In the final hours before polls close at 1pm tomorrow (NZ time) in the US election, at least four major question marks remain: namely, the outcomes in Florida and Pennsylvania, and how a conservative federal court judge will rule later today on a Republican attempt at vote suppression in Texas that could disqualify at least 127,000 valid votes and throw the entire state to Donald Trump. Fourth and finally, there’s the biggest question of all: will Trump be able to outperform his poll numbers as he did in 2016? Lets take them in turn.
Florida ( 29 Electoral College votes)Almost every Trump path to victory hinges on him winning Florida. Here’s some good news : because Florida in one of the majority of states – 34 in all – where state law allows for mail ballots to be pre-counted before the polls close, there should be a deluge of results when Florida begins reporting tomorrow, which should be at around 3pm NZ time.
Warning : because most voters-by-mail are Democrats, there is a good chance that Biden will kick out to a strong early lead. Therefore, Trump will be playing a nail-biting catchup in Florida as the returns progress. So be wary of premature media claims of a Biden landslide in the state. The media also made that premature call in 2016, and Hillary Clinton ultimately lost Florida. Joe Biden is slightly ahead on latest polling, but his lead is in margin of error territory. Currently, Florida is a tossup.
Pennsylvania (20 Electoral College Votes). The vote counting situation is far more complicated in Pennsylvania. Due mainly to understaffing, seven of the state’s 67 counties will not begin counting the mail ballots until the day after the election. In the other counties, the counting of mail ballots will not begin until after 7am on polling day. Democratic governor Tom Wolf is already telling Pennsylvanians (and the nation) that a final result may not be known until the end of the week, or beyond.
In line with Trump’s repeated attempts to discredit the entire election process, he has been calling for the result to be announced early before all the mail ballots ( which traditionally favour Democrats) have been counted. Thankfully, the courts have already rejected a Republican attempt to throw out all mail ballots in Pennsylvania that arrive after polling day, even if they are postmarked before that date. ( Republican attempts to undermine the US Postal Service have been part of the same game plan.) For months, Trump has been signalling to his supporters that this wacky notion of counting all the valid ballots cast in an election is just a trick to steal the election from the only rightful winner: Trump himself.
Texas Talking about stealing elections…in recent years, the Lone Star state has become surprisingly receptive to Democrats. (In 2018, liberal candidate Beto O’Rourke almost defeated Republican hardline senator Ted Cruz.) Polls this year also indicate a close race. Therefore, as his contribution to the GOP’s nationwide campaign of vote suppression and voter intimidation, the state’s Republican governor Greg Abbott has ruled that each county in Texas can contain only one drop-off point for mail ballots. As a result, many of the nearly five million voters in the vast Harris County have voted in drive-in ballot centres, ostensibly set up for use by the disabled.
When the Republican Party demanded last week that at least 127,000 Harris County drive-in ballots be thrown out, the Texas Supreme Court rejected their appeal. However a conservative federal judge is to hear that appeal today, which – if upheld – will have ramifications across the entire state. [Breaking news: the federal judge has just rejected the Republican petition..]
As Werewolf pointed out last week, the Abbott ruling and similar Republican vote suppression strategies across the country have been the downstream result of the US Supreme Court’s disastrous Shelby County ruling in 2013. In that landmark decision, chief justice John Roberts upheld the right of states to suppress democracy free of federal monitoring, because in his view, vote suppression and discrimination no longer existed in the United States. Here’s how the Shelby ruling has played out across the nation:
Since the Supreme Court gutted the heart of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, almost 1,700 polling places have been shut down, most of them in the states that had been under federal supervision for their past discriminatory voting practices. It’s no surprise that voters in predominantly black neighborhoods wait 29 percent longer to cast ballots than voters in white neighborhoods.
To be grateful for small mercies: the courts last week rejected a Republican attempt to throw out all mail ballots in Pennsylvania that arrive after polling day, regardless of them being postmarked before that date.
