Missing a national election is — for me — the equivilant of skipping a superbowl.
That's why I assume you’ll be glued to your TV, laptop, and phone. With that in mind, I have assembled a guide to help you make sense of what’s happening, and to read the signals and tea leaves along with the talking heads and online pundits.
Because of COVID, this year's election is unlike any in recent memory. So, to establish some sort of recognizable frame of reference, I’ve used as guideposts the times when developments took place on election night— and beyond—in 2016 and 2018. All are listed in Eastern Standard Time. Use this information to set your expectations as you follow the returns.
Tuesday 3:19 pm 2018: ABC News reported that White House sources expected Democrats to win control of the House.
Media figures have gotten pretty good about concealing or downplaying what they have seen from exit polls and other sources.
The odds are worse, however, that Trump and his leak-steady political teammates can keep their poker faces. They might give background quotes to media sources, as they did two years ago, or just tweet things out. Watch for tells beginning at around 3:00.
6:59pm 2016: The Associated Press (AP) called Indiana and Kentucky for Trump and the Kentucky Senate for Rand Paul.
Kentucky and Indiana close their polls early; they are also among the 20 states that will begin tallying early-voting ballots during Election Day. They should be good early sources of information.
Both states figure to ultimately go for Trump, as they did in 2016, when AP actually jumped the gun by a minute with its first calls of the night. But, if they can’t make the call right at 7:00—and the longer it takes after that—it might be a sign of trouble for Trump.
On the other hand, Republicans could get a good sign if networks call the re-election of Kentucky’s other U.S. Senator, Mitch McConnell, as quickly as they did Rand Paul’s four years ago. Democrats spent a lot of money on Amy McGrath’s quixotic bid against him; a quick call could signal trouble with races elsewhere that Democrats need to flip Senate control.
7:31pm 2018: ABC News reported that, according to preliminary exit polls, 30 percent of Georgia voters were Black.
Networks love to dole out tidbits from exit polls from individual states—combined, this year, with data on early voters—that offer hints at the topline results they are careful not to share. You can compare against 2018 exit polls and 2016 exit polls to do your own punditry.
In Georgia, where polls close at 7:00, Democrats hope to deliver surprising wins in three state-wide races: Biden for President; Jon Ossoff against U.S. Senate incumbent David Perdue; and in a special Senate election, Raphael Warnock against Republicans Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins. The Senate races could head to January runoff elections if nobody reaches 50 percent.
In 2018, exit polls showed the electorate 60 percent white, 30 percent Black, and 10 percent other; those same exit polls correctly suggested that Republican Brian Kemp held a slight edge over Democrat Stacey Abrams in the race for Governor. Early voting data in Georgia has been running at roughly the same proportion. For an early hint at Democrats’ chances, watch for reports on whether the Black share of the state-wide vote this year exceeds that 30 percent threshold of Abrams—or if Biden, Ossoff, and Warnock are exceeding Abrams’s 25 percent showing among white voters.
7:53pm 2018: ABC News called VA-10 for Democrat Jennifer Wexton over Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock
Wexton was the first red-to-blue flip two years ago, in an early sign of Democratic strength in suburban districts.
This year, I’d wager that honor might go to Democrat Carolyn Boureaux, facing Republican Rich McCormick for an open Republican seat north of Atlanta, Georgia.
If, on the other hand, Tuesday turns out to be a good day for House Republicans, watch for an early red-to-blue flip in Virginia’s second district, where Republican Scott Taylor tries to win his seat back from Elaine Luria; Virginia’s seventh, where Nick Freitas is gunning for first-term Democrat Abigail Spanberger; or Oklahoma’s fifth, where Republican Stephanie Bice faces first-term Democrat Kendra Horn.
8:19pm 2018: ABC News reported that preliminary exit polls showed that Republican voters outnumbered Democrats in Texas by five percentage points, down from nine in 2016 and 12 in 2014.
With that five-point party edge, networks were able to declare Ted Cruz a narrow winner over Beto O’Rourke for U.S. Senate by 10:10pm two years ago.
The partisan advantage will need to come down further, presumably, for Democrats to succeed in their dream of winning Biden the state’s 38 electoral votes, and perhaps even putting MJ Hegar into the U.S. Senate in place of Republican John Cornyn.
Either would be national headline-making news. But another important result should be worth watching in the Texas state house of representative races.
Democrats could gain the majority in that chamber by gaining nine seats. It’s an uphill climb, but would give Democrats a seat at the table for redistricting, as well as state-wide lawmaking.
