Election night will be particularly suspenseful in 2020, even though we may not know the outcome of the presidential race on election night itself.
There's a scenario in Tuesday's election where both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are parked beneath the crucial 270 electoral vote threshold, pending mail-in ballots yet to be counted in a contested state.
But there are other possible outcomes in which the 2020 election could be decided on election night itself.
In addition to the presidential race, 33 U.S. Senate seats are on the ballot, and control of that body will shift to the Democrats if they can gain a net four seats. All U.S. House seats are up for grabs, and though only a fraction of those are truly contested, some incumbents are running in close races.
So, what should you watch for as election night coverage unfolds? Coronavirus has changed the landscape of the 2020 election, with record numbers of voters turning out in states where early voting is allowed.
There's also a greater ratio of mail-in ballots in the mix, and in some states, as long as they're postmarked by Election Day, they can be counted beyond Tuesday. Mail-in votes historically lean Republican, but given that Democrats have been more cautious about coronavirus, how mail-in ballots break is one of the big factors in Election Day 2020.
Also to keep an eye on as election night coverage starts: How will Election Day turnout fare? Will we see fewer voters turn out Tuesday due to the strong early voter numbers? Or will a massive Election Day turnout arrive to smash election participation records?
Here's an hour-by-hour guide on what to watch for on election night as the 2020 narrative unfolds.
(Also, check out our streaming guide for your election night watch options.)
States in Play: 2020 Election
(with a 223-125 lead for Biden based on safe and likely Democratic and Republican states)
|State||Electoral Votes||Polls close at|
|North Carolina||15||6:30pm CT|
|Nebraska (2nd District)||1||8pm CT|
Polls close in these key states: Georgia, South Carolina
Polls also close in: Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Vermont
It usually doesn't take long after the initial state poll closings for networks to make a pair of projections: Insert Democrat Here wins Vermont and Insert Republican Here wins Kentucky. But 2020 isn't a normal year, and even at this early hour, there are some items to keep an eye on.
The lines in Georgia
Voter disenfranchisement is an issue in Georgia; 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has championed the issue (and amplified it nationally) after narrowly losing that election. Newsweek reported that even during the early voting period, some voters had to wait as long as 10 hours in Cobb County (in the Atlanta metro suburbs) to cast votes.
Whereas long lines in Atlanta and its suburbs will most likely bode well for Biden, it'll have to be taken in tandem with the banked vote. It's possible that we won't see long lines of presumptive Biden voters on Tuesday because we've already seen them in the early voting period.
The Kentucky and South Carolina Senate races
Though both states are reliably red when it comes to Trump, the embattled senators running for re-election may have a harder time hanging on to their posts. Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) fighting for his political life against Jamie Harrison. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Majority Leader, is facing a challenge from Amy McGrath. Out-of-state donors have flooded their campaigns with cash—especially Harrison's. Since there won't be many numbers the first hour, keep an eye on how close the margins are as well as what's yet to be counted in urban areas.
Polls close in these key states: North Carolina, Ohio
Polls also close in: West Virginia
Numbers should start coming in at this point from two swing states.
As Ohio goes, so has the nation in 30 of the last 32 presidential elections. Yet, the idea of Ohio being a bellwether state is in question, as Trump's outsized margin of victory in 2016—when compared to the national average—could reflect more of a rightward lean to the Buckeye State. But this year, Ohio's a contested state, with polls showing its 18 electoral votes truly could go either way.
In North Carolina, there's a wild Senate race on top of a close presidential race. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) is down in most polls to Democrat Cal Cunningham. That's despite a scandal in which Cunningham admitted to some light sexting with a campaign consultant. While there might be a larger, hand-wringy question of "Do morals matter?" in this race, the nuts-and-bolts question is, "Do the Dems pick up a Senate seat here or not?"
Key metric in this hour
- Whatever numbers get released from Georgia. If you see an early lead for your candidate at this point, feel cautiously optimistic, but keep an ear out for what's still to be counted from four key counties: Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett.
Polls close in these key states: Florida, Maine, Pennsylvania
Polls also close in: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, D.C.
