The Paper Bullets Guide To Following Election Day (And The Three Weeks After)

The threat–or prospect, depending on which way you look at it–of Donald Trump’s re-election has motivated the electorate as never before. As of this writing, nearly 80 million voters have voted either by mail or at in-person early voting sites. This is nearing 66% of those that voted in the 2016 presidential election, and will be part of a record-setting turnout of approximately 154 million, according to election forecasting website Five-Thirty-Eight. For context, voters cast 130 million votes in the the turnout-busting 2008 election between Barack Obama and John McCain and the 2000 Bush/Gore debacle drew just over 100 million votes (not counting those ill-begotten Pat Buchanan votes that cost Gore the presidency).

With all of this extra scrutiny, there are likely more people interested in the ins-and-outs of election day watching. And yet, even election day veterans will have to adjust to various trends unique to 2020. For example, in states such as California and Florida, the early vote tends to be more conservative, and then shift to the left as late ballots get counted. But across the country, polling and submission trends confirm that Democrats have flooded the early voting process, meaning that they start with big leads in banked votes in nearly every state. Republicans intend to make that up by voting in person on election day, as Trump spent several months demanding they do. But because early voting is unrepresentative of the total vote, more of the vote–particularly the election day vote–will need to be counted before conclusions can be made.

All of which could lead to calls far later in the evening than usual (personally, I knew Trump had won about 6:30 PST, after which I took my kids to a movie, blissfully ignorant of what horrors would result), if any outcome can be reached on November 3 at all. The only reason such a result is even possible is that Joe Biden seems well in control of the race, and can win one of any number of states (ahem, Florida) that would prove impossible for Trump to overcome. Below, a summary of the key swing states and some things to look for on election night.



PENNSYLVANIA(Leans Biden)(Polls Close: 8 EST)
EV: 20
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Trump 2016 2,970,7332,926,4412,619,5832,907,448
Clinton 201648.18%47.46%46.80%52.00%
Key Counties 
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Berks 96,62678,43780,85779,895

Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama’s 2012 result in Pennsylvania by about 20,000 votes, but Donald Trump turned out over 350,000 voters over Mitt Romney’s 2012 total, giving him the narrow 44,000 vote victory. The three counties described here are an effective microcosm of Trump’s surprise win. Lackawanna is home to middle-class Scranton, and gave Trump a 25-point swing from Romney’s 2012 result. Berks is a historically Republican Philadelphia suburb showing signs of slippage until 2016, when reinvigorated Republican voters gave Trump a 10-point win. Berks is also precisely the kind of suburb where the bottom has reportedly fallen out of the Trump candidacy. Finally, York County is the kind of Republican exurb where Republicans have long built their Congressional majorities, but as Republicans lose favor in more established suburbs, they must rely on even larger margins in these outer-rim counties. Even slippage of a few points, repeated in red counties across the state, is likely enough to doom Trump.

Pennsylvania’s “red”-state status has been overdone. Notice that Romney won the vote in the three named counties by approximately 17,000 votes, while Trump won them by 75,000. Were these three counties alone to revert to prior practice, that would be enough for Biden to win the state. That will not happen–Trump, for instance, will likely find new voters in York in particular–but these three counties serve as a microcosm of Trump’s statewide challenge. Expect Biden to carry it, but not on election night. Apparently, Pennsylvania Republicans won’t allow counties to even start counting mail-in ballots until November 4. In the revolution, gerrymandering reform.

WISCONSIN(Leans Biden)(Polls Close: 9:00 EST)
EV: 10
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Key Counties 
Brown 67,21053,38264,73862,433

Brown County is the home of Green Bay, a virtual tie in 2012 but a 10-point win in 2016 for Trump. Trump must match his success in small urban centers such as Green Bay to have any hope of maintaining his lead, particularly as turnout rises. Speaking of turnout, Milwaukee County saw turnout collapse in 2016, as both Republicans and Democrats stayed home. Democrats will be highly motivated to return their voters to the polls in 2020. It isn’t clear whether Republicans are motivated, or even able, to turn out their urban voters. And while, the southeast corner of Wisconsin was long represented by former Republican Speaker and VP nominee Paul Ryan, it has long-established Democratic roots. Nestled just south of Milwaukee’s western Republican suburbs is Racine County, another of the Midwest’s small manufacturing hubs that voted for Obama in 2012, but Trump carried–on lower turnout–in 2016. With Trump’s margin narrow, even small movements toward Biden will be enough to flip the state. So is the state’s COVID tsunami, frankly.

