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Navigating the 2020 Races: an Hour-by-Hour Breakdown of What to Watch

Across America, the election marks a referendum on the last four years as much as it does the art of the political poll.

(CN) — On Election Day in 2016, The New York Times gave Hillary Clinton an 85% chance of winning the presidency. A week earlier the respected FiveThirtyEight website gave Democrats a 70% chance of winning the Senate. 

In the end, Donald Trump won by 74 electoral votes and Republicans took a 52-48 Senate majority. 

Was that a fluke? A one-time black-swan outlier event? Or did it tell us something important about the country that pollsters and pundits still haven’t understood? 

America has been arguing about that question for four years. And tonight will provide an answer. 

A big reason we’ll get an answer is that the 2020 election is in so many ways a rerun of 2016. Consider: 

· Both Clinton and Joe Biden are moderate former U.S. senators who spent eight years in the White House and had to defend their past support of NAFTA, the 1994 crime bill and the Iraq War. 

· After Bernie Sanders managed a virtual tie in the Iowa caucuses and won the New Hampshire primary, Clinton and Biden each bounced back with big victories in South Carolina and then secured the nomination with the support of party leaders and black voters.

· Both led in the polls all summer despite criticisms that their campaigns were lackluster and their speaking talents uninspired. Both focused their message on Trump’s alleged incompetence and character flaws. 

· The debates were memorable primarily for Trump’s being accused of being rude in “stalking” Clinton and interrupting Biden. In the first week of October, an event occurred that many thought could end Trump’s candidacy (the Access Hollywood tape, Trump’s Covid diagnosis). But Trump bounced back with a series of raucous rallies. 

· Later in October it was reported that the FBI had a laptop with emails that revived a purported scandal against the Democrat. 

· Going into the election, the Democrat was the overwhelming favorite.

There was talk in the party of winning red states that were purpling due to demographic changes — Texas, Arizona, Georgia. It appeared that Trump’s only chance was to draw to an “inside straight” by winning seven or eight swing states where he was tied or behind in the polls. 

Tonight — or, possibly, sometime afterward — we’ll know whether this rerun has a different ending. 

Here’s an overview of what to look for in the presidential and Senate races, and an hour-by-hour breakdown of the key things to watch. 

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The presidential race 

Joe Biden has a clear lead in the polls, but nearly everyone agrees that Trump voters are more passionate in supporting their candidate. The question is whether Biden can inspire enough turnout among the people who prefer him. 

A recent New Hampshire poll showed that 81% of Trump voters are voting for Trump primarily because they like him, whereas only 42% of Biden voters are primarily motivated by liking Biden; most are supporting him simply because they dislike Trump. 

“It’s easier to get people to go to the polls to vote for someone as opposed to voting against someone,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. 

“Research shows that you have to have a reason to vote, and wanting someone to win is a bigger motivator than wanting someone to lose,” Smith said. “That’s especially true if you think the election is already in the bag.” 

Polls don’t necessarily reflect intensity of support, and there’s also the fact that Trump voters might not admit which way they’re leaning. 

“One of our surveys showed that 68% of Trump voters wouldn’t put up a yard sign and 65% wouldn’t put a bumper-sticker on their car because they’re afraid of vandalism,” Smith noted. “And 45% won’t admit they support Trump to their friends and co-workers.” 


But other experts say that even a passionate-but-hidden Trump vote won’t be sufficient this year. 

“The base just isn’t big enough to bring him home,” said Matthew Kerbel, a political science professor at Villanova University. 

Kerbel said this election is unlike 2016 because Biden is more likable than Clinton, his poll numbers have been steadier and there are fewer undecided voters. Because Trump is running this time as an incumbent, the election now offers a referendum on the last four years. 

“That’s a different choice,” Kerbel said. 

Peter Feaver, a public policy professor at Duke University, said another difference is that third parties are not as much of a factor as they were in 2016, while Biden is closer to 50% in the swing-state polls than Clinton was. 

Feaver underlined one more key difference: “Covid, Covid, Covid.” 

