Eleven Three Twenty: The 8 Key Things to Look for on Election Day

November 2, 2020

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On the eve of Election Day, I thought I’d share the 8 key things I’ll be looking for tomorrow, so that you can be looking for them as well. These are presented in chronological order, from when the polls open tomorrow morning until we know who will be the next President of the United States (which, unfortunately, may not be for days — see number 8).

One of the largest unknowns heading into tomorrow is how big turnout will be. By the time the polls open tomorrow morning, approximately 100 million Americans will have already voted, according to Dr. Michael McDonald of the United States Election Project. To put that mind-boggling number into perspective, approximately 136 million votes were cast during the entire 2016 election.

The $64,000 questions are these: did this massive early-voting turnout simply poach voters who would have voted tomorrow anyway? Or does it portend a huge voter turnout — one that could smash modern turnout records? I lean toward the latter, believing we are going to set records in terms of actual votes and voting percentages. We should have an answer to these questions fairly early tomorrow.

But just looking at the numbers won’t be enough. We’ll need to know where this turnout is happening.

The early voting numbers skew heavily Democratic, which isn’t surprising. They consistently told pollsters they were going to vote early by mail or at in-person early voting centers. This means that the Biden/Harris ticket is expected to have a huge lead as early returns come in. (Although that lead will vary greatly from state to state — see number 6 for more on this.)

Meanwhile, President Trump’s supporters (undoubtedly influenced by their candidate’s tirades against mail-in ballots) repeatedly told pollsters they were waiting for Election Day to vote in person. Theoretically, that means we should see massive numbers of voters in traditionally red Republican areas (the panhandle of Florida, for example).

However, if turnout in traditionally Democratic areas (the city of Milwaukee, for example) is at least somewhat high, that will indicate two things: we are indeed looking at record turnout and the President might be in trouble. (He almost certainly has to win tomorrow’s voting numbers by huge margins to win.) My personal expectation? If early voting was a blue wave, Tuesday will be a gigantic red wave that will result in close outcomes in many key states.

2. Are There More Issues at the Polling Places Than Normal?

In my column last Friday, I mentioned that there were few things diehard supporters of Joe Biden and Donald Trump could agree upon. But fearing shenanigans on Election Day by supporters of their rival candidate (or even foreign governments) is another one of them. Whether those fears are or are not unfounded remains to be seen. But many election officials are worried about keeping polling places safe and running smoothly.

Having said that, EVERY election day is going to have its share of problems. So, please keep in mind that a polling place that has to be moved or shut down due to a coronavirus outbreak amongst the poll workers is not necessarily a sign of voter suppression. Neither are broken voting machines — they occur during every election.

We will, however, have to remain vigilant that the election remains free and fair. That means looking for obvious signs of election interference, such as the motion filed by Republican lawyers in Texas to throw out nearly 120,000 ballots in heavily Democratic Harris County. And before you accuse me of partisanship, let me assure you that Democratic lawyers have been dispatched all over the country as well. And they will be looking for any legal (hopefully) way to either increase their party’s votes — or decrease Republican votes. Welcome to politics, folks.

3. What Will the Exit Polls Tell Us — if Anything?

I’m curious about exit polling this year for a couple reasons. The first is the above-mentioned early voting numbers. Reputable pollsters say they will be including responses from early voters in their exit polls. But I can’t help but wonder if the exit polls will be affected by the high number of early voters.

I’m also interested in the demographic breakdown of the exit polls. 2020 is expected to produce the largest gender gap in Presidential voting history, with record number of women supporting the Biden/Harris ticket. Exit polls should give us an early indication of just how big that gender gap will be and if it is so big that the Trump/Pence ticket can’t overcome it, despite their strong advantage with male voters. (Again, this will vary widely from state to state.)

Above all, I’m interested in getting a sense of how Independents (or Unaffiliated) voters are breaking. In 2016, then-candidate Trump won them. Polling in 2020 shows he’s losing them to Joe Biden. (Again, this varies some state to state.) How they ultimately vote this year will determine the outcome in a number of close states, including Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina.

For example, there were approximately 2 million Independent/Unaffiliated votes cast in Florida during the early voting period (over 20% of the total votes). And we can expect that number to rise dramatically tomorrow. So, if these non-party-affiliated voters show even a moderate lean towards one of the candidates, they’ll decide that state’s outcome.

4. Does Either Candidate Over- or Under-perform His Polls?

Once actual results start rolling in, I’ll be looking to see if either candidate shows a pattern of consistent over- or under-performing his polling numbers. This is really important. One of the first signs that 2016 wasn’t going to play out as expected was when early results showed Donald Trump consistently over-performing his polls by a few percentage points. And that was just enough to give him razor-thin victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — the three states that sealed his Electoral College victory.

