

JB: First of all, the Democrats are going to win the two Senate seats in Georgia. When that happens, McConnell will no longer be the majority leader and we should work through him and around him. But assuming that he may be there, our job in the House is to govern in response to the needs of our districts, not to water down legislation just so McConnell can support it. Mitch McConnell has made it very clear he does not want to legislate. He only wants to appoint judges. 

So, we can't worry about him. We have to put forth a bold agenda, a bold vision, one that meets the needs of the American people. The American people have to see us fighting for them. And as long as they see that, they'll ultimately call people like Mitch McConnell out and stay engaged in our democracy.

Candidate tracker

This may be the end of our where's-the-candidate sidebar. President Trump and Vice President Pence may or may not rejoin the campaign trail ahead of Georgia's Jan. 5 runoffs. It's unclear whether President-elect Joe Biden or Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would head down to the state, as Democrats ponder how much to nationalize a race that has been pretty well nationalized already.

But the presidential campaign is over. The president has not appeared before cameras since Nov. 5, and he tweeted cryptically today that “results” would “start to come in next week.” Pence met with Senate Republicans today and was going to head to a short vacation in Sanibel, Fla., through Saturday, before canceling the trip Tuesday evening. Biden and Harris participated in a rollout of their coronavirus task force Monday, and on Tuesday, Biden condemned the ongoing effort by Republican attorneys general and the outgoing administration to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

But Biden spent most of a Q&A answering questions about the president's refusal to concede the election. “The fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge that we won at this point is not of much consequence in our planning and what we’re able to do between now and January 20,” Biden said in Wilmington, Del.

Meet a PAC

What it's called: Save America

Who's behind it: Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, who is eligible to run for president again in 2024 once the 2020 election results are certified. (If he'd won the election, he'd be termed out.)

What it's for: As first reported by Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, Save America “could spend an unlimited amount in so-called independent expenditures to benefit other candidates, as well as fund travel, polling and consultants,” allowing Trump to fund campaign travel through donations, without actually starting a new campaign.

What it's doing: So far, raising money. A donor appeal being sent out by Republicans to help “win key states,” ostensibly by funding recounts or lawsuits in the states that broke for Joe Biden. In the fine print, money donated to this campaign is earmarked for the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising committee that includes the RNC, the Trump reelection campaign and Save America.

Countdown

… 25 days until runoffs in Louisiana 
… 34 days until the electoral college votes 
… 55 days until runoffs in Georgia 
… 71 days until the inauguration