When Will Results Start To Arrive? Keep in mind that because of the time zones, the results will come in first from the East Coast and then march right to left across the US map. Here’s the best time chart I can manage of the running order in which those results are likely to arrive:
1-2pm NZ time. Nine states start reporting during this period. Vermont and Virginia will go to Biden, Indiana and Kentucky and South Carolina are very likely for Trump. The Senate race in South Carolina is significant: craven Trump loyalist Lindsay Graham (R.) is in a close contest fight with Jaime Harrison (D.)But the most significant state in this bloc is Georgia : traditionally Republican but the growth of Atlanta has been only one of the factors helping to make Georgia a Democrat possible gain.
The first returns from Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia will come in later in this hour. Ohio used to be s swing state (for that reason I crisscrossed it when covering the 2004 election) but it has become more solidly Republican and will only be close if there’s a Biden landslide in the offing. North Carolina has a tight and fascinating Senate contest between Republican Thom Tillis and Cal Cunningham. Cunningham has been hit by a sexting scandal that revealed he was cheating on his wife – although so far, polls suggest that voters don’t seem to care all that much about Cunningham’s private life. Cunningham’s recent rejoinder was also pretty good: “It may be my name on the ballot, but its your healthcare.”
2-3pm A rush of early results from 18 states should arrive during this hour, with the first reliable signs of how tight this contest will be/won’t be. Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kentucky (combined, they’re worth 43 Electoral College votes) will go quickly to Trump. The 538 site expects Biden’s gains in this hour (45 electoral college votes) to be just as certain, but these will be counted more slowly. So don’t panic (yet) if Trump is nominally ahead in the Electoral College count at this point.
Talking of panicking, this hour should see the first returns from Pennsylvania and Florida. We should also start to get results in this hour from the 2nd District of Maine, which is the rural area of Maine that will probably decide the fate of Republican senator Susan Collins – up against Sara Gideon – and Collins is one of the gains the Dems sorely need if they are to flip the Senate.
Collins has to win big in the 2nd district to have a chance of hanging on, state-wide. Collins has been a perpetual “liberal” Republican critic of Trump in contexts where her dissent doesn’t really matter, However, Collins’ vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh’s seat on the Supreme Court may have been the tipping point at which liberal Maine finally decided they’ve had enough of her, already.
3-4pm Well, by the time we get to here, we should be starting to get an idea of how the tide is running. We should be getting an inkling if a Biden landslide is on the cards. At about 4.30 NZ time, Pennsylvania is due to release the mail ballot results from those counties that started counting at 7am Tuesday, US time. During this hour, results will also start to arrive from Texas (and from Arizona, one of the Dems more likely pick-ups in the contest for control of the Senate.
The overall pattern
With a couple of variations in small states (Maine and Nebraska) the US has a “winner take all” FPP system. As a result, the candidate who wins most votes nationwide does not necessarily win the Presidency. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight US elections, but Republicans have been in the White House for 12 of the past 20 years. In line with this injustice, Clinton piled up huge and eventually meaningless majorities in 2016, in the likes of New York and California.
Blame the Founders for this situation. For reasons to do with (a) keeping a strict balance of powers between the three arms of government, and with (b) ensuring that rural areas weren’t dominated by the urban elites, the Founders invented the Electoral College as a quasi-independent mechanism for anointing the President.
So…on a population basis, each state, district or territory has a certain number of “electors” allocated to them. The winning presidential candidate needs to win at least a majority (ie.270) of the 538 electors at stake in the Electoral College. But thanks to the unequal weight that the College gives to voters in rural areas that tend to vote Republican, the College reality means that Democratic contenders face an inbuilt handicap of roughly 2-3 %. In other words, Biden really needs that nationwide polling lead he has brought into the final stretch of this election.
In practice (and as used to be the case in New Zealand before MMP) the FPP system in play means that the overall result hinges on a very small number of swing states. This time around, the main states still actively in contention are: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And maybe possibly, Texas but that will probably require the fabled Biden landslide.
As the NYT recently pointed out… if Biden wins Florida, he really needs to just hold the line elsewhere and add only one more large state formerly won by Trump in 2016, to get across the line. But if he loses both Florida and Pennsylvania, it is hard to see a Plan B path to a Biden victory. Because this scenario would mean that Trump had once again outperformed his poll numbers, and that pattern would be unlikely to be restricted to just the two key swing states. At this point though, lets try not to be too anxious. And hey, Americans should probably not be stockpiling supermarket goods at the prospect of an armed reaction by disappointed Trump supporters. But it would be entirely understandable if they were.