As for cash on hand, Fred Slocum, a political science professor at the Minnesota State University at Mankato, noted that Biden’s sizable war chest allows him to contest states that might otherwise be out of reach. 

“Trump is having to defend states that Republicans normally don’t break a sweat in winning,” he said. 

Slocum also thinks the polls might be more accurate this year because pollsters have been weighting results by education — something they did less of in 2016, which caused them to underestimate the white working-class vote. 

But Smith warned that the major polling aggregator sites are still making the mistake of using polls with substandard methodologies in their averages. 

“The people behind them are statisticians, not survey researchers,” he said. “You might think that using more polls is preferable, but not necessarily. Averaging good polls and bad polls is like mixing clean water and muddy water; it doesn’t make things better.” 

A leading polling aggregator, RealClear Politics, gives Biden 216 electoral votes and Trump 125, with 12 “toss-up” states: Arizona with 11 electoral votes, Florida (29), Georgia (16), Iowa (6), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), Nevada (6), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Texas (38) and Wisconsin (10). 

There are also two toss-up congressional districts with one vote each, one in northern Maine and one in Omaha. (Candidates need 270 electoral votes to win.) 

The Cook Political Report, on the other hand, predicts Biden will win Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, easily giving him the election with 20 electoral votes to spare. 

And FiveThirtyEight gives Biden an 89% chance of winning. 

Mail-in voting has been extremely heavy this year due to the pandemic. In states that report mail-in voting by party registration, Democrats have a big lead, said Kerbel, although Republicans seem to have an edge in early in-person voting. 

This is an overall advantage for Democrats, although it’s expected that more Republicans will show up at the polls on Election Day. 

Clinton had a lead in the early voting in 2016 and still lost, but Kerbel said that fact isn’t significant because mail-in voting this year is “on a different order of magnitude.” 

Smith said early voting numbers are not always revealing because early voters tend to be the most partisan and engaged. But he added that an early voting advantage helps with get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day: “If half the people on your side have already voted, you only have to worry about getting the other half out to the polls.” 

Trump’s least-difficult path to victory involves holding the three purpling states — Arizona, Texas and Georgia — and winning Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Iowa. That would give him 258 electoral votes. He would still need to win Pennsylvania, Michigan, or both Minnesota and Wisconsin.  


If he wins only Minnesota or Wisconsin, he could still get to exactly 270 by winning both toss-up congressional districts. If he wins one district but not the other, it would result in a 269-269 tie that would send the election to the House of Representatives. 

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham speaks with reporters at a campaign rally on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Conway, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

The Senate landscape 

Republicans go into Election Day with 53-47 control of the Senate and an expected lock on a Democratic seat in Alabama. Because the vice president can break a 50-50 tie, Democrats would need to flip four seats if Biden wins, or five if he doesn’t.

But that’s very doable. Only two Democratic seats, in Michigan and Minnesota, are in any doubt, apart from the Doug Jones-Tommy Tuberville race in Alabama. Two Republican seats are in danger in Georgia along with one each in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina and South Carolina. 

Kerbel thinks that whichever party wins the presidency will win the Senate because most contested Senate seats are in presidential battleground states and voters are unlikely to split their tickets. 

This is part of a larger trend, said Smith: “Crossover voting has been declining for decades.” 

Kerbel said a close election could lead to a nearly 50-50 Senate, but a “blue wave” could give the Democrats 55 or 56 seats. “It’s unlikely that there will be an outcome in the middle,” he said. “There will either be a wave or there won’t be.” 

Contested Senate races this year have attracted unheard-of amounts of money. North Carolina’s is the most expensive in U.S. history with more than $233 million spent on advertising alone. 

“The 2018 election smashed fundraising records for midterms and 2020 is going to absolutely crush anything we’ve ever seen — or imagined — before,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. 

In Kansas, a contest for what many consider a safely Republican Senate seat has already cost $65 million, setting a new state record. The U.S. Senate race in Maine has cost $133 million, or roughly $132 for every registered voter in the state. 

