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The 2020 Election Night Insider's Guide: Everything you need to know

I was prepared to say “thank God it’s over” on November 3rd, but with the year we have had (and the days to follow), we still have no end in sight. The pandemic, and the state of our electoral system, has changed everything.   This has been a deeply disappointing campaign, filled with October surprises long before October.  From COVID-19 that has created duelling health and economic crises, and a racial reckoning marred with civil unrest, the candidates (and the voters they seek to represent) were buffeted by crisis after crisis.  The public has never been more divided -- whether it be wearing a mask, joining a protest or voting by mail.  And the consequences of our national polarisation – and the ugliest presidential debate ever -- have been on full display.  

I haven’t been able to crisscross the country like in a normal election year, conducting face-to-face focus groups in the states that will decide this election, but I’ve taken advantage of recent technology to make the most of the disruption. We hosted virtual focus groups on Zoom with undecided voters simultaneously in all the swing states – a first – allowing us to listen and learn from voters all across the country in real time. And thanks to my relationships with the LA Times, Bloomberg News, and CNBC, I’ve had the unprecedented opportunity to bring you more real-time information about what voters are thinking (and feeling) than ever before. 

That research led me to conclude the following:  

"Among voters non-aligned to a political party, this election season has become a battle between concerns about Donald Trump’s behaviour and character vs. Joe Biden’s policies and agenda.  Put another way, voters are deciding between a candidate they don’t particularly like with policies they mostly agree with vs. candidate they do like but with policies they don’t really know."      

If the current polling is correct, this should be Joe Biden’s night, but with a historic flood of mail and early votes, and with varying dates up that swing states can process and count those ballots, there is a high likelihood we just won’t know for sure.  In some states, Donald Trump may be leading at midnight, but as mail votes are counted, that will be erased over time (most likely 24 to 48 hours later).  

That polling has been remarkably stable for most of the past 12 months.  Biden has held a consistent 7% to 9% lead overall, and an equally consistent (albeit slightly smaller) lead in most of the swing states.  

That said, anyone who has underestimated Donald Trump (including myself) has suffered a rude awakening. Just look at election night 2016. But at the same time, this is a fundamentally different election: different candidate perceptions, vastly different issues, multiple crises, and better polling methodologies to correct the mistakes of the last election. 

Saying “remember 2016” to justify uncertainty in 2020 is simply not good enough. Trump was not as far behind in 2016 as he is this election. 

Moreover, there are many more states for Trump to defend this time that weren’t in play last time: most notably Ohio, Texas and Georgia.  There are two other states – Florida and North Carolina – that no Republican has ever won without them.    On the Biden side of the ledger, the two states narrowly won by Clinton – Minnesota and Nevada – appear reasonably solid for him despite the visits by President Trump and his surrogates.  And the three so-called industrial states that surprised everyone by going for Trump by a few thousand votes each (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) all appear reasonably likely to reverse their decision this time.    

*Presidential polling results a week out for all the key states that are in play -- along with the election results for 2016. This chart will make you an expert.  As the votes are counted, you’ll know exactly where each candidate is out-performing expectations.

Trump is technically within the margin of error in enough states that could allow him to squeak by.  But that would still require a historic fail from the polling industry and some game-changing event in the final hours leading up to an election that over 90 million people have already cast their ballots. Baring either occurrence, Trump’s opportunity to reset the race are nonexistent. EVERYONE has made their mind up, and the role of third parties will be minimal.

But enough campaign analysis. You want to know who’s going to win, so here’s your minute-by-minute election roadmap. This is my ninth bi-annual Election Night Insider’s Guide, a list of the poll closing times and an analysis of key battleground states and crucial races as they unfold. We’re taking you through the key races as they are decided, from East to West, state by state…as they unfold in real time.

Note: all times are EST.  (States with an * have multiple closing times – the time listed is the latest closing time and the earliest the networks will project an outcome.)  

7:00pm: Georgia, Indiana*, Kentucky*, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, New Hampshire (Total: 64 electoral votes) 

Georgia President:  Trump won Georgia by 5% in 2016, but this is not the same state four years later.  A Trump loss here means a Biden win nationally.  

Georgia Senate:  On the Senate side, there are TWO Republican incumbents in trouble. A Democratic win in either seat virtually guarantees a Democratic control of the Senate in 2021.  


7:30pm: North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia (Cumulative: 102 electoral votes)

Ohio President:  No Republican has won the White House without winning Ohio. There are no alternatives. If Biden wins here, it will be indicative of a landslide election. North Carolina Senate.  Thom Tillis, the Republican incumbent, had been in dire straits until his Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham was implicated in (multiple) sex scandals. This could be the race that decides control of the Senate.

------------8:00pm: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee* (Cumulative: 292 electoral votes)  

This may be the biggest collection of states, and you will see a lot of declarations throughout the hour, but other than Florida and Pennsylvania, don’t expect many surprises.  Florida is a MUST win for Trump (remember – the state is in two time zones).  And all eyes will also be focused on Pennsylvania, which Biden hopes to be the “tipping point” for his candidacy.  Expect Republicans to pick up the Alabama senate seat – which they will need to keep control of the Senate.  If they do, the magic number for Democrats to flip the Senate is 4.  

Florida President:  Do not expect a repeat of the 2000 election. I have been talking with state officials over the past 48 hours and they assure me that even with a surge in voter participation and mail-in ballots, the counting will be complete by 2 am.  Bottom line, the state will be a nail-biter as it always is.  

Maine Senate:  This race represents the final stand of New England Republicanism. Susan Collins is the last remaining federal officeholder from the GOP in New England.  If Collins wins, the GOP keeps the Senate.  Don’t bank on it. 


9:00pm: Arkansas (8:30), Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan*, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, South Dakota*,  Texas*, Wisconsin, Wyoming  (Cumulative: 432 electoral votes)  

Shifting demographics and voter loyalties are put to test in the results of Arizona and Texas, while Biden is on the verge of rebuilding the blue wall with significant, stable leads in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Colorado Senate: If the Democrats are to win back the Senate, it starts right here with Colorado and Arizona.  Iowa Senate: Democrats can win the Senate without winning Iowa, but a Republican loss guarantees a Democratic Senate.


11:00 pm and later: California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska. 

Don’t expect a presidential declaration by midnight, or 2 am, or even 5 am.  It won’t happen.  In fact, with the slower pace of counting mail-in votes in many of the swing states, we will not know a definitive electoral college outcome for at least 24-hours. Trump may appear ahead in many states due to the propensity for his supporters to vote in-person, but over time, we expect him to lose his lead as Biden banks his advantage in mail votes. This has been termed a red or blue “mirage” effect, because one candidate will look like they are winning initially until remaining counted ballots tip the race in the other’s favor. 

--------------------------As a parting note: no matter who emerges as our next President, or what party controls each chamber of Congress, let us all hope that our nation’s transfer of power is done peacefully and under the rule of law.  On a personal note, I am deeply worried that this unorthodox election will challenge the integrity of our democracy. The campaigns, the media, and the election officials need to show a level of discretion like never before. Let us at least hope that the next four years bring prosperity, civility, decency – and health – back to America. 

We need it… badly.

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