Are new voters likely to save Trump?
Probably not. Both parties have carried out major registration drives ( in Pennsylvania in particular) but these look like significant figures:
In Wisconsin, voters who did not cast a ballot in 2016 favor Mr. Biden by 19 points. They have a similarly lopsided preference in Florida, where Mr. Biden leads by 17 points. His advantage with people who did not vote in 2016 is 12 points in Pennsylvania and 7 points in Arizona.
Where are the voting gaps?
Despite his obvious shortcomings, Biden has proved to be an ideal non-polarising candidate for two important voting blocs (seniors and white suburban female voters) who were crucial to Trump’s success in 2016. Biden has his own problems though. His campaign operatives are reportedly concerned about Biden’s apparent failure to galvanise black voters (crucial to any Democratic hopes of winning Pennsylvania and Georgia) and he has shown limited ability at attracting Hispanic voters either, in many parts of the country.
That said, the gender voting gap among Latinos and Latinas has been managing to keep Biden competitive in Florida. While Florida’s male Hispanic voters appear to be going with Trump (despite his many racist slurs against them) Hispanic women are supporting Biden by a huge margin:
[Trump] is running more competitively with Florida Latinos than he did in 2016, and 9 percent of them remain undecided. Hispanic men in Florida, in particular, are more willing to support Mr. Trump. The poll found the two candidates splitting this group almost evenly, with Mr. Biden ahead by just one point. But the President is facing an even larger gender gap in the Hispanic community than he is overall: Latinas favour Mr. Biden by 39 points.
Final Note on Pennsylvania and Florida….
While these two states will be decisive, the motivations and responses in each state seem to be somewhat different. As the ABC News network reported yesterday:
Biden is competitive among white voters in Pennsylvania – they divide 50%-46%, Trump-Biden – while he wins 76% support from members of racial and ethnic groups in the state. In Florida, by contrast, Trump leads among whites by 20 points. Additionally, boosted by Cuban Americans, he runs competitively among Hispanic voters.
In other words, the response (a) to the pandemic and (b) to the state of the economy seems to be playing out differently in both states. Paradoxically, in poorer Pennsylvania the likely voters (by 56% to 38%) agree that it’s more important to try to control the spread of the virus than to restart the economy. But in Florida, that gap is down to only 49-45%. Plainly, while a lot of Florida’s seniors have good reason to be worried about Covid-19, they also (and more so than in Pennsylvania) seem to be worried about the health of their investments. As ABC News summed up :
In both states, Trump wins more than 8 in 10 of those who prioritize the economy, while Biden wins more than 8 in 10 of those focused on stopping the spread.
Where to Track The Results
If you’re a total nerd and want to track the results as they unfold, here are some counties that are likely to be bellwethers as to how Pennsylvania and Florida will pan out. Pennsylvania has a couple of very big Democratic urban strongholds (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) and a lot of commuter suburbs are up for grabs in the Philadelphia/Camden/Wilmington metropolitan region that exceeds the entire population of New Zealand. (And of Lebanon, for that matter.) Trump supporters tend to be concentrated in the post-industrial areas in western Pennsylvania hard hit for years by job losses in manufacturing, and in the very conservative rural areas to the east.
Since the glory days of Barack Obama, the Democrats key problem in Pennsylvania has been that it underdelivers its urban vote, while the Republicans overperform in rural areas like say, Berks County in eastern Pennsylvania, a conservative region that contains a lot of the state’s formerly Dutch migrant influx.
Anyone wishing to track the likely outcome in this state on Wednesday should (besides Berks) be looking hard at Chester County – one of the three original counties created by Willian Penn back in 1682, and that has been subsumed into a suburban part of that wider Philadelphia/Camden/Wilmington urban sprawl. If Biden wins big here it will suggest that the fabled shift against Trump by white suburban female voters is in fact, real. Philadelphia County will test Biden’s ability to motivate black voters, while de-industrialised Erie County will (like Berks) reflect just how faithful Trump’s base has been to him. Similarly, Westmoreland County near Pittsburgh will be another stronghold of the Rust Belt aggrieved. None of these counties are among the seven counties that will not start counting their ballots until after Election Day.
