Polling expert Bill White’s election night guide
It is one of the biggest nights in global politics, as the results are counted and America decides its leader for the next four years.
The President is elected by an Electoral College of 538 delegates, made up from all the US states.
Each state is allocated their delegate number based on population. This is why you constantly see the magic tally of 270 in the media reports — as this is the winning post.
Nearly all states elect their delegates on a ‘winner take all’ basis, which means that whichever candidate wins — in New York, all 29 available ‘votes’ for that state go to that candidate regardless of how close the actual New York result ends up.
This last point is crucial, as Hilary Clinton won the US-wide popular vote in 2016 by a large margin of two million, but lost in the Electoral College.
Not surprisingly, the big-four states in terms of Electoral College votes are New York (29 electoral college votes), California (55), Texas (38), and Florida (29). The first two will be slam-dunk 100% for Biden, Texas should be Trump, and Florida is a toss-up.
Now the way the US election results work is via TV media results projections based on exit polls which are sometimes mixed in terms of their performance — watch Florida — but they are usually pretty good. Plus, each state has complete autonomy as to how, when, and in what way, they announce their own results and projections.
However, compared to 2016, there has been a large increase in early voting and mail voting, and this has impacted how and when most ballots are counted, creating uncertainty around when results will be known. Indeed, for the first time in history, most Americans are expected to have cast their ballots before Election Day.
The first states to report this time should be Arizona (11), North Carolina (15), and crucially Florida (29) all at around 1.30am-2.30am (Wednesday morning — UK time). Florida is crucial — if Trump loses it, frankly its virtually all over, but if he wins it, it becomes a lot more interesting.
Indeed, if Trump wins Florida then it could be a long haul, as swing states like Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10), then become key. But they might not even report until well into Wednesday, or even Thursday, as unlike Florida they are not counting their mail-in ballots until election day.
North Carolina (15) will probably be projected as too close to call — it may be called for Biden, and if so that is great news for him and bad for Trump, regardless of the Florida result. Arizona (11) should also be declared - Trump won this in 2016, but it could be on a knife-edge this time.
Then around 2.45am-3am Texas (38) should also be projected for Trump – the Democrats haven’t won this state since 1976. However, Biden should have some wins by this time with the states of Massachusetts (11) - the Kennedy family’s home state, Maryland (10), and Rhode Island (4).
Also, around 3am or just before, we should start to see projections and states being called for Biden including Illinois (20), Connecticut (7) and Delaware (3) and New Jersey (14). Georgia (16) may also come in around now – but it may be much later this time as it is also one of the states that are not counting their mail-in ballots until election day. If Trump loses Georgia, then he is in trouble regardless of whether he has won Florida or not.
Then we should get a whole rake (to use an Ulster expression) of states being called by the various networks. Those declaring around this time will mostly be for Trump including probably Indiana (11), Tennessee (11), Alabama (9), South Carolina (9) and Oklahoma (7).
Then around 4am we should get the first big East or West coast state being projected probably New York (29) going for Biden.
Then possibly Ohio (18) may be declared, although it may take longer this time, particularly if it is close. This is a classic swing state, but most polls are now projecting this one for Trump. If Trump can’t win Ohio then he is in real trouble and it is hard to see how he can win without Ohio — again this is assuming he has already won Florida.
Then around 4.30am to 5am Virginia (13) and California (55) will be declared for Biden - no surprise there, and Missouri (10) and Idaho (4) should also be called and projected for Trump.
At 6am all the polls in the US will now have closed, and this will result in Montana (3) and Alaska (3) being called for Trump. Around this time Colorado (9) and Nevada (6) should also be projected – both for Biden.
Now we are heading for 7am, with it probably coming down to the Pennsylvania (20), North Carolina (15), Florida (29), and Michigan (16) projections, and perhaps even Arizona (11) if it is really close.
But as pointed out, Pennsylvania and Michigan may not declare until much later this time. If it is still too close to call, in some or all of these states, then there will be talk of recounts, lawyers, legal actions, and it may be a long time before we know who has won.
In 2000, because of the recounts in Florida the final result wasn’t declared for another 36 days.
But if you want a quick ‘rule’ to follow, we suggest you track three states: Florida, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Both Trump and Biden really need to win two out of three of these states to win overall, and those two realistically need to include Florida.
There are routes to win for both candidates without Florida but they are long shots — Trump has more or less a zero chance without Florida. Plus, those long shots mean that if either candidate loses Florida then they must win both Pennsylvania AND Michigan to have any chance.
As always, though, there are other ways to cut the pie (as they say in Idaho) and we have run several hundred analyses, but interestingly whatever way the pie is cut - Florida is in there somewhere. Will it come down to these three states? – well we will soon know — or maybe not so soon.
Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk.
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