I recommend bookmarking this election return site, and keeping an eye on returns from Denton, in north Texas, where Angela Brewer is trying to unseat Lynn Stuckey in the 64th district; and San Antonio, where Celine Montoya is gunning for Steve Allison in the 121st. Both of those Republicans figure to be hard to beat—which is exactly why they could be leading indicators if Democrats have a chance.
10:06pm 2018: CNN called Kansas Secretary of State for Democrat Laura Kelly.
This was the first statewide win for a Democrat in Kansas in almost a decade, and knocked out Trump ally Kris Kobach. This year, Democrats have visions of electing the party’s first U.S. Senator from the state since 1932. State senator Barbara Bollier has been closing the polling gap against Republican congressman Roger Marshall, in the contest to succeed retiring Pat Roberts.
Unfortunately, Kansas is not expected to start counting most early and mail-in ballots until after polls close at 8:00 eastern time, so depending on how efficient they are, results might not come as quickly as they did two years ago.
10:17pm 2018: Networks called CO-06 for Democratic challenger Jason Crow.
Colorado has demonstrated in the past how to do a largely early-voting election and get results in nice and early. It is one of a dozen states that begin counting mail-in ballots even before Election Day; even though polls don’t close until 9:00 eastern time, results tend to come quickly, even in close races like Crow’s in 2018.
Democrats need Biden to win the state, and for John Hickenlooper to beat incumbent Cory Gardner, to have realistic chances at controlling the White House and the Senate, respectively.
Also, keep a lookout for the 3rd congressional district, where controversial Shooters Grill owner Lauren Boebert defeated incumbent Scott Tipton in the Republican primary. Boebert is favored to win on Tuesday, but if Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush beats her it could be an early sign of voters tiring of Trumpist candidates.
10:19pm 2016: NPR reported that major U.S. stock exchanges had dropped three percent in pre-market trading.
Those in the media and political worlds practice caution in these situations; economic movers try to get ahead of what they see coming. After assuming a Hillary Clinton victory, overnight markets—including the value of the Mexican peso—adjusted to growing signs of Trump’s strength well before anybody officially called key states for him.
Although a Trump re-election would maintain the status quo, there is evidence that markets have begun pricing in expectations of a Biden victory next week. Convulsions in futures trading could be signs that wealthy institutional insiders see evidence that Trump might pull it off again.
10:34pm 2016: AP called North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race for Republican Richard Burr.
North Carolina was expected to be a major battleground four years ago. The Presidential race and Burr’s re-election were considered toss-ups. Despite the state’s early 7:30 poll closing time, and efficient tallying system, many expected to be waiting for crucial North Carolina results well into the night.
Instead, Burr defeated Deborah Ross by five percentage points, all but dashing hopes of Democratic control of the Senate at an early hour. A little more than a half-hour later networks called the state for Trump.
This year, again, pundits see North Carolina up for grabs. Democrat Cal Cunningham’s challenge to Thom Tillis is considered essential to the party’s path to Senate control; that race, and the Presidential outcome, are rated by forecasters as tossups or even a slight advantage for Democrats. Democrats also hope to pick up U.S. House seats, following court-ordered redistricting.
10:50pm 2016: AP called Florida for Donald Trump.
Amid concerns of a long, drawn-out, multi-day ballot count in key states, there is considerable optimism about a snappier process in Florida. State officials have told the New York Times that it should report all of its mail and early in-person votes by 8:30 pm, a mere 90 minutes after polls close. Four years ago, with a final margin of barely over one percentage point, the AP was able to call the state before the end of prime time on the East Coast.
Since it’s a must-win state for Trump, the feeling among some political insiders is that a lot of heartache and angst might be avoided if networks declare Biden the winner there before Americans go to bed Tuesday night. That might, of course, be wishful thinking.
11:00pm 2018: ABC News declared a runoff in a special election for U.S. Senate in Mississippi, between Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy.
If we’re going to see big Democratic gains in the U.S. Senate—enough to not only give them the majority, but a real chance to take on big progressive projects—the Hyde-Smith/Espy rematch could be the key upset. Polling suggests that Espy trails by roughly the same nine points by which he lost the runoff two years ago, but that lead has been narrowing.
Wednesday 12:36am 2018: AP called Maine’s gubernatorial race for Democrat Janet Mills.
Enormous attention has focused on Democrat Sara Gideon’s challenge to Republican U.S. Senator Susan Collins. It would be hyperbolic to say, as some have, that this is the last stand for moderate New England Republicans. But it would certainly be hard for Democrats to take control of the U.S. Senate without winning this race.
