If it feels like the ground is shaking under your feet, you’re not alone. America’s tectonic political plates are shifting ahead of an election that’s being cast in apocalyptic terms by both sides. And the campaigns are training their energy on a handful of states that truly matter. Today’s Sunday Magazine is a deep dive to prep you for Tuesday — and beyond, as a mass of mail-in votes could stretch the drama for weeks. What should you be watching for in the key states? Who are some people who could surprise you? What can you do if you’ve already voted? We’ve got you covered. Make a plan to vote and read on.
Daniel Malloy, Senior Editor, and Nick Fouriezos, Senior Politics Reporter
top 10 swing state breakdown
All percentages are from the OZY/0ptimus Forecast, which gives Joe Biden an 87 percent chance of reaching the 270 electoral vote mark to defeat President Donald Trump.
1. Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes)
Our pick to win: Biden (74 percent chance of victory). About a third of election outcomes have Pennsylvania as the tipping-point state in the Electoral College — and Biden has held a consistent polling lead thanks to a blue wave in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs and a slight receding of the massive Trump tide in rural white areas. Republicans have gained in voter registrations here, but that may be a misleading signal.
What a contested race looks like: Pennsylvania was one of the few states with no early voting (and few mail-in ballots) prior to 2020, with predictably dismal results in an April primary that saw thousands of votes tossed out. “Naked ballots” (when voters don’t use a required security envelope) threaten to become the “hanging chads” of 2020, leading to a naked celebrity PSA to inform voters. The Republican state Legislature and the GOP-controlled courts refused to allow the mail vote to be counted early, and seven counties won’t even start counting mail ballots until Wednesday, meaning the results could take days or weeks to finalize — with a Supreme Court decision looming over ballots that arrive after Election Day.
2. Florida (29)
Our pick to win: Trump (38 percent). Our gut goes against our forecast here. The Sunshine State has been extremely close the last two national elections, and Biden has held a slim, if consistent, lead in polling. But in both 2016 and 2018, pollsters overstated Democratic support, so we’re skeptical that new Florida resident Trump has lost as much of the senior vote as surveys suggest.
What a contested race looks like: Broward County, in the Miami metropolitan area, was a key culprit in the chaos of the 2000 recount, and a close vote here could trigger similar animus, led by newly appointed elections supervisor Peter Antonacci, a Republican lawyer who has already had one major mishap with a purge notice since taking the beleaguered department’s reins.
3. Michigan (16)
Our pick to win: Biden (86 percent). Of the Trump Rust Belt trifecta that won him the presidency — Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — this was the one with his smallest margin of victory, less than 11,000 votes, a number that the college town of Ann Arbor alone could have made up with higher Democratic turnout. This time around, Biden is likely to win, thanks in part to turnout that could reach as many as 6 million voters, eclipsing the 4.8 million votes of four years ago.
What a contested race looks like: Voter intimidation could be an issue, as armed militia members stormed the state Capitol in both April and September to protest COVID-19 lockdowns — not to mention the foiled plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. In addition, an appellate court judge recently blocked Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s attempt to ban people from openly carrying guns within 100 feetof polling places. In a close race, Whitmer and the Democrats could be at odds with the Republican-controlled Michigan Supreme Court, which has two seats up for election that could flip the court’s composition.
4. Wisconsin (10)
Our pick to win: Biden (79 percent). Wisconsin is perceived as less blue than Michigan, but Biden has held a consistent lead here and a number of very strong polls have emerged recently to suggest his support hasn’t dropped off.
What a contested race looks like: Wisconsin has a Republican Legislature and state Supreme Court that have already stymied Democrat Gov. Tony Evers, particularly by forcing Wisconsin to hold an in-person primary during the spring pandemic surge against expert advice — and the state court could play a critical role in other disputes, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court last week declined to overturn its decision to nullify mail ballots postmarked by, but arriving after Election Day.
5. Arizona (11)
Our pick to win: Biden (58 percent). Arizona has gone for a Democratic presidential contender just once since 1952 — Bill Clinton in 1996 — but two years ago it elected Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to replace retiring GOP Sen. Jeff Flake. Large suburban population growth, including a surge in California expats, could paint the state blue again.
What a contested race looks like: Arizona has a Republican trifecta in state government (controlling the governorship, Legislature and courts) and in 2018 saw weekslong delays in tabulating the final vote. But the state passed laws to count ballots earlier, and voters are used to voting by mail, meaning Arizona could see one of the smoother Election Days.
6. North Carolina (15)
Our pick to win: Trump (38 percent). Among the Democrats’ “demographics are destiny” states across the South that are becoming more diverse, North Carolina is the most purple — but also the slowest in moving their direction. The state has essentially been tied for months in the polls, but its slight conservative bent and Trump’s ability to generate rural and small-town turnout should not be underestimated, and it’s why we are (slightly) Trumpier than our forecast data here.
