What a night. The presidential race has gone down to the wire, and while some clarity is starting to emerge, significant numbers of votes are still expected to be counted in the key states that will determine whether President Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins the White House. No matter what happens, the nation has already been shaken by a stunningly close election, one that calls into question what, exactly, America stands for. We explore the election landscape, preview Trump’s plans to contest the results in the courts, the emerging trends and the people to watch. So pop a Diet Coke or make another pot of coffee, because we aren’t done yet.
Daniel Malloy, politics editor, in Raleigh, N.C., and Nick Fouriezos, senior politics reporter, in Philadelphia
state of play
1. Who Cares? Everyone
Trump can draw a crowd. With total turnout projected around 160 million, the 2020 election set a record for total ballots cast in a presidential race. A projected 66.8 percent of eligible citizens turned out, which would be the highest participation since 1900 — before women had the right to vote. This was powered by some 100 million early votes, which buoyed Democrats’ hopes of a landslide — but Republicans were able to get enough of their voters into the booth too.
2. Time to Freak Out
Like 2018, the early part of Tuesday evening saw Democratic panic. “Democrats, put the razor blades and the Ambien back in the cabinet. We’re doing fine,” Democratic strategist and quip master James Carville told MSNBC viewers last night. Substantial losses in Florida, Ohio and Texas extinguished hopes of a landslide that MSNBC viewers might have been expecting, setting the stage for a long fight. Close readers of OZY’s newsletters might have seen this scenario coming: Trump holds on to most of the Sun Belt while the Rust Belt takes its sweet time to count mail-in votes. And Trump also signaled in advance he was going to declare premature victory, as he did in his post-2 a.m. press conference.
Three countries have held national elections over the past week. In each, the opposition has accused the ruling administration of trying to manipulate the electoral process. The incumbent president has claimed victory with slim evidence. The threat of civil unrest is real. You know one of these nations: the U.S. The other two? Tanzania and Ivory Coast, which belong to a set of nations in Africa that President Donald Trump in 2018 reportedly referred to as “sh*thole” countries. But America's wounds could return to haunt younger democracies around the world. For all its myriad flaws, the U.S. has overseen peaceful transfers of power for longer than any other nation, its institutions and constitutions inspiring leaders from Mexico to the Philippines, and India to China. If America loses that halo, so does global democracy.
The key to Pennsylvania Democrats winning has long been running up the margins in Philadelphia and, to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh and smaller urban areas — and then holding on for dear life in the rural parts of the state. Now the nation holds on with them, except in reverse, as the hundreds of thousands of mail ballots trickling in from Philadelphia and elsewhere is cutting into Trump’s 650,000-vote lead based on Election Day turnout. Will there be enough in the bank for a Biden comeback? It’s unclear so far, but early returns are promising for Biden. The count is expected to take days.
5. Wobbling Toward the Dems
When Trump took the stage in the wee hours, he was ahead in Michigan and Wisconsin. Several hours later, he wasn’t, as mail-in votes — which the states were barred from counting in advance — were tallied in Democratic strongholds Detroit and Milwaukee, among other places. With Biden on track to win Wisconsin, Trump is already calling the legitimate counting of ballots “VERY STRANGE” on Twitter and claiming that his lead “magically” disappeared. Sure, the “red mirage” sounds mysterious, but magic it is not.
6. Nebulous Nevada
Nevada got extremely close overnight, with Biden leading by close to 8,000 votes with most votes tallied. And the state’s election division announced at 6 a.m. ET that no more results would be released until 11 a.m. ET on Thursday. That is because the only votes that remain are mail ballots received on Election Day, mostly in Democrat-rich Clark County, which will take time to process. That makeup would likely suggest that Biden will hold on to his slight lead, given his overall advantage with mail votes. However, Nevada also has reportedly had as many as 3,600 mail-in ballots waiting for a “signature cure” — having a voter verify their signature in cases where it's missing or doesn't match official records — as of Tuesday morning. Those votes haven’t been counted yet and, if fixed within seven days according to Nevada law, could likely add a buffer for Biden — but expect the Trump campaign to challenge their validity in court.
7. Arizona Airs It Out
By early Wednesday, Biden still had about a 3.5 percent lead in Arizona with the remaining expected vote to consist mostly of absentee ballots in Maricopa County that arrived later on Election Day. That would seem to favor Democrats down the line, with Biden performing well in the state’s most populous center. But some results have suggested that Republicans were sending their mail in later, which may make it more of a split final bucket of votes. Both the Associated Press and Fox News called Arizona for Biden as of midnight, but the Trump campaign still saw a path to victory there, as well as Nevada, Wednesday morning.