As for the House of Representatives, Democrats have a 232-197 advantage and virtually no one thinks the Republicans will be able to wrest control. 

President Donald Trump walks to the podium to speak at a campaign rally at Keith House, Washington's Headquarters, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, in Newtown, Pa. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

What to watch for tonight 

One general note as the returns come in: In the past, partial results were typically provided along with the “percentage of precincts reporting.” Since such a huge number of votes this year are by mail, this statistic will be largely meaningless. 

Although many people have been afraid that the election results won’t be known for a long time because of issues with absentee balloting, Smith called those fears “overblown.”

“It’s possible,” he said, but “mail-in voters don’t generally wait until the last minute, postal problems have been overstated and the number of votes in doubt will be few.” 

In South Portland, Maine, acting City Clerk Alice Kelley said voting has gone more smoothly than usual this year despite a doubling of absentee ballots because of all the attention to the details of mail-in voting.  

“Other years, people forget to sign their ballots, but this year everyone is signing,” she said. “We usually have a big box of problems, but not this time.” 

6 p.m. EST

Most polls close in Indiana at 6 — a few counties stay open until 7 — and the state traditionally reports its results quickly. Trump is expected to win, but this will be the first chance to compare his margins this year to 2016 and see if he is running above or below the 19-point victory he scored four years ago. If Trump’s lead is below 19%, it could signal weakness in nearby Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. 


7 p.m. EST

Polls close in Georgia, South Carolina and most of Florida. 

Georgia is a traditionally red state that has been purpling due to growth in metropolitan Atlanta. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution/University of Georgia poll showed Biden ahead here by 47% to 46%, and Biden made two campaign stops in the state last Tuesday. If Biden is running strongly in Georgia, it could be an early sign of a blue wave nationally. 

Georgia also has two Senate races, and Georgia law says that if no candidate gets 50%, a runoff between the top-two vote-getters (regardless of party) will be held on January 5. It’s possible that both races will lead to a runoff, potentially leaving control of the Senate undecided into 2021. 

In one race, incumbent Republican David Purdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff appear to be in a dead heat. With a Libertarian candidate likely to draw off a few percentage points, it’s entirely possible that neither will get to the 50% threshold. 

The other race will almost certainly go to a runoff. Polls show Democrat Raphael Warnock with a little above a third of the vote and two Republicans, incumbent Kelly Loeffler and Congressman Doug Collins, polling about 20% each. There are 18 other candidates in the race. 

Purdue and Loeffler have both been accused of improper stock trades during the pandemic, although they deny the charges. 

In South Carolina, three-term U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham is battling a strong challenge from former state Democratic Party chair Jaime Harrison, who is Black. 

Graham, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was a strong opponent of Trump who had a change of heart and became a staunch ally. 

Slocum, who has taught a course on southern politics for 18 years, said the Senate race is “eyebrow-raising” and signals a big shift in political sentiment regardless of who ultimately wins. “To have an African-American candidate tied with Lindsey Graham in South Carolina is a bizarre sight,” he said. 

Florida is a critical presidential battleground that Trump won in 2016 by 1.2%. Most polls this year have given Biden a slight lead. If Trump loses Florida with its 29 electoral votes, it will be extremely difficult for him to get to 270. 

If Biden wins in Florida, “it’s game over,” said Kerbel. 

Democratic U.S. Senate candiate Jaime Harrison speaks at a drive-in campaign rally and concert on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

7:30 p.m. EST

Polls close in North Carolina and Ohio. 

The fierce Senate battle in North Carolina — the most expensive in U.S. history — pits incumbent Republican Thom Tillis against Democrat Cal Cunningham, who won a Bronze Star in the Iraq War. The race took a bizarre turn on October 2 when it was disclosed that Tillis had contracted Covid-19 after attending a White House ceremony for Justice Amy Coney Barrett and that Cunningham had sent a number of sexual text messages to a married woman. Since that day Cunningham has refused to speak to the media. 

If Cunningham runs well, it could be another sign of a blue wave, said Kerbel. “In a wave, national conditions override local conditions, including a sex scandal that would ordinarily pull a candidate down,” he said. 

