As election night turns into the morning after, there is still far more that we don’t know about the race to be the next president – and to control the US Senate – than we do.
For an election that drew more interest from voters than any in recent memory, the early results were remarkably predictable. President Donald Trump secured wins in traditional Republican states. Former Vice President Joe Biden did the same in reliably Democratic states.
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The normal-ness of the map – at least as Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning – in what has been one of the least normal extended periods in American political history created a sort of news void in the early hours of the vote counting. Twitter rushed to fill that void, with skittish Democrats wildly sharing the news that betting markets had shifted to Trump (which is indicative of not that much) and Republicans insisting that we were looking at Trump’s 2016 shock-the-world moment all over again. (One thing we do know for sure: Democrats’ dreams of a Biden landslide will not happen.)
The truth is that, despite the fact that the calendar has flipped to November 4, the race for president and the battle for the Senate majority are simply too early too call.
Without any definitive answers, where should we keep our collective eyes over the next 24-48 hours? Here are a few places.
1) The Rust Belt, again: From the start of Biden’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, he had a simple argument to members of his party: If we can win back Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, we win back the White House. And I am the best candidate in the party to do that. As the day after the election dawns, Biden’s initial pledge will be put to the ultimate test. It’s not yet clear whether Biden will need to sweep Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan or win two of the three (or one of the three) in order to get to 270 electoral votes. But there’s little doubt at this point that his (and Trump’s) fates hang on the results in that trio of states.
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2) The perception game: As most Americans – even on the West Coast – began to turn off their TVs and silence their phones, Biden led in the electoral vote count but Trump was ahead in a number of key states thanks to several of them tabulating votes cast on Election Day before adding in those cast early – either by mail or in person. How do those conflicting signals influence the way people talk and think about the race into Wednesday (and beyond)? If past is prologue, being ahead – even by a single vote (electoral or otherwise) has a huge impact on public perception of who is likely to win. (Al Gore’s campaign was forever fighting the perception that he was losing the race during the Florida recount because George W. Bush was ahead.) So do people latch on to the likely Biden electoral vote lead when they get up Wednesday morning? Or do they look to Trump’s potential edges in the raw vote totals in uncalled states?
3) The Trump gambit: The President’s Twitter feed – always the best window into what he is thinking – was relatively quiet throughout Tuesday night. But even as Biden was addressing supporters in Delaware just after midnight Eastern time, Trump tweeted this: “We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Polls are closed!” That’s consistent with his preelection message – the fact-free assertion that the ongoing counting of mail-in ballots in urban areas is somehow evidence that the race is being taken from him. Because of the fears surrounding the coronavirus, the way America voted in this election was simply different, with a massive number (100 million-plus) casting votes before Election Day. That sea change means that vote-counting is slower than in past elections. But that is evidence of the system working, not failing. Of course, Trump is able to convince his supporters of anything – facts be damned – and appears to be entirely committed to making this false argument even as legally cast ballots are counted.
Biden, for his part, said in a tweet: “We feel good about where we are. We believe we are on track to win this election.”
4) Senate Republicans feel good-ish: Nothing, as I noted above, is close to over just yet. But Senate Republicans feel far better about their chances of holding the majority waking up on Wednesday than they did waking up on Tuesday. Why? Because, like in the presidential race, things have generally gone as expected so far. Yes, Sen. Cory Gardner (Colorado), the most endangered Republican incumbent, lost. But so did Sen. Doug Jones (Alabama), the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. Which left the math exactly where we started at the beginning of the night: Democrats needing to net three seats for the majority (if Biden wins) or four seats (if he doesn’t). Long(ish) chances for Democratic challengers to knock off GOP incumbents in South Carolina and Texas fell by the wayside. And in toss-up races in North Carolina, Maine and Georgia, Republican incumbents held leads of varying sizes over their Democratic opponents. Those three states – plus Arizona, where Democrat Mark Kelly is holding a clear edge over Sen. Martha McSally – will decide which side holds the majority come January.
5) The lawsuits: Remember that over the weekend, Trump said this about Pennsylvania – and its plan to continue to count mail-in ballots for several days after Tuesday: “Now, I don’t know if that’s going to be changed, because we’re going to go in the night of – as soon as that election is over, we’re going in with our lawyers.” What he and his legal team do – in Pennsylvania and other states that will continue to count ballots through Wednesday and maybe even Thursday – is anybody’s guess. But Trump has long used litigation (or the threat of litigation) to muddy the waters or to intimidate people into giving him what he wants. That, of course, won’t be so easy in a scenario where the presidency is on the line. Biden and his legal team will push back hard against any attempt to stop vote counts or invalidate ballots. And then, like most everything, it will come down to lawyers and judges. Sort of like what happened in the 2000 presidential race. In that contest, the Bush legal team was widely regarded as having won the legal fight, which allowed the then-Texas governor to win the political fight (and the presidency). Who will history judge as having won the coming legal fight in this election?