A number of states close their polls at this hour, and while most are reliably red and blue as far as the presidential race goes, there are still some storylines to watch for as the counting starts with these states.
Will Maine offset Alabama?
Alabama's Republican lean all but ensures that Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.)—who had the great good fortune to run against Roy Moore in Alabama's special Senate election in 2017—won't retain his seat. Though some might consider former college football coach Tommy Tuberville a flawed candidate, he's certainly not Roy Moore levels of flawed.
Maine's ripe for a Democratic pickup, with Sara Gideon running against four-term Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). The senator's vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court Justice fueled national interest (and national fundraising) in the race. Will Collins' recent vote against Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court confirmation (albeit, with cover from other Republican senators) be enough to win back moderate voters?
Florida and Pennsylvania's early vote
Gonna sound weird here, given Florida's reputation with close elections and election management, but we might have a better idea what Florida looks like throughout election night. The Sunshine State has experience tallying mail-in ballots, and might have a significant percentage of its vote ready to go when the polls close in the Panhandle.
Pennsylvania's race, on the other hand, could be close enough to wait on ballots that can arrive after Election Day. Pennsylvania election law states, for 2020, "Your mail-in ballot must be postmarked by 8 p.m. on election day and received by your county election office by 5 p.m. on Friday, November 6 to be counted."
If the race hinges entirely on Pennsylvania and it's past midnight, don't count on knowing the winner by the time you go to bed. (Note that Pennsylvania's initial numbers may lean more Trump-ward than they end up, based on how the votes are expected to come in.)
Polls close in: Arkansas
It's Arkansas. It's staying red.
Key metric in this hour
- If you're interested in the Senate flipping, the early Maine and North Carolina numbers, combined with what's happening in the Kentucky and South Carolina races, will show if any of the four needed pickups are coming. If they don't, though, there are other races further west that could deliver the seats needed.
Polls close in these key states: Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin
Polls also close in: Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming
A trio of key Midwestern states, plus two surprise swing states, close their polls at this point in the night. Here are some things to watch for at this hour.
Texas' early vote totals
Texans have been voting at record levels during the early voting period, even with some head-scratching attempts at "voter security." Take, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott's (R) bizarre mandate to only have one drop-off location for each of 254 counties, be it Loving County with 134 people dotting 600 square miles of West Texas flatland, or Harris County with more than 4 million Houstonians.
Polls indicate that 2020 might be the year Texas backs a Democrat again. In the presidential race, that hasn't happened since 1976.
In 2018, the high-profile race between Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Beto O'Rourke looked like a potential tipping point. Early numbers that night had the candidates in a deadlock. But it went from "the times they are a-changing" to "never mind" in a little over 90 minutes, with the AP calling the race for Cruz just after 9:30pm CT.
If Biden wins Texas, he most likely gets over 270 electoral votes, even if Trump wins most of the other swing states in the mix.
The Upper Midwest
A winning Trump electoral map, in nearly all realistic scenarios, needs a red Michigan or a red Wisconsin. Some Trump believers even think that Minnesota's in play, though that's the less likely of the three states to break his way.
Wisconsin, like Pennsylvania, can't legally count mail-in ballots before Election Day, so we might get a clearer picture early on from Michigan, which can at least start counting mail-in ballots the day before Election Day. In the primaries, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania took six days to report their results, whereas Michigan was able to turn its around in nine hours.
Key metric this hour
- Look at the Texas early vote totals. Don't get prematurely excited if you're a Biden supporter and see a close race, but watch that horse race. If it's still close in the third hour, or if Biden's broken away, then you should get excited.
Polls close in: Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Utah
Four more states close polls, but by this point, the count will be well underway in critical states. Here are some data points to watch in this hour, aside from the obvious ones.
Iowa's a swing state again!
FiveThirtyEight has Iowa as the closest state in the nation, with Trump holding a tenth of a percent advantage over Biden in its poll of polls. It's also hosting a key U.S. Senate race. Challenger Theresa Greenfield looks poised to flip Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa)'s seat to the Democratic column. If she does, pundits will point to the Oct. 15 debate in which Ernst fumbled an Iowa credibility question: "What is the price of soybeans?"