8. The Too-Close-to-Calls
In Georgia, the bulk of the vote left is in two blue Atlanta area counties, and Democrats were hopeful that Biden could close a gap of 100,000-plus votes. North Carolina is a longer shot — Biden would have to win a huge majority of the remaining mail ballots — but the state is allowed to accept ballots postmarked by Election Day until Nov. 12, so postal delays could play a role here. Forecasters have refused to call either race.
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Before polls even closed Tuesday, a GOP congressional candidate in Pennsylvania sued in federal court in Montgomery County over officials’ decisions to let voters correct their mail ballots if they have obvious deficiencies, asking the court to throw out the “cured” ballots. And before 11 p.m., Pennsylvania Republicans, including Rep. Mike Kelly — who campaigned with Trump in Erie on Oct. 20, telling rallygoers to “absolutely refuse to lose” — sued Democrat Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, arguing that voters whose mail-in ballots were rejected should not be allowed to cast provisional ballots. At polling places in Philly on Tuesday, we witnessed a lot of confusion among activists and voters over provisional ballots, and whether people could “spoil” — as in, willfully discard — their mail ballots in order to vote in person on Election Day. As Trump vowed to take the election to the Supreme Court (skipping a couple of required lower-court steps), his campaign filed another lawsuit in Michigan to stop the count until they could have better access.
2. Spotty Track Record
Despite Trump’s claims, nobody is finding any ballots: They are counting legitimate votes as they arrive. It was by Republican design, particularly in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that election managers weren’t allowed to start tallying mail votes until Election Day … ensuring there would be delays. Regardless, the Trump campaign hasn’t been very successful in its legal maneuvers so far. It notably lost its challenge in Harris County, Texas, which sought to invalidate more than 100,000 votes in the Houston area. As Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro noted, the Trump team is at best 0-6 on lawsuits filed in the Keystone State. Which is likely, in part, why Trump is already saying he’ll go straight to the highest court in the land, where he has nominated three of the six judges in the Republican majority.
3. The Litigious President
Since before his Art of the Deal days, Trump has made litigation a clear part of his business — and, now, political — playbook. Before the 2016 election, USA Today found that Trump and his businesses had launched at least 3,500 legal actions in federal and state courts in the previous three decades, an unprecedented number for a nominee, “from skirmishes with casino patrons to million-dollar real estate suits to personal defamation lawsuits.” His love affair with lawsuits was well-documented in this Politico piece, quoting Trump biographer Tim O’Brien: “He’s used litigation historically to keep hostile forces at bay and to delay reckonings.” Going into Election Day, there had already been at least 320 election-related lawsuits filed across the country, according to tracking done by the Election Law Blog. Many of them were launched by the Trump campaign and Republican officials.
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With Democrat Sara Gideon conceding the race to Maine Sen. Susan Collins on Wednesday, Republicans almost certainly will hold their Senate majority. That would likely stymie most any legislation from a possible President Biden, not to mention judicial nominees. With Democrats on track to hold the House, albeit by a smaller margin, legislative gridlock will continue to reign supreme — regardless of who’s president.
2. Pollsters Plunge
The Senate result was another black eye for pollsters. Ahead of Tuesday,the prognosticators from OZY/0ptimus to FiveThirtyEight to The Economist were unanimous — Biden had somewhere between an 85-95 percent chance of winning, and the Democrats were nearly as likely to take the Senate. Just like in 2016, the predictors were foiled by bad misses in polling in states like Florida and Ohio. While a few outlier pollsters called a better GOP night and talked up the “shy” Trump voter, the mainstream in the polling world pointed toward a comfortable Biden win, if not a landslide. That didn’t happen, and another reckoning will be coming.
3. The Media Preaches Caution
If you made a drinking game out of CNN’s John King saying “yes, but…,” you would have been more sloshed than a Florida Democrat last night. Across the networks, most news networks were extra careful about calling states (particularly Florida, which Decision Desk HQ and other online outlets called by 8 p.m., but saw the cable three of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC hold out until later in the night). They seemed to take heed of the warnings made by data experts — including some of the aforementioned pollsters — that patience was key given the vagaries of how quickly mail ballots would be voted, and in some states, whether the early vote or Election Day vote would come out first. Even by Wednesday morning, after Wisconsin state officials said virtually all ballots had been counted — with Biden ahead by 20,000 votes — networks did not call immediately, ahead of a Trump-requested recount, though CNN, AP and others called it this afternoon. Going forward, a more cautious broadcast media would certainly be a welcome change.