On the other hand, if Tillis wins, there’s a good chance that Republicans will keep the Senate, Smith predicted. 

Trump won North Carolina in 2016 by almost 4% but polls have given Biden a slight edge this year. The state is another that is critical to Trump’s election chances. 

Once solidly red, the Tar Heel state has been trending blue as the Research Triangle continues to attract highly educated professionals from the Northeast, Slocum said. 

If the vote is very close, the outcome could be considerably delayed because North Carolina law says ballots postmarked by Election Day must be counted if they arrive up to three days late. The state board of elections extended that deadline this year to nine days, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block the extension. 


In Ohio, Trump won last time by 8 points and polls give him a slight edge this year.  

A voter drops his absentee ballot into a box at a special table set aside for that purpose on the last day of early voting, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020, at Columbia University's Forum in the West Harlem neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

8 p.m. EST

Polls close in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Maine. 

Trump’s upset win in Michigan in 2016 was a key to his victory, but most polls have showed Biden with a significant lead.  

One thing helping Biden is affection for him in the state, as compared with Clinton in 2016. Clinton lost to Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Michigan primary, but Biden handily defeated Sanders this year. 

Black turnout may be key. Biden has been making a play for the Black vote, bringing in former President Obama for last-weekend rallies in Flint and Detroit. 

In the Senate race, incumbent Democrat Gary Peters has held a comfortable lead in the polls but the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, put $4.6 million into the contest over the last weekend to boost Republican John James, a West Point graduate who is Black. 

The fund “has reason to believe this is a margin-of-error race,” said Steven Law, the group’s president.  

Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, is pivotal for both candidates, and polls show the race is close. Fracking is important in the state, and Biden’s sometime opposition to it and debate pledge to “transition” away from fossil fuels could cause him trouble here. 

Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow mail-in votes to be processed until Election Day, creating the possibility of the final count being delayed for several days. If the vote is close and Pennsylvania’s outcome is decisive, we might not know the winner for a while. (Michigan doesn’t allow votes to be processed until the day before Election Day so there could be delays there, too.) 

Since Democrats tell pollsters they favor voting by mail, and Republicans say they prefer voting in person, a distinct possibility is that Trump will initially appear to be ahead but Biden will make up the difference as the mail-in votes are processed. 

In the Pennsylvania state primary this year, the results in 10 races shifted between the count on Election Day and the final count with all the mail-in ballots included. 

Another wrinkle is that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling, said ballots must be counted if they’re received up to three days after Election Day as long as they were postmarked by Election Day or have a postmark that is missing or illegible. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision before the election but it could still hear a challenge after the election. 

Texas with its cache of 38 electoral votes is in play this year, due to a growing Hispanic and suburban population that trends blue. Many experts have predicted that Texas would eventually become highly competitive. Smith thinks that time hasn’t arrived, but Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris made three stops in the state on Friday — an indication that the campaign thinks the close polls make the state worth fighting for. 

If Texas goes blue, it would be a “seismic event,” said Slocum: “It would be lights out for Republicans.” 

Smith noted that Biden’s play for states such as Texas forces Trump to defend them rather than putting resources into other swing states. But he also observed that it distracts Biden as well. “Biden hasn’t done nearly as many events in Michigan and Wisconsin as you might think he should,” Smith said. 

One thing to note, though, is that while the polls in 2016 famously understated Trump’s support in the Rust Belt, if anything they overstated his support in the Southwest, including Texas and Arizona. 


This may go back to social desirability bias. “Shy” Trump voters in traditionally Democratic states might be reluctant to admit their preferences, but in traditionally red states such as Texas, there might also be a number of shy Biden voters.  

The Maine Senate race pits four-term Republican Susan Collins against state House speaker Sara Gideon. Gideon has held a small but steady lead in the polls. Out-of-state Democrats have poured tens of millions of dollars into the contest in an attempt to unseat Collins, who cast the deciding vote in favor of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. 