The last big state-wide contest, won by Mills, got called at this relatively reasonable hour by AP; some networks weren’t convinced until nearly ten in the morning. That’s because Mills needed to top 50 percent to avoid Maine’s relatively new ranked-choice voting process, and ended up with 50.1.
Neither Gideon nor Collins have topped 50 percent in polls to date, thanks to independent candidates David Gibson and Lisa Savage. If the results do require a ranked-choice runoff, Gideon is presumed to have the advantage, as she figures to be the second choice of Savage supporters. But it might be quite a while longer until we find out for sure.
How much longer? In 2018, Democrat Jared Golden won the ranked-choice runoff process in Maine’s second congressional district, over Republican Bruce Poliquin, at 2:06 pm—on November 15th, nine days after Election Day.
1:14am 2018: CNN reported that California has rejected a rent control ballot measure.
California ballot questions—crucial, in the most populous state in the country—can occupy your worried mind as the hour gets later and the battlegrounds remain uncalled.
A huge battle has played out there over Proposition 22, which would undo a recent state law and re-classify ride-share drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees. On the criminal justice front, Proposition 17 would restore voting rights to felons on parole. Further justice propositions are being considered locally in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
It’s also worth watching the Los Angeles County District Attorney election, where progressives are hoping George Gascon can unseat Jackie Lacey, putting a reform-minded prosecutor in charge in one of the country’s largest jurisdictions.
2:01am 2016: AP called Nebraska’s 2nd district for Trump.
There are plausible scenarios in which the Presidential election comes down to this Omaha-based district, in one of two states, with Maine, to award electoral college votes by congressional district.
If so, two in the morning might be an optimistic timetable for the result. That district’s congressional race wasn’t called for another eight hours in 2016.
2:30am 2016: AP called Wisconsin for Trump, and declared him the winner based on surpassing 270 electoral votes.
Pennsylvania had been called an hour earlier; Michigan remained too close to call. Those three states, narrowly won by Trump but polling in Biden’s direction this year, have all been targets of controversy concerning ballot eligibility, access, and counting. They might all be easily called by midnight; any or all could drag out in courts for weeks.
This year, the state that sets off the champagne could be Arizona. It is already counting early mail ballots, and will report those tallies when polls close at 10:00 eastern time. It sounds like the state will avoid the 2018 scenario, when processing of early votes left the outcome in flux for a week.
In addition to perhaps being the state that officially gets one of the Presidential candidates over the 270 electoral vote line, Arizona could provide the key U.S. Senate result establishing control of that chamber. If all goes smoothly, that race between Republican Martha McSally and Democrat Mark Kelly, could be resolved before midnight on the east coast.
10:25am 2016: AP called Montana Governor election for Steve Bullock.
Of the 11 states (and two territories) electing governors this year, only one looks like a close race—but it’s a barn-burner. Democrat Steve Bullock is term-limited out; his Lieutenant Governor, Mike Cooney, is trying to keep the seat blue. The Republican nominee is first-term at-large congressman Greg Gianforte, best known outside the state for body-slamming reporter Ben Jacobs of The Guardian during his 2018 campaign.
Bullock himself, after an ill-fated play for the Presidential nomination, is challenging Republican incumbent Steve Daines for the U.S. Senate. And, there is a good race for the U.S. House race opened by Gianforte.
It took until well into Wednesday morning to call Bullock’s four-point win four years ago, and almost exactly as long for U.S. Senator Jon Tester’s re-election in 2018. If networks call any of this year’s three big state-wide races for the Republicans before you fall asleep, consider it a good sign for the GOP keeping its rural advantage.
5:46pm 2018: AP called Alaska gubernatorial race for Republican Mike Dunleavy.
Notoriously difficult to poll, quirky in its political leanings, and planning not to report any mailed vote counts until the following week, Alaska will likely get little attention. But the state just might elect the country’s third Democratic-caucusing Independent. Al Gross, an orthopedic surgeon, would join Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King if he upsets Republican Dan Sullivan.
Gross has raised big bucks from progressives throughout the lower 48. Sullivan, meanwhile, tripped himself up by supporting the Pebble Mine gold project, which offends Alaskans’ environmentalist side without appealing to their pro-oil side.
Two major political forecasters recently shifted this race from Likely Republican to Lean Republican; unfortunately, as noted, if the race is close you’ll need to wait for them to get around to the mail-in ballots.