MICHIGAN(Leans Biden)(Polls Close: 8:00 EST (east)/9:00 EST (west))
EV: 16
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Key Counties

Trump carried Michigan by approximately 11,000 votes, the narrowest margin of the 2016 election. Grand Rapids, Michigan has been represented by a Republican for decades, none more famous than native son Gerald Ford. But demographic change has eaten into Republican margins over time, and Trump carried Kent County by only three points. District level polls suggest that Trump is likely headed for a loss here, narrowing that gap. Macomb County became known as the spiritual home of “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, but after two decades returning home to the Democratic Party, they broke back for Donald Trump. Don’t expect the affair to last. Biden’s greatest challenge is to get Wayne County voters–Detroiters–to show up after staying home in 2012. Trump’s Michigan win was always his flukiest, least likely result to match. He won’t.

OHIO(Toss-up)(Polls Close: 7:30 EST)
EV: 18
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Key Counties

After Barack Obama narrowly won Ohio in 2012, Donald Trump carried Ohio by 8 points–a 10 point swing. Trump did so by improving on Romney’s margins in traditionally Republican counties but adding to them tens of thousands of votes from the blue-collar manufacturing counties just south and east of Cleveland–Mahoning, Trumbull, and Stark. These counties need to return to 2012 Obama levels for Biden to win the state. Moreover, Biden needs to cut into traditionally exurban counties, of which Licking is but one example. Finally, Biden may find some extra votes in older Ohio towns such as Columbus (Franklin County), Dayton (Montgomery County), and Akron (Summit County), where Trump ran equal to or ahead of historical Republican percentages. Further slippage in Cincinnati (Hamilton County)–one of the few Ohio counties where Trump ran behind Romney’s 2012 percentages–should also be watched. Of the states on this list, I would rank Ohio as the hardest for Biden to carry–yes, harder than Texas.

IOWA(Toss-up)(Polls Close: 10:00 EST)
EV: 6
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Key Counties
Black Hawk27,47632,23326,07839,335

Politically, Iowa has always been two states–the more Republican western part of the state and the more Democratic eastern part of the state. Every four years, the two parts of the state usually vote against each other, and the result is a close call. Not so in 2016, where the entire state–including the eastern portion–swung toward Trump, leading to a ten point win. But what is interesting, as can be seen by the four eastern counties listed above, is that Trump’s margin there was driven by low turnout. Trump didn’t run very far ahead of Romney’s 2012 results in these counties, but Democratic voters didn’t show. They appear to be back, with Democrats now holding three of the state’s four congressional seats, Democrat Theresa Greenfield favored in the underlying Senate race, and polling starting to lean toward Biden. It would not be surprising to see Iowa return to Democrats on Election Day.


NORTH CAROLINA(Lean Biden)(7:30 EST)
EV: 15
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Key Counties

North Carolina was Barack Obama’s surprise win in 2008, after winning the state by only 14,000 votes out of 4.5 million votes cast. The state has changed significantly over the past 12 years, becoming more diverse and professional, particularly as Charlotte has become a centralized business hub to rival nearby Atlanta. High turnout in heavily Democratic counties like Wake (Raleigh) and Mecklenburg (Charlotte) will help Biden, but even more so would be if Trump loses several more points from his 2016 totals. More interesting still would be if Trump shows any weakness in North Carolina’s well-heeled ruby-red Republican suburbs, represented here by Union County but also including Rowan, Gaston, Davie, Iredell, and Davidson. Here is where Trump will need to continue running up 70% of the vote. 65% probably isn’t enough. Trump thinks he needs to win here to have a chance. That may be true. Good luck.

GEORGIA(Toss-up)(7:00 EST)
EV: 16
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Key Counties

Trump narrowly carried Georgia in 2016, but his margin fell from Romney’s 2012 margin, and the Atlanta suburbs–once represented by Newt Gingrich–are in complete Republican rebellion. Lucy McBath already carried Gingrich’s old stomping ground, and its neighbor is likely to fall to the Democrats this year, never to return. Look at Fulton and DeKalb turnout (Spoiler alert: It’s going to be massive) and then factor in counties like Cobb and Gwinnett turning those narrow Trump 2016 wins into sizable deficits. Add to all this that Georgia has by far the worst group of Republican candidates in the country–Trump, Loeffler, Collins, and Perdue are the John, Paul, George, and Ringo of right-wing dumpster fire politics–and while this is not a prediction piece, it would not be at all surprising to see a Democratic clean sweep.1Note: Because of Georgia’s historic racism, it is the only state that still requires its candidates to win 50% of the total vote to win in November or the two highest vote candidates have to runoff in December. Remember this when Republicans tell you they want to know the results of the election on election night, and then smile and tell them to shove it.

FLORIDA(Lean Biden)(7:00 EST (Peninsula); 8:00 EST (Panhandle))
EV: 29
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Key Counties

Sigh. Florida. It’s easy to look back and see why early in the night the Clinton campaign was so optimistic. The campaign surely blew away its vote targets in Miami-Dade, and at around 5 pm it looked like all would be well. But as the vote count tallied, it became clear that two countervailing forces had cancelled out Clinton’s advantage. First, Trump managed to hold or even pickup votes in urban Tampa (Pinellas) and Jacksonville (Duval). Second, Trump managed to significantly beat Romney’s 2012 results in historically Republican counties in the so-called “I-4 corridor”–counties bordering (Democratic) Orlando. Reverse engineering a Biden win would seem to require the following three steps: (1) improve on Clinton’s results on Tampa (also more Democratic Hillsborough County) and Jacksonville; (2) cut into Trump’s margins in the I-4 corridor; and (3) maintain large advantages in the large southern tip counties–Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. One additional quirk: Trump’s Florida achilles’ heel may be seniors disgusted by Trump’s COVID failures. Most are watching Sumner County, which houses the “Villages,” a senior GOP enclave in the news because of its highly unique and polarized politics. But I suggest watching Sarasota County, a quieter and more swing county with high early turnout that may give away an early trend.

Predicting Florida is crazy. I won’t even try.

TEXAS(Toss-up)(Polls Close: 8:00 EST (Central); 9:00 EST (Mountain))
EV: 38
Trump 2016Clinton 2016*Cruz 2018O’Rourke 2018
Key Counties
El Paso55,512147,84350,943151,482

I can’t believe I’m writing here about Texas, or that if I had to place a bet on who would be declared its winner on November 3, I would bet on Biden. Texas’ Republican dominance was always reliant on low turnout, and those days are over. With a few days of early voting left, Texas voters have already cast nearly as many votes as were cast in 2016. Several fast-growing suburban counties have already cast more votes than in 2016, as has Harris County–urban Houston. Because of the sea-change in Texas politics, 2012’s presidential election results are nearly irrelevant, so I did not refer to them above. Instead, nearly as many votes were cast in the 2018 Ted Cruz-Beto O’Rourke Senate race as in the 2016 presidential race, and so that race serves as a fine comparison point. More so because both Cruz and Trump are similarly reprehensible.

A Biden victory will be driven by several accelerating trends that all have to come together at the same time. The first is continued collapse of the Republican vote in Republican suburbs of Dallas, such as Collin and Denton counties. Once some of the safest Republican House seats in the country, Democrat Colin Allred captured one Dallas-area seat, and several others are endangered this year. Regardless of the fate of these seats, Trump is likely to run several points behind Biden in these counties–some district-level polls suggesting possible double-digit losses. Tarrant County–the more Republican part of the Dallas-Ft. Worth area–could also see Trump collapse. Second is the sleeping giant in Harris County, where Republicans were nearly wiped out in 2018 and high turnout presages poorly for them in 2020. Third, Biden would be helped by increasing turnout in Hispanic counties such as El Paso and Hidalgo. Combining these factors with increasingly Democratic lean of the Austin/San Antonio corridor should be enough to get Biden over the top, where O’Rourke fell just short.

ARIZONA(Lean Biden)(9:00 EST)
EV: 11
Trump 2016Clinton 2016Romney 2012Obama 2012
Key Counties

Arizona was one of the surprises of the 2016 election, not because Trump won it, but because his margin of victory was so small–only 3.5%. In that, Arizona is already following fast-growing western neighbors like Nevada and Colorado into the Democratic column. In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema became the first elected Democratic Senator from Arizona in several decades, defeating current appointed Senator Martha McSally, who must be ready to set some kind of record by losing both Arizona Senate seats in a two-year period. Arizona comes down to Maricopa County, where 60% of its votes are cast. Sinema carried Maricopa in 2018, and district-level polls suggest Biden may even win formerly hardcore Republican districts such as the one currently represented (at least until January) by David Schweikart. If Trump can’t win these voters, he’s not likely to find them no matter how many times he takes the 3:10 to Yuma. It will help if Biden can run up the score just as Clinton did in historically Democratic Pima County (Tucson).

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