US presidential election night 2020: which states to watch when

Keep an eye on the Sun Belt states – Florida, Arizona, Georgia – for early signs of a Joe Biden victory.

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Congratulations – it’s election day! You’ve made it here! Are you excited? Anxious, nervous, worried, even terrified?

There’s a high chance that there won’t be enough data on election night to call the winner. There may even be more questions than answers, which is no small thing, given all the questions that already exist – such as whether the votes counted and presented on the night will be representative of the total votes cast, which include mail-in ballots and early voting? 

In some states, it is incredibly unlikely that we will know who is ahead by the end of election night.

But nonetheless, we’ve brought together a list of states, cities and counties to keep an eye on. Results from these places could help indicate whether the night’s results are going as well for Joe Biden as the polls suggest they might.

Let’s get right into it.

The counties that'll give Joe Biden the presidency
New Statesman election modelling says Joe Biden's presidential ambitions rest on either winning or coming close in much of the below counties.

Pennsylvania

We start with the big one. This is the state which, according to both New Statesman and FiveThirtyEight modelling, is most likely to take the victor over the finish line. While the next president doesn’t necessarily need Pennsylvania, the winner is more likely than not to come away with it.

Annoyingly, however, we’re not likely to be getting a comprehensive sample of the results on the night, owing to a lag in the counting of mail-in ballots — Pennsylvania is limited in the early votes it can count ahead of election day. What results we will get won’t tell us enough to call the state, and nor should any attempt be made to do so. Mail in ballots will only start to be processed in Pennsylvania on election day, and significant quantities may delay a full picture by up to a day or two.

[see also: Will Donald Trump hold on to Pennsylvania]

Florida

Unlike Pennsylvania, and indeed other Rust Belt states, the Sun Belt can count early votes ahead of election day  meaning we’re likely to have most, if not all, of Florida’s state results by the end of the night. 

This is a state whose result may indicate to us whether Donald Trump is out of the race (if he loses), or still in with a chance (if he wins). Diverse and yet more socially conservative than many other US states, Florida is a state that has in recent weeks been experiencing a slight shift in Trump’s direction. The New Statesman's model gives the President more than a one-in-three (35 per cent) shot at keeping it from Joe Biden. 

Yet while Biden can afford to fall short in Florida, Trump cannot. There is a large Hispanic vote here that is more socially conservative than the national average  but older voters have been suggesting that they’ll switch from Trump to Biden. If Trump retains Florida, it lowers the likelihood of a Biden pickup in Arizona. If Trump loses it, then it’s over: Biden won’t even need to worry about picking up Pennsylvania or any of the other key states.

There are particular counties here to watch, too: 

(FL) Pinellas County
2012: Dem +6 ; 2016: Rep +1 
Billed by the New York Times as the “biggest swing county in the state”, Pinellas County has swung in the same direction as the state, voting for the winner five times since 2004. Keep an eye fixed here for an early indication as to how the race is going.

(FL) Pasco County
2012: Rep +7 ; 2016: Rep +22
Pasco County has a sizeable number of white voters without a college education, and absent decent returns from the rust belt state, this county could provide an early sign as to whether Biden’s pitch to Trump’s base has paid off. Don’t expect Biden to flip the area, but if the margin is smaller than the 22pt lead Trump secured in 2016, then good news abounds for Biden up north.

[See also: The Florida factor]

North Carolina

Though somewhat lower down the list of states Biden hopes to flip, it is nonetheless one where we are likely to get the results quicker than most. 

The state's board of elections recently said they expect that 97 percent of all ballots will be counted by the time election night is over. We expect that to be the case for Sun Belt states too, but what’s specific about North Carolina is this: if Biden can manage to win it, there’s a good chance he’ll win the race. If he loses it, but closes the gap by a percentage point or two from where Hillary Clinton was in 2016, then he's also likely to have won the presidency. If there's next to no change in the state's vote splits, then… grab a drink.

[See also: Can North Carolina turn blue?]

Arizona, Georgia, and Texas

The other Sun Belt swing states! That Texas is even mentioned in this, a write-up of battleground states, shows how far the political winds have blown down south, where Republican states are either becoming more Republican or turning Democratic (Texans: for the purposes of this article, we are calling you southern). 

Republicans know these states are hotly contested, too: On Monday, a federal judge said the Texas Republican Party did not have standing to sue to get more than 100,000 votes that were cast by curbside, drive-in drop off thrown out in Harris County, a predominantly Democratic county in Texas.

[See also: Is 2020 the year Texas and Arizona finally swing?]

Our model gives Biden a 64 percent chance of winning Arizona and a 55 percent chance of winning Georgia. Georgia and Texas are both infamous for long lines in predominantly African American and low income areas — voter suppression by any other name. We’ll be watching that on election day — in particular in Fulton County, which is where Atlanta is, and which is historically plagued by long lines at the polls — and for the results from these states on the night.

Georgia and Arizona are also worth watching as states where Democrats hope to flip Senate seats — Mark Kelly is expected to oust Republican Senator Martha McSally in Arizona, while in Georgia Senator David Perdue is in a dead heat with Jon Ossoff, and Senator Kelly Loeffler is polling behind Democratic challenger Raphael Warnock.

[See also: Georgia on our minds]

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