Election night is finally hereNovember 4, 2020
Joe Biden banked his lead in the early vote. The question now is whether Donald Trump did enough on Election Day to catch him.
As polls close on the East Coast, the first glimpse of an answer may come relatively early in Florida and North Carolina, two states Trump needs to hold — but where Biden is polling ahead by about 2 percentage points.
Elections officials expect to count most ballots in those states quickly, and a Biden victory in either would short-circuit Trump’s already-narrow path to a second term. If Trump carries both Florida and North Carolina, as he did in 2016, the nation will settle in for a long night — and possibly days — with protracted vote counts expected in other swing states.
“It could be that North Carolina will be the tipping point,” said Pete Giangreco, a Democratic strategist who has worked on nine presidential campaigns. “You could wake up sometime on Wednesday and AP has called Michigan, Wisconsin and North Carolina … Pennsylvania will be like ‘Waiting for Godot.’”
Trump enters the evening with almost no room for error. He closed the campaign lagging behind Biden in traditional battlegrounds and at risk of losing once-reliably Republican states like Georgia, Iowa and Ohio.
Even Texas, the headiest of the Democratic Party’s ambitions, appeared to be competitive: Trump is clinging to a lead of just 1 percentage point in the state, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average.
Democrats in Texas were buoyed by an early vote that surpassed the state’s total vote count from four years ago — and by a federal judge’s rejection Monday of a bid by Republicans to disqualify nearly 127,000 ballots cast during drive-through voting in heavily-Democratic Harris County. Biden dispatched his running mate, Kamala Harris, to the state in the final week of the campaign.
The election ended as it began: as a referendum on an unpopular president. Frenetic campaigning in the final days belied the unusual stability of the race, which was unmoved by a global pandemic, the president’s own hospitalization, two presidential debates, millions of dollars in advertising and a summer of historic civil unrest. Biden’s 52 percent to 42 percent lead in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll on Monday was 1 percentage point off its measure from July 2019.
“I just feel like at some point you’ve got to trust the data,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster who worked on the presidential campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Howard Dean. “[Trump’s] numbers aren’t moving. Biden’s numbers aren’t moving. The nature of the choice isn’t moving.”
Everything else, he said, is just “little distractions along the way.”
Biden entered the night with multiple paths to an Electoral College majority. Campaigning in Scranton, Pa., on Election Day, he visited his childhood home, where he wrote on the living room wall, “From this House to the White House with the Grace of God.”
Trump, meanwhile, appeared exhausted. Calling into “Fox & Friends,” he complained that the experience of being president has been “mean” and marred by “deceptive” and “horrible people.”
The nation was bracing for a tumultuous night, with government workers erecting barricades around the White House and businesses boarding windows in cities across the country in anticipation of post-election chaos. Yet the election — held amid a pandemic and in a period of social unrest — also amounted to a historic triumph in civic participation.
About 100 million votes had been cast before polls opened, according to the United States Elections Project, and turnout on Election Day was expected to be heavy. Many in-person voters will be Republicans, who were leerier than Democrats of voting by mail. The attorneys general of Michigan, Nevada and Minnesota told reporters this afternoon that they were seeing no significant disruptions or voter intimidation at the polls. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said it was “blissfully uneventful.”
Trump will need an explosive day-of vote to overcome Democrats’ early advantage.
It is an equation that Trump saw staring back at him as the campaign drew to a close.
“Has anyone voted?” Trump asked a crowd in Grand Rapids, Mich., late Monday. When a relatively small number of people cheered, he said, “Okay, good. Because you’re saving it, right? You’re saving it for Tuesday.”
On Election Day, he said, “We’re going to have a red wave … like nobody’s ever seen before.”
If Trump can hold the Sun Belt, he will also need a victory in the Rust Belt to win the Electoral College. He is closest to Biden in Pennsylvania, polling behind by about 5 percentage points. With both candidates focusing heavily on Pennsylvania in recent days, if there’s a late shift in the race, it’s likely to happen there.
Biden, given the polling, had more reason for optimism in the state than Trump. But Republicans were encouraged by boisterous rallies and a newspaper endorsement over the weekend from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has not backed a Republican for president since 1972.
“It was not only that they endorsed Trump,” said Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist, “But their rationale.”
Offering a more cogent closing argument for the president than Trump has articulated himself, the newspaper acknowledged “embarrassment” it felt about him, while concluding “he gets things done.”
Trump, while predicting victory, has been running parallel campaigns in recent weeks — the traditional one to win and an unprecedented effort to challenge the legitimacy of the election if he loses.
Following reports that he planned to declare victory prematurely if results at any point tonight show him ahead, Trump said this morning that he would declare victory “only when there’s victory.” But his remarks were unlikely to ease tension surrounding the ballot count, which has been marred by Trump’s baseless claims that the election will be “rigged.”
Jockeying over the vote count — and the timing of the results — has colored the final week of the campaign. Biden’s advisers spent the closing hours before the election framing his polling advantage in terms designed to blunt Trump’s rhetoric surrounding the ballot count or any effort to call the election early.
The anxiety spilled over into Election Day, though Biden met it lightheartedly. After carrying the vote in 5-0 in tiny Dixville Notch, N.H., he joked that, “Based on Trump’s notion, I’m going to declare victory tonight.”
In fact, most Americans are prepared to wait. Just 17 percent of voters expect the winner to be announced tonight, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll.