AS ELECTION DAY draws near, it’s worth watching for a particular outcome that could defy pundits’ expectations: We could know the winner of the presidential election by the next morning.
Preparing for protracted results is wise, but it’s also possible that one of the candidates will clearly pull ahead in the race for the 270 votes needed to win the Electoral College and secure the presidency.
Many predict Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be most likely to win in such a scenario. They point to weeks of polls showing Biden leading President Donald Trump by double digits nationally and by a few points in swing states.
The race is also tighter than usual in unexpected places. Biden has been neck-and-neck with Trump in Texas and Georgia, while Trump was leading in South Carolina by only 8 percentage points: The president won the reliably Republican state by 14 points in 2016.
An unusually close Senate race between Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison could be dragging down Trump’s numbers—but Trump could also pull Graham up in straight-ticket voting on Election Day.
Meanwhile, a tight Senate race in North Carolina grew more turbulent in October: Republican Sen. Thom Tillis contracted the coronavirus during an outbreak connected to the White House, and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham acknowledged having an affair. Cunningham stayed in the race, but the scandal could dampen Democratic enthusiasm in a swing state Trump needs to stay red.
Though polls show Biden leading in swing states, it’s important to remember those races are close: A few-point spread can go either way on Election Day and make the contest closer than many predict. But no matter what voters tell pollsters, if they don’t cast a ballot, the results won’t reflect the preelection sentiment.
If voter turnout is critical, there’s one less-noticed set of numbers that makes some Democrats nervous—voter registrations. The Cook Political Report noted on Oct. 1 that Republicans had “swamped” Democrats in adding new voters in key swing states.
In Florida, since the March primary, the GOP added 195,652 voters. Democrats added 98,362. In Pennsylvania, Republicans had added 135,619 voters since June. Democrats had gained 57,985. In North Carolina, the GOP was up 83,785 voters since March. Democrats had added 38,137.
If the election grows closer than expected, Charles Stewart III, a political science professor at MIT, says we still may know more on election night than we’re anticipating. For example, results from counties that voted for Trump in 2016 may be revealing if they show those voters tilting away from Trump in 2020.
When it comes to specific states, Stewart runs down a possible sequence to follow on election night:
First, watch Florida. Since election officials begin processing mail-in ballots in the swing state three weeks before Election Day, we may have a good idea of Florida’s results by 10 p.m. (North Carolina and Arizona also process mail-in ballots in advance, and those results could post sooner than later.)
If Biden wins Florida, Stewart predicts the path grows difficult for Trump to win the election.
What if the Florida contest is close or Trump carries the state? Watch Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. If Biden sweeps those swing states, Trump again has a steep hill to climb.
But this is also where things grow tangled for a simple reason with a web of complications: a mountain of mail-in ballots that can’t be counted until Election Day.