As Election Day comes to an end and bleeds into the morning after, there are some important things we know and others we don’t.
For the last couple of weeks, the big debate in political circles was whether the presidential race was tightening. Polls weren’t unanimous, but Biden entered Election Day with a comfortable lead in the national popular vote and a narrower lead in a broad range of battleground states.
Well, the race clearly did tighten, and while we don’t know how the popular vote will wind up, the president made enough gains to win or get crazy close in a number of Sun Belt states that count and report votes (including mail ballots) rapidly: Georgia, Florida, Texas, and North Carolina. Biden leads in Arizona and is expected to win Nevada, which means the election will go down, once again, to the so-called Rust Belt.
As of this writing, Trump leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — which will bring back bad memories to Democrats. But there is a huge difference at this point in the final votes to be counted. In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, mail ballots could not be processed until Election Day, and in Michigan they just started dealing with them on Monday. So Trump’s lead in all three of these states that were so critical to him four years ago is at best fragile with Biden likely to dominate in the last ballots counted (at this point, 2.2 million are yet to be counted in Pennsylvania alone).
As we head into the wee hours, Democrats will hold their breath in case the president decides to appear at the White House and treat a likely lead in states representing more than 270 electoral votes necessary to win as an actual or putative victory — as he has occasionally threatened to do as part of his campaign of demonization of voting by mail. The media mavens who “call” the winners in particular states and the country as a whole would undoubtedly push back against any preemptive Trump claims, but combined with an aggressive legal challenge to late-arriving or late-counted mail ballots, it could transform today’s blessedly quiet Election Day into loud and divisive chaos come Wednesday.
If Trump’s threats of a contested election turn out to be bluster (much like his challenge to his supporters to intimidate Democratic voters at the polls), then the odds remain good that Biden will narrowly win when all the mail ballots come in. But it could take a day or two.
If Biden does win, it’s unclear whether he will have a Democratic Senate (the House will definitely stay in Democratic hands, with a modestly augmented lead). Senate races in Georgia, Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, and Montana are still up in the air, with Democrats having picked up one of the three net seats they need for control thanks to Scott Kelly in Arizona. At least one Georgia Senate race will go to a January runoff, and Senate control could be at stake then.
This long day will yield to a long night and possibly a tense day ahead.