What to look out for on US Election night

By Cameron Spencer |

At 1:00 on Wednesday morning, results will start to trickle in, finally revealing who has triumphed in capturing the White House for the next four years. President Trump has been running for re-election since the day he was inaugurated in January 2017. Similarly, former Vice President Joe Biden has been running to unseat the incumbent president since the 25th of April 2019, seemingly a different age given how rapidly the world has changed over the last year. Both candidates will surely be relieved to end these years of campaigning and learn if they have done enough to win, but at the end of the day, there can only be one person who sits behind the Resolute desk.

Election officials expect more people to cast ballots than ever before | Pexels.

The first thing to note is American presidential elections are not decided by a popular vote count, but an electoral college, which determines who wins the popular vote in each state and grants that candidate a set number of electors. This is determined by the number of seats in the House of Representatives each state has, plus two for each of the senators. For example, less populated states like North Dakota have only three votes, while larger states like Texas have 38. This has led to some states holding much more political influence than others, for example, Trump has almost no chance of winning in more diverse, progressive states like California or New York, while Biden will not be close to winning conservative states like Wyoming or West Virginia. Maine and Nebraska divide their electoral college votes by district, not a ‘winner take all’ system and Washington DC has three electoral college votes despite not being a state.

Therefore, the famed ‘swing states’ will be the focus of pundits and viewers alike, states that either candidate could plausibly win, lighting the path to victory. The candidate to win more than half of the 538 electors will be elected president. 270 is the magic number. Not all polling places will close at the same time and the four US time zones lead to a staggered announcement of results based on geographic region.    

President Donald Trump speaks to voters in Fayetteville, North Carolina | Jackson A. Lanier/Wikimedia Commons

East coast results will be called first, with polls closing, depending on the state, at 12:00 or 1:00am UK time. Florida is commonly considered the ultimate swing state, with the last 11 of 12 successive presidents being successful claimants of the state’s 29 electoral college votes. Political models suggest that if President Trump loses Florida, a state he carried in 2016, his chances of winning re-election will fall to less than 2%. Further north, the midwestern states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin will be hotly contested. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was thought to have secured these states but a surge in turnout amongst rural and working-class voters for Trump saw him shock the pollsters and claim victory. North Carolina and Georgia are both states that Biden hopes to flip Democratic. In the case of Georgia, it will be the first time this has happened since Bill Clinton won the state in 1992.

Votes in the middle of the country will begin to be called a few hours later. This time, the biggest electoral prize for both candidates is Texas, a formerly ‘ruby red’ state in favor of the Republicans, but this time it appears that Biden has an outside chance of taking the state. This would be a stunning upset and would indicate a cataclysmic night for Trump and harm Republican chances of winning the presidency for years to come. Iowa, a state carried by the Obama/Biden ticket in 2008 and 2012, but won by Trump in 2016, will likely be close and a strong indicator of who is winning amongst rural voters.

The West is less competitive at the presidential level with Democrats dominating along the coast and Republicans comfortably holding the sparsely populated states of the Mountain West. Arizona has become a key target state for Democrats in the last few election cycles. The state is very likely to flip blue for only the second time since 1952 and former astronaut Mark Kelly looks set to win the Senate seat held by the late 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, solidifying the state for the Democrats.

Joe Biden rallying voters the day before the Iowa caucuses | Phil Roeder/Wikimedia Commons

While the presidential race will inevitably capture the headlines, thousands of other election results will be finalized throughout the night. Control of the Senate and House of Representatives will be crucial to the success of a future Trump or Biden Administration. Senate races to watch out for include those in Maine, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Colorado, Montana and South Carolina, in which Democrats are hoping to oust long-term Senator and Trump ally Lindsay Graham. According to polling, Republicans are dangerously close to losing several seats in the Senate, although Alabama Republicans are confident that they can beat Democratic incumbent Doug Jones, who narrowly won a controversial special election in 2017.

Pundits have raised concerns that early reporting of results will appear heavily favorable towards Republicans, a so-called ‘Red Mirage’. Due to the COVID pandemic, voters are choosing to vote by mail-in ballots in far larger numbers than ever seen before as an alternative to voting on the day in a polling booth. Attempts by President Trump to question the legitimacy and safety of mail-in ballots has led to his supporters choosing to vote in-person at higher rates than potential Biden voters, therefore expect early Republican surges but later gains from Democrats. It is very possible that the results of the election will not be clear on the night of the election as turnout from voters is expected to be historically high. The ‘Red Mirage’ theory and potential delays to the results being called has led to speculation that President Trump will attempt to declare victory before all votes are counted, a severe test for American democracy if this becomes reality. 

Every election in America is gifted the moniker ‘the most important election of our lifetime’, but this time, it really does feel true. The disparities between the two candidates are vast on nearly every issue and America feels more fractured and polarized than ever before. Can an election solve this? Only time will tell.