Nebraska's 2nd District: Omaha is also swingy
Nebraska is one of two states—Maine being the other—that awards electoral votes winning for individual congressional districts. Biden is favored to win Nebraska's 2nd District, which includes the core of the Omaha metro area, but Trump campaigned here last Tuesday, in a rally that literally sent some supporters to the hospital as they tried to get back to their cars.
Key metric this hour
- Depending on what's in from the early poll closing states, we may have a call in Georgia or North Carolina. A Biden win in either state narrows Trump's path to victory (though there's still one there).
Polls close in: California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Washington
During election night coverage in Normal Times, this is often the magic hour for calling the presidential race. The AP called it for Barack Obama at 10:38pm CT for the 2012 election, and major cable news networks called the 2008 race for Obama right as polls closed in the West. If we don't get an outright winner here, we might get some clarity at this phase of election night from these places.
Adrian Fontes, an election official for Maricopa County, expressed confidence to the New York Times in the run-up to Election Day. “I somewhat jokingly say that we are prepared for everything except Godzilla,” he noted, before adding the caveat, “Nowadays that includes a global pandemic and possible terrorism.”
Arizona has a long and solid history with processing election night ballots, and its 11 electoral votes make it a slightly bigger prize than Minnesota or Wisconsin. In addition to being part of the presidential swing state mix, it's the site of a key Senate battle. Democrat Mark Kelly looks poised to beat incumbent Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) for John McCain's seat.
It's possible the race could be already called for Trump in Texas at this hour. But if it's still close, look for a couple of counties that might still have outstanding vote counts. Dallas County and Harris County lean Democratic, and Tarrant County (the Fort Worth side of the Metroplex) leans Republican. Travis County leans heavily Democratic, but the Austin votes should be banked by then. (If they're not, those should break for Biden at a 2:1 ratio.)
Networks called the race for Obama in 2012 in this hour of election night coverage, based what they saw in Ohio. Winning Ohio doesn't give Biden an automatic knockout blow like Texas does. Yet, if a state like Michigan, North Carolina, or Iowa is already tallied for Biden, Ohio is enough even if other key swing states back Trump.
Key metric this hour
- If the call in Ohio is still elusive, which it could be? Watch the other three key Midwestern states. If they're close, that could bode well for Trump. A big Biden lead in any of the states at this stage would concern the Trump camp.
How close will Florida be? If we don't know the winner in Florida at this stage of the night, look for numbers coming in from South Florida counties. Even with strong early voting numbers, Florida's a notoriously close state, and a big Election Day turnout could tip the election.
“I have trust in the process — it's the unknown,” Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles told Bay News 9, existentially, two weeks before Election Day. “What will tomorrow bring?”
A race within 0.5 percent would trigger a recount. That's where things would get 2000 election levels of messy.
Key metric this hour
- Texas or Florida could be ready for an AP call in this window. Depending on how the map fills out, a win in either state for Biden could bring him above the 270 mark. If the margins are close, though, and votes are still coming in, it could be a much later night.
Polls close in: Alaska
While Alaska isn't expected to factor into the presidential race, there's a weirdly-close-for-Alaska Senate race between incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Democratic challenger Al Gross. Alaska's likely to remain red and send Sullivan back to Washington, but if you're looking for some fresh drama in your election night coverage, this could be the place for it.
AP called the 2016 race for Trump at 1:29am CT on election night, based on Wisconsin's results. If there's still no winner at this stage of the night, it's quite possible that Wisconsin could reveal the winner. It's more likely, though, that Pennsylvania will be in the balance, which could turn election night into election week. (Or, as we experienced in 2000, a lingering month of uncertainty that ended in a Supreme Court decision and a ruling that favored the Republican candidate.)
There's one more scenario to talk about: A 269-269 tie. The procedure to deal with it happens in January, and it involves state Congressional delegations. Currently, the Republicans have a slight edge in the number of state delegations, but that could change based on Tuesday's results ... and election night might just morph into Constitutional crisis month.
It just might be time to go to bed.