What a contested race looks like: The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand a new rule allowing the Tar Heel State to count mail ballots postmarked by Election Day that arrive by Nov. 12. But like elsewhere, late ballots will stoke fresh lawsuits and an attempt at a GOP shutdown. While Democrats control the governor’s mansion, the state elections board and the state Supreme Court, Republicans hold the Legislature — so if there’s a close race and a battle over ballots, one can imagine a potential constitutional standoff: The governor and the Legislature could each claim victory for their party and send competing slates of electors to Washington who are pledged to Biden and Trump, respectively. Then it’s up to Congress to sort it out.
7. Georgia (16)
Our pick to win: Trump (45 percent). This is an excruciatingly tight race, and while our model gives Biden the slight edge in what’s basically a coin flip, we figure this tantalizing Democratic target remains just barely out of reach for Team Blue.
What a contested race looks like: Georgia was the poster child for voter suppression concerns two years ago, and the Republican secretary of state at the center of it all, Brian Kemp, is now governor. Expect his 2018 challenger, Democrat Stacey Abrams, and her voting rights organization Fair Fight to challenge poll closures (which marred the June 9 primary) and other questionable decisions.
Our pick to win: Trump (60 percent). None of these matter if Trump can’t win this megastate that hasn’t picked a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Its rapidly shifting demographics and monster early voter turnout have Democrats excited enough to send Kamala Harris to campaign, but they’re not sending significant money — and the anticipated blue Texas will likely not arrive just yet.
Our pick to win: Biden (79 percent). Similarly to Trump in Texas, a Biden loss here is in the realm of possibility but would likely signal a very rough night for the former vice president.
What a contested race looks like: In September, a Nevada court tossed out a Trump campaign lawsuit against the Democratic Legislature’s new law automatically sending mail ballots to all registered voters. Trump is now seeking to halt Clark County vote counts until Republicans are granted better ability to observe the process and discount fraud, a case that likely won’t fly in Nevada but could possibly be used by the conservative U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate votes after Election Day.
10. Ohio (18)
Our pick to win: Trump (51 percent). Biden has made strides in Ohio since Trump won it by 8 percentage points in 2016, but concerns from Black leaders that the party hasn’t adequately reached voters of color contributes to the feeling that Democrats will fall just short in this one.
What a contested race looks like: The Ohio election system is much smoother than those of its surrounding Rust Belt neighbors, with mail votes tallied early and a Republican governor and secretary of state dedicated to a fair process … which means a Biden win here could be one of the few ways the race could be over on election night, because it would signal he’s won the less conservative neighboring states and would come with the imprimatur of a GOP administration.
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America’s police departments are girding for disruptions at the polls. From Dallas to Atlanta to Miami to San Jose, departments are forbidding time off for officers and coordinating with federal officials to monitor threats from various troublemakers who may want to show up with heavy weaponry. This year has already seen its share of street violence and looting. On Election Day? “We may have more of the same,” says one police lieutenant.
Meetthe Chaldean Catholics of Michigan, a 95,000-strong group of voters from Iraq and Syria who lean Republican in a state that went for Trump by less than 11,000 votes four years ago. They speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and have become pillars of the Detroit business community. By and large they back Trump, appreciating his tough line against ISIS and his business background.
The dynamic Ilhan Omar was the first Somali American member of Congress, but likely not the last: Foreign-born U.S. citizens are at a record high and constitute a rising political force — with Somali Americans being a particularly strong example in key 2020 swing states, including Minnesota, Maine and Ohio. But don’t assume they’re all Democrats.
Maine’s voters are doing something unusual this year. And its experiment in “ranked-choice voting” has drawn the eyes of the nation to Maine for more than its heated Senate race. The idea is that there are no more “wasted” votes — if your chosen candidate lands outside the top two, your vote is reassigned to your second choice. Several other states are considering implementing their own version and will be watching closely.
COVID-19 will not stop exit polls in this year’s election, but how much should we trust them? The polls — huge surveys funded by major media outlets to give a picture of the electorate as they vote — are a mainstay of Election Day, as they tell us voter demographics and the key factors impacting their decisions. But a flood of early and mail voters makes this job harder for exit pollsters, who will have to rely more on phone calls in addition to in-person surveys. Plus, exit polls badly undersampled white working-class voters in 2016, prompting a woeful misread of the Trump coalition.
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The Los Angeles district attorney’s race is the most important campaign you haven’t heard about. Incumbent Jackie Lacey faces a surprisingly stiff challenge from Gascón, 66, the former DA of San Francisco who’s shown a much greater willingness to prosecute cops — and whose reformist approach has gained steam since the death of George Floyd. There are also intriguing racial dynamics at play with the Cuban American Gascón taking on the Black female Lacey — who’s opposed by Black Lives Matter. The winner will preside over America’s largest local prosecutor’s office.
South Carolina’s Senate contest is drawing gobs of attention and record-obliterating cash, but this bellwether House race down along the coast is worth watching too. Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham won a surprise victory in 2018 and is now locked in a neck and neck race with Mace, 42, the first female cadet at the Citadel and a sharp-tongued rising star for the GOP — if she wins.
There are only a handful of governor’s races this year, and one of the most compelling is in Missouri, where a 38-year-old Democratic auditor and soccer mom is challenging the incumbent GOP governor, Mike Parson. Galloway is trailing, but if there’s a blue wave coming, she could be washed ashore as a surprise winner.