5. Was Late Polling Affected by the Large Early Vote?

Over the weekend and early today, a whole slew of high-quality state and national polls were released. Some of them showed the race tightening — especially in the state of Florida, where Donald Trump seemed to be making a last-minute surge.

As I mentioned above in the section on exit polling and in a short piece yesterday about a surprising final poll out of Iowa, I’m curious to see if that tightening was real. Or was it simply an illusion based on the difficulty of accurately capturing the high number of early votes? As is the case with the exit polling I mentioned above, pollsters have tried to adjust their methodologies to reflect the early voting in their poll numbers. But was it successful?

6. How Big are the Results Swings Throughout the Evening?

This is a catch-all category, where a number of different components (early voting, election day turnout, state election laws…) are going to come together. And it’s probably easiest to illustrate by using an actual state as a case study. So let’s look at Georgia.

Heading into Election Day, Georgia will be at or above 100% of its total vote count in 2016. But because counties in Georgia were allowed to start counting ballots on October 19, the early vote results should be posted not long after the polls close.

If the early vote is as pro-Biden as folks expect it to be, he should jump out to a big lead. But if the Election Day Trump voting numbers are as large as they’re expected to be, that big lead will continue to disappear as the evening wears on. In fact, let’s say President Trump takes a tiny lead after storming all the way back. It still may not be called for him, because ballots mailed from overseas will be counted in Georgia — even if they arrive after November 3, Consequently, Biden could conceivably eek out a victory after Election Day in this scenario.

These types of scenarios are going to happen all over the country all evening. So, don’t get overly cocky or overly despondent during these wild results swings. They’re inevitable this year.

7. Who Wins Control of the Senate?

If I had asked this question six months ago, most political pundits and junkies would have laughed at me. Republicans were not only expected to keep control of the Senate, it was not out of the question for them to expand their majority.

My how times have changed.

There now is a real possibility that Democrats could win the Senate. (Although the narrowing of some state polls over the weekend makes this a longer shot than it was even last week.) With Democratic control of the House of Representatives a foregone conclusion, a Biden victory would indeed be a “blue tsunami.” Therefore, pay close attention to the tight races in Maine, North Carolina, and Georgia. Because they’re on Eastern time, we’ll get an early sense of how the Senate is looking, and that outcome is arguably as important as the Presidential race (even though it doesn’t get the same level of scrutiny).

8. When Will We Know Who Won?

It’s been 20 years since Americans last went to bed on Election Day without any idea of who the next President would be. And before you say it: yes, we technically didn’t know the 2016 final results until a few days after the election because of close margins in MI, PA, and WI. But we had a pretty clear understanding on Election Night that Donald Trump had won. In 2020, it’s almost a certainty we won’t have a clear winner tomorrow night (unless one of the candidates has an overwhelming lead in numerous key states).

Once again, this is where the high number of early votes affect the election. Many states, such as my home state of Colorado, count early votes as they come in. Therefore, they shouldn’t struggle with the increased volume of early votes.

Unfortunately, a number of states did not adjust their practices for this year’s coronavirus-driven deluge of early votes and will not start counting votes until Tuesday morning. That means there’s no way they physically can count all the ballots by the end of the day. This is the case in Pennsylvania, one of the most critical states in terms of deciding the election. Election officials there have cautioned that they may not be able to declare a winner until Friday!

Furthermore, a number of states require that mail-in ballots simply be postmarked by Election Day, not arrive by it. Given the issues surrounding the United States Postal Service, that means thousands of ballots will not have arrived by tomorrow. So, it will be impossible to call any close state that has yet to count these still-to-arrive ballots. This is the scenario in Wisconsin, another critical state for determining the Electoral College. (Although election officials there believe they’ll have a good sense of which Presidential candidate won by early Wednesday morning.)

For a complete listing of each state’s specific vote-gathering and vote-counting practices, including an estimate of when we can reasonably expect a final count for each state, check out this wonderful state-by-state summary at FiveThirtyEight.com.

A Final Thought

For a variety of reasons, Tuesday evening is going to be unlike any Election Night in modern U.S. history. For those of you who are interested in my real-time thoughts and observations, consider following me on Twitter or Facebook. I’ll be posting all day — especially throughout the evening as actual results start coming in.

Finally, I’ll close this column the same way I closed a column last week. If you have yet to vote, please…PLEASE do so before the polls close tomorrow. For as President Abraham Lincoln so beautifully put it, ours is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

But only if those people choose to participate in their government. And the easiest way to do that is by voting.

For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.

President of Marathon Leadership, LLC — an organizational and leadership consulting firm based in Thornton, CO. Learn more at http://marathonleadership.com/

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