Trump has put resources into trying to win the second congressional district in the more conservative and rural northern part of the state. If that results in a high Republican turnout there, it could help Collins. 

Sara Gideon, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks to Bates College students Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Lewiston, Maine. Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House, is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

9 p.m. EST

Polls close in Wisconsin, Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado and Nebraska. 

Wisconsin was the biggest surprise of 2016 when it went for Trump by 23,000 votes, or 0.7%. Biden has a comfortable lead here, according to most polls. But Wisconsin is another state that doesn’t process mail-in ballots until Election Day, so if the contest is close, it could take a while to resolve. And Trump could take an early lead if in-person votes are counted first. 

On the other hand, Wisconsin will only count absentee ballots if they’re received by Election Day. A federal judge had ordered ballots to be accepted if they arrived up to six days late, but the Seventh Circuit refused to enforce the ruling and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to get involved

Arizona, along with Georgia and Texas, is a traditionally red state that has been purpling recently; polls show Biden with a small lead here, too.  

In the Senate race, Republican Air Force pilot Martha McSally, who was appointed to replace John McCain, is trailing in most polls behind Democrat Navy pilot Mark Kelly. The late senator’s widow meanwhile has endorsed Kelly, unsurprising given the president’s public ridicule of McCain. 

Arizona began processing mail-in votes two weeks early, and the results from the state could come in quickly. “We’re certainly going to be ahead of” many other states, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs predicted

Minnesota hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election since 1972, but Trump came within 45,000 votes of winning here in 2016 and has put resources into the state. Biden nevertheless has a comfortable polling lead.

Incumbent Democratic Senator Tina Smith, who was appointed to fill Al Franken’s seat, has enjoyed a lead over Republican former talk-show host Jason Lewis but “polls have been tightening,” Slocum observed. 

Slocum said the race has been nationalized because Lewis “echoes Trump’s bombastic style and is a stand-in for Trump in the minds of Trump supporters.” 

In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, Slocum noted that the Minneapolis area shifted “astoundingly” toward Biden, creating much sharper geographic division across the state than in the past as Trump turns the rural areas of the state solidly red. 

Lewis had emergency surgery last week for a life-threatening internal hernia but is apparently doing well. 

In Colorado, incumbent Republican Cory Gardner is struggling in his race against John Hickenlooper, a former governor and presidential candidate. Gardner has been a strong supporter of Trump, who is unpopular in the state. 

The second congressional district in Nebraska consists of the Omaha metropolitan area; it has one electoral vote that could become important if the race is truly a squeaker. 

Alaska U.S. Senate candidate Al Gross, center, is shown at a campaign event at a downtown park in Juneau, Alaska, on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, with his wife, Monica Gross, at left. The event, held on a rainy, windy morning, is among those Gross was holding in the lead-up to the Nov. 3, 2020, general election, in which Gross, an independent running with Democratic backing, is facing Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer)

10 p.m. EST

Polls close in Iowa, Nevada and Montana. 

In Iowa, Trump won handily four years ago but polls have shown a tight race both for the presidency and in the Senate battle between Republican incumbent Joni Ernst and Democratic real estate developer Theresa Greenfield.  

The Des Moines Register poll is considered the most authoritative in the state and the final version this past weekend had good news for Republicans, showing Trump up by 7 points and Ernst up by 4. Interestingly, the poll found that 4% to 5% of voters in both races “don’t want to say for whom they will vote.” 

The Iowa Senate race is the second-most expensive in U.S. history (after North Carolina’s) with more than $200 million raised so far. More than $100 million has been donated to Greenfield from zip codes in New York and California, records show

In Nevada, Clinton beat Trump by 2.5% in 2016. Biden has had a comfortable lead here but recent polls have showed the race tightening and Republicans have been narrowing the gap in early voting numbers. 

The Montana Senate race pits incumbent Republican Steve Daines against two-term Democratic Governor Steve Bullock. In a state with just 700,000 made unusual by its tendency for split tickets, the contest has also set records with $140 million being spent and 32,000 ads being aired in a two-week period. Polls show a toss-up with a possible small late shift to Bullock.

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