Republicans aren’t playing a lot of offense this year, but they do have an outside shot in the Michigan Senate race, where James is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. James, 39, is a Black man who has spoken frankly about facing down racism — but won’t criticize Trump. He’s an instant national star if he pulls off the upset, as the GOP has been trying to build a more diverse coalition. While there are a record number of Black Democratic Senate candidates in the South this year, they are largely underdogs, and a James victory would mean there are as many Black Republicans in the Senate (two) as Black Democrats (if Kamala Harris loses as veep and stays put in the Senate).
5. Raphael Warnock
You’re going to hear his name a lot between November and January. A Georgia Democrat, Warnock, 51, is almost certainly heading to a runoff special election against either Sen. Kelly Loeffler or Rep. Doug Collins — who have been bludgeoning each other over who’s more conservative and Trump-loyal. The Jan. 5 runoff could decide which party controls the Senate (and could be joined by another Georgia Senate runoff, if neither Republican Sen. David Perdue nor Democrat Jon Ossoff can break 50 percent). Warnock, the pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church (which Martin Luther King Jr. once called home), brings a churchman’s penchant for outreach to far-flung voters in a play to change this longtime red state’s electorate — building on Abrams’ work.
who are the undecideds?
We have spoken to dozens of undecided voters in recent weeks. Here are takeaways about this vanishingly small group.
1. Fiscally Uncertain
Trump ran on a message of economic populism, but his most significant economic policy win was a tax cut weighted toward the wealthy. “When [Republicans] say ‘tax breaks,’ I feel like they don’t understand how economics actually works for us,” says Texan Khanh Hoang, a 27-year-old field service engineer who typically leans conservative. “I thought he was going to run the government like a business and make it profitable, rather than printing $3 trillion for his friends,” says Jerry Kraemer, a 70-year-old operations manager from Kentucky who has been frustrated by the increasing debt and bailout of the airline industry. However, some cited the stock market and pre-pandemic economy as a plus. “I like the Trump economic world we’ve had the last four years,” says Michelle O’Neal, an office worker in Virginia. And Steve Friedewald, a 57-year-old who works in the gas industry in Texas, said he would likely vote for the economic and tax policies that benefited his family most: “It’s not good for my livelihood to switch to an industry that doesn’t exist: clean fuel,” he said.
2. Anti-Abortion Democrats Still Exist
And many of them told us that while they despised Trump, they were having a tough time supporting Biden given his ticket’s unapologetic support of abortion rights. “I just can’t vote for Trump. And I cannot vote for Kamala Harris, because she is pro-abortion,” said Cynthia Ogrey, a 78-year-old retired nurse from Northern California. “If only the Democrats would realize that, they would be virtually unbeatable if they backed off on the abortion issue. Where are the [pro-choice] voters gonna go, to the Republicans?” adds Mark Schmidt, a 62-year-old teacher and devout Catholic in Oregon.
3. Unsatisfied With Biden
Some on the left, as well as some centrists, dislike Trump but aren’t thrilled with the Democrat. “I’m going to vote. I just wish the Democrats had not picked Biden. Biden, to me, is like a freaking wall paint that’s drying — boring as shit,” says Revelation Walker, a 43-year-old Black woman from Georgia. “If we vote for Biden, we're enabling the same mind-think that led to Hillary Clinton running,” says Kevin O’Connell, a 36-year-old California stock trader. “Give them another four years of Trump, and hopefully Democrats learn a lesson — then hopefully get a legit candidate.”
4. Just Sick of It All
There is also a swath of undecideds who just no longer believes in American politics as a whole — and are likely to vote third party or not at all. “I don’t feel like anything is going to change. At this point, there aren’t any issues that I care about — because, at this point, candidates always say they will do this or do that, and nothing ever happens,” says Jequan Mayo, 20, of Pennsylvania. “I would vote for Captain Crunch year after year over any of these idiots,” says Dan Rhodehamel, a 44-year-old bartender from Chicago.As Bryan Stevens, a 40-year-old from Oregon, not-so-delicately puts it: “A shit sandwich or a crap sandwich? I’m not sure I’m going to bother even picking a sandwich.”
what can you do?
Say you’ve already voted but don’t want to just sit around and stress-eat for the next three days. Here’s what to do.
1. Help at the Polls
It’s too late to sign up to be a poll worker, but you can give rides to the polls to friends/family/passersby. Also, if you’re near a precinct with long lines on Election Day, show up with water, pizza, coffee, snacks or just encouragement for those folks who are taking an extended amount of their time to participate in democracy.
2. Become a Keyboard Warrior
You really want to win that Facebook argument, don’t you?The Biden and Trump campaigns have toolkits for best spreading their message online, and authentic posts from you with a snazzy graphic attached can go a longer way than what the campaign wizards gin up for paid promotion.
We all could use some self-care right now, and you can overdose on election news. So make sure you’re creating downtime and not filling all your spare hours arguing about politics, because that’s no fun for anyone. It starts with learning to breathe better.