As for Florida…Every four years, the I-4 corridor – the Tampa to Orlando to Daytona Beach highway that comprises the “golden girdle” snaking across central Florida – becomes part of everyone’s political vocabulary. As I was told in Orlando during the 2004 election, the I-4 corridor decides who wins the entire state, and whoever wins Florida wins the whole country, right? Take your pick, but almost all the big counties in Florida are significant. Pinellas County contains some of that crucial retirement village vote, Miami-Dade (Latino/Latina voters) and Osceola County (on the eastern side of the I-4 corridor) are also likely to be bellwethers, in one way or another.
Where To Get The Results
The New York Times site publishes and processes the results quickly, and alongside the returns, it has a team of analysts doing quality real-time commentary on the voting trends. Likewise, Nate Silver’s 538 website does a similarly good running analysis. In the past, I’ve always found the websites of the individual states are useful for catching the emerging official vote counts for the key counties in the battleground states. Because you really need to know what’s going down in post-industrial and depressed Erie County, Pennsylvania. There’s a reason why some people call it “ the oracle of Pennsylvania.”
Footnote One: Signs of the times. This is a pretty interesting message already up on the Pennsylvania state website:
We may not know who won the presidency Tuesday night, and the “lead” may swing from one candidate to the other — more than once. That’s not fraud, that’s not the election being stolen, it’s just the votes being counted over time. Some results could take days, or weeks if there are court challenges.
Everybody calm down folks, in advance.
Footnote Two: Inspirational message on Sunday from Trump: “As soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers.” Because that’s what he does. When he’s in debt, he ties up his creditors in years of litigation. Concessions are only for losers.
Footnote Three: If a Biden administration wants to carry out its legislative agenda, it would struggle to do so in the face of a lopsidedly conservative Supreme Court and a hostile Senate. So….can it manage to flip the Senate ? The Democrats will need a net gain of four seats to do so. In reality, this means it has to defeat five Republican incumbents because it will almost certainly lose the fluke victory won in 2018 by Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama.
With that in mind, here are a few Senate races to watch:
In Georgia, the loathsome David Perdue (R) is in a very tight race with (D) Jon Ossert whose best chance of winning the seat would be if he gets more than 50%. The spoiler here is libertarian Shane Hazell who may force the contest into a run off in January. So the Senate too, may be a nail biter until then. Yikes.
North Carolina: the aforementioned Thom Tillis vs Cal Cunningham contest, where Cunningham is tipped to survive his extramarital affair because – even on personality favourability issues – Georgians are telling pollsters that they think Tillis is even more objectionable.
Arizona: Republican incumbent Martha McSully is likely to lose to Mark Kelly a former NASA astronaut and husband of Gabrielle Giffords who was seriously wounded a few years ago in an assassination attempt.
Colorado: Republican incumbent Cory Gardner is being tipped to lose to popular John Hickenlooper, who was briefly a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination..
Maine: As mentioned Republican senator Susan Collins is in the fight of her political life against Sara Gideon As also mentioned, the second Congressional district in Maine will be crucial, in that it is a rural area that went for Trump in 2016, even while Clinton took the state.
Iowa: Republican incumbent Joni Ernst is in a tough fight – but on very recent polling in Iowa favourable to Trump, she may prevail against Theresa Greenfield.
Montana: Similar situation here. Republican incumbent Steve Daines is being opposed by another former contender for Biden’s current job in Steve Bullock, but this is another one of those parts of the country where having Trump on the ticket is expected to help Daines.
South Carolina :The incredibly loathsome Lindsay Graham is being strongly opposed by Democrat Jaime Harrison. Still, Harrison will need a high turnout for the Democratic ticket among black voters to win this one.
In sum…unless there is a Biden landslide, the Democrats look likely to come up one or two short in winning the Senate.