If you’re planning to stay up late on Tuesday night in hopes of knowing who’s won the presidential election before you go to sleep, plan on having plenty of coffee handy. With states processing an unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic, election analysts agree that there’s a slim chance we’ll know the winner of the Electoral College before midnight Eastern time. The lack of an election night race call is not unusual. Only twice since 2000 — Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 — has the winner been clear before midnight.
But there are scenarios in which we could know the winner early Wednesday morning, rather than, say, two or three weeks later amid court battles over late-arriving ballots.
Heavy is partnering this year with election data provider Decision Desk HQ, one of the few outfits in the country that compiles election results and issues projections. According to a breakdown provided to Heavy by DDHQ, the processing of votes will vary widely by state, with some crucial battleground states counting almost all of their votes on Tuesday or early Wednesday, while others take days or even weeks to provide enough data for analysts to project a winner.
Drew McCoy, Decision Desk HQ’s president, said it’s unlikely the group will project an Electoral College winner until after midnight Tuesday night. But there are some scenarios in which a projection could be possible early Wednesday morning.
“The ability to call 270 electoral votes on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning (2-4am) depends on how quick states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin are in counting their ballots,” McCoy said in an email. “Factors such as how close the races are, which states will still be accepting ballots after election day, and how long it takes them to process absentee votes will determine whether or not we reach the mark for either candidate in that window.”
It Could Take Several Days or Longer to Know Who Won, but a Biden Landslide Would Make an Election Night Race Call Possible
Election analysts generally see two conflicting factors when assessing the likelihood that we’ll know who has won the election on Tuesday night or shortly thereafter. On one hand, there are ingredients that could lead to a prolonged, messy process that could take weeks to resolve and involve court battles over which ballots are and aren’t counted. That process is complicated further given that President Donald Trump and some of his Republican allies have repeatedly suggested that only the votes processed on election night should count — a position that election law experts have repeatedly decried as dangerous and anti-democratic given that states never have a full, final count on election night even under normal circumstances. On the other hand, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has close to a 9-point lead in the national polls, making him the biggest polling frontrunner in 24 years. If Biden wins in a landslide, a race call on Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning is within the realm of possibility.
Biden’s path to an election night knockout punch is complicated by two battleground states that are very unlikely to have conclusive results on Tuesday night: Pennsylvania and Michigan. A third northern battleground, Wisconsin, could also have inconclusive results under some circumstances. But McCoy said there are 270 electoral votes worth of states that are expected to process their ballots relatively quickly on Tuesday. (FiveThirtyEight also has a guide to when votes are expected to be tallied in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C.)
Biden’s best shot at an election night dagger? Wins in some combination of Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and Texas.
Florida, Ohio & a Few Other Key Battleground States Are Expected to Process Ballots Quickly on Tuesday
Biden’s polling lead is large enough that Trump can only win if there’s a bigger polling error than the one that occurred in 2016. A Trump win is possible – the FiveThirtyEight forecast gives the president roughly a 1 in 10 shot at winning – but most scenarios that lead to a Trump victory involve vote counts that are extremely close — so much so that he’s very unlikely to have the election in the bag on Tuesday night.
With that in mind, it’s likely that one of three scenarios will play out on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. Here they are, in order of the decisiveness of the outcome:
Scenario 1: Biden secures 270 electoral votes on election night, landing a decisive victory: Under this scenario, Biden overcomes a lack of finality in Pennsylvania and Michigan by winning a handful of key states that are likely to tally votes somewhat quickly on Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. If Biden is declared the winner Tuesday night in every state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, he’ll have 232 electoral votes. Biden could get over the threshold by winning Florida (29 electoral votes) and at least one of the following: Wisconsin (10 electoral votes); Arizona (11); North Carolina (15); Georgia (16); Ohio (18); or Texas (38).
In the following map, Biden clinches every Clinton state and adds Florida and Wisconsin, along with single electoral votes in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. He loses Iowa, where polls show Trump with a narrow lead, but wins in Wisconsin and Florida get him to 273 electoral votes even if Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Arizona are all too close or too early to call on election night.
The map above would give Biden the bare minimum. But if he’s having a good night, it’s also possible he could win several additional states. A best-case scenario for Biden would be the map below, in which he’d have clinched the most electoral votes by any candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996 and would likely be on his way to carrying Michigan and Pennsylvania, delivering the highest electoral vote total by a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Scenario 2: Biden is clearly on his way to victory, but there are too many outstanding ballots in key states for him to hit 270 electoral votes on Tuesday night. The outcome isn’t really in doubt, but the race isn’t called until Wednesday afternoon or later. Under this scenario, Biden gets election night race calls in all of the 2016 Clinton states, plus a crucial win in Wisconsin, which Trump carried in 2016. The race is down to the wire in Ohio, which Trump carried by 8 points in 2016, and in Iowa, signaling a very good night for Biden in the Midwest. He’s technically behind in Michigan and Pennslyvania, but there are enough outstanding ballots in both states to make Biden the likely winner in both of them. Races in the five key Sunbelt battlgrounds — North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas and Arizona — are all too early to call, but the composition of outstanding ballots makes Biden favored in two or more of those states. It’s clear that Biden is on his way to a decisive win, but that it’s going to take some time before it’s all buttoned up.
Scenario 3: Trump is outperforming his polls in key battlegrounds, leading to a messy, drawn-out process: In this scenario, neither candidate is particularly close to securing 270 electoral votes by early Wednesday morning. Trump has outperformed his polls at least slightly in key battlegrounds. He’s won Iowa, Ohio and Texas and has potential paths to victory in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona. The race is very close in Wisconsin, though Biden has a lead that looks likely to grow as late-arriving mail ballots are counted. It’s way too early to call in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but Trump is ahead in both states among votes counted so far — the type of scenario that multiple news outlets have reported could prompt Trump to prematurely declare victory.
There are various ways this scenario could play out. Biden, who analysts say has far more plausible paths to victory than Trump, could prevail in one or more Sunbelt battlegrounds, reaching the 270 threshold Wednesday or Thursday. Trump could narrowly win every close state and secure a second term with a race call taking place toward the end of the week or later. In other cases, the election could be drawn out for weeks, with court battles ongoing to determine which ballots should and shouldn’t be counted.
Decision Desk HQ’s McCoy Says ‘We Won’t Be Rushing to Make Any Calls’
A lot has been written about Trump’s behavior in the lead-up to the election. News coverage in the coming weeks will depend in part on the content on Trump’s Twitter feed. For McCoy and other election data providers, though, the focus will remain on the data.
“From our perspective at Decision Desk HQ, we are ready to collect the data as long as officials across the country are providing it and we won’t be rushing to make any calls because of artificial deadlines,” McCoy said. “Our calls are based on our ability to collect the necessary data as accurately and quickly as possible. Once we have sufficient data, our call team will make the call. Until then, we’ll keep collecting the data we need.”