Democrats have long believed that if they could just get higher turnout from Black and Latino voters, they would be unstoppable. But in a national election that set records for participation, that so-called demographic destiny was halted. Particularly due to defections from Hispanic voters in places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, which Biden won with significantly lower margins than Clinton in 2016 and Obama in 2012. The former vice president has been leaking Latinos for a while, and in September we wrote about how Cubans, including one Obama-turned-Trump YouTuber, were driving massive turnout in Miami-Dade County, which was key to Trump’s Florida victory. While exact numbers still need to be determined, it’s likely that Trump approached Hispanic levels of support close to those seen by George W. Bush, who won some 40 percent of their vote in 2004.
5. QAnon Caucus
As expected,Marjorie Taylor Greene won her beet-red Georgia congressional district despite her past expressions of support for the ridiculous QAnon conspiracy theory alleging that Democrats and world leaders are Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Lauren Boebert also won her congressional race in Colorado after having said “Everything I've heard of Q I hope that this is real,” but more recently distancing herself from it. None of the other Q-curious candidates appear to have won, but this viewpoint has clearly seeped into a not-insignificant portion of the GOP base. At a polling place in rural North Carolina on Tuesday, Frank Agnello, 77, casually dropped a Q reference when talking to a reporter. “I hope [Trump] gets back in and gets the Democrats out of office,” he said. “They’re nothing but a bunch of Satan worshippers.”
The first Black lieutenant governor of North Carolina is a 52-year-old first-time candidate who just two years ago was a factory worker seeking a bachelor’s degree in history. Then he became a viral internet sensation by giving an impassioned speech at a Greensboro City Council meeting in support of the Second Amendment, declaring “I am the majority!” On Tuesday night, he won a majority — with his opponent, Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Holley, conceding the race.
2. Mark Kelly
The former astronaut, who once spent 54 days in space, helped Democrats reach new horizons in aiding Biden’s presidential victory in Arizona, which had only voted blue once in a presidential election since 1948. He won his Senate seat over Martha McSally by around 5 percentage points, a rare win amid surprising losses for Democratic Senate candidates such as Theresa Greenfield in Iowa and Cal Cunningham in North Carolina.
The former Telemundo anchor is well-known to her Miami-area district — both from TV screens and a spirited 2018 congressional race covered by OZY — and her second try was the charm against Democratic Rep. Donna Shalala. Salazar’s win Tuesday night was part of an overall trend of success for Republicans among Latino-dominated South Florida: Trump’s better-than-expected performance in Miami-Dade County powered his statewide victory, defying polls. The Cuban political star also touts diverse policy positions, including support for LGBT rights, equal pay and women’s rights, to go with more traditional conservative stances.
4. Raphael Warnock
The pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s former church in downtown Atlanta forced a runoff with incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler in Georgia, and the race instantly becomes the focal point of all politics for the next few months. That’s because depending on how the remaining races are called, an upset victory in the Jan. 5 election could lead to a 50-50 tie in the Senate — with either Kamala Harris or Mike Pence breaking the tie, depending how the top of the ticket plays out.
5. Jamaal Bowman
The former middle school principal, considered by many to be the next AOC, romped in his New York City congressional district as expected. He will join a Democratic caucus that looks to be smaller and more liberal come January — and as his interview on The Carlos Watson Show reveals, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
We asked readers how they were dealing with the uncertainty. Here are some of their best responses.
1. Christy T.
“My secret and crazy coping mechanism was doing paint-by-numbers while binge-watching Alaska: The Last Frontier on Philo.”
2. Jean K.
“Only one vote that counts — God’s. His plan is good. How do I know that? Because He is good. How do I know that? Because He gave us His Son. Why did He do that? To take the punishment we deserve.”
3. Beverly H.
“As a retired nursery school teacher, I am watching Daniel Tiger and Curious George on TV.”
4. Marty C.
“I take my concerns outside — hiking has always helped me with the process. While my body is moving on the trail, I release the attachments to my concerns by making a mental list of my worries, and the feelings associated with them. Out in nature, my problems don't seem quite so big, and I am able to find gratitude.”
5. Linda W.
“Too early to drink, so I’m doing crossword puzzles.”
6. Mysti F.
“Leinenkugel pumpkin patch ale.”
7. Let's Hear It
What steps can we take to bring the country back together after this divisive, extended election is over? We want to hear your ideas — and even act on them.