vision 2020

What to Watch for on Election Night: An Hour-by-Hour Guide

Citizens gathered around the TV set to follow the tense JFK-Nixon returns in 1960. Photo: Stan Wayman/The LIFE Picture Collection via

There are many fine Election Night guides that can tell you when each state’s polls close and their rules for tabulating mail ballots, but if you haven’t been obsessively refreshing RealClearPolitics for months, they may not tell you much. If you simply want to be smart about how the night is unfolding hour by hour for Joe Biden and Donald Trump — and a few key down-ballot races — this is the guide for you.

There’s a lot we don’t know about when votes will be reported on Tuesday night. Although there will be exceptions, the best bet is for slower-than-usual reporting of votes thanks to the many hoops that election officials have to jump through to process and tabulate mail ballots and, in some areas, the potentially long Election Day lines due to COVID-19 precautions and inadequate polling-place infrastructure.

It has become a cliché to say this may be Election Week or Election Month rather than Election Day, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. The media mavens who are responsible for “calling” election wins and losses may be, and probably should be, extra-cautious in projecting and declaring outcomes, since they will be utilizing preelection polling to estimate mail-ballot results. The Democratic landslide some observers expect would speed things up considerably by reducing the number of states that are either too close to call or too early to call.

There could be plenty of blue shifts and red shifts over the course of Election Night thanks to the large partisan split in how people are casting their ballots this year. Polls show far more Democrats are voting by mail, while Republicans, affected by Trump’s attacks on mail ballots, are more likely to vote in person on Election Day. After November 3, there will be a sizable blue shift almost everywhere as late mail and provisional ballots are counted.

Here is what to watch for on Tuesday and beyond.

During Election Day

If you haven’t voted, do so! Then look for:

(1) Turnout patterns: Polls show that a disproportionate share of Trump supporters intend to vote in person on Election Day. If there are long lines in mostly white rural areas, small towns, and exurbs, perhaps the Election Day turnout will offset the heavy Democratic-tilting number of mail ballots and in-person early votes. Conversely, if turnout is heavy in Democratic cities and inner suburbs, maybe all those early votes didn’t simply “cannibalize” votes normally cast on Election Day.

(2) Voter intimidation by Trump supporters. The president has repeatedly urged his backers to “watch polls closely” to prevent alleged Democratic fraud, and his son Don Jr. has called for “an army for Trump’s election security.” This could take the form of flotillas of aggressive lawyers deployed as “observers,” particularly in urban centers in battleground states. But more aggressive tactics are entirely possible, as evidenced by a weekend incident in Texas wherein, according to one state legislator’s account, “[a]rmed Trump trolls harass[ed] Biden Bus on I-35, ramming volunteer vehicles & blocking traffic for 40 mins.” Trump said of the incident, which the FBI is investigating, “In my opinion, these patriots did nothing wrong.”

6:00 p.m.: Amy McGrath vs. Mitch McConnell

Polls close in ET parts of Indiana and ET parts of Kentucky.

Not a lot to see in these two deep-red states. There is one competitive House race for an open Republican seat in central Indiana. In Kentucky, if you invested money or hope in Amy McGrath’s brave but doomed challenge to Mitch McConnell, say a prayer for her or a curse on him.

7:00 p.m.: If Georgia Is Called Early for Biden, It May Be a Blue Landslide

Polls close in Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and ET parts of Florida.

Bernie Sanders’s home state will be the first to be called for Joe Biden, perhaps right after the polls close. Virginia doesn’t begin counting early in-person or mail ballots until late on Election Night, so Trump may have a misleading lead early, and the state could be a test for how quickly media outlets are willing to “call” a state for Biden based on polling rather than actual results.

Georgia is a state with a close presidential race, two close Senate races, and two close House races in the hypercompetitive Atlanta suburbs. The first returns may be a “dump” of heavy early in-person votes that should tilt Democratic, but Republican-tilting Election Day votes will likely dominate the returns for a while after that. Since Georgia’s mail ballots have to be received by Election Day, this is one of the states from which Election Night calls are possible. If Georgia is called early on for Biden or for Democratic Senate candidate Jon Ossoff (keep in mind that a majority of the vote is required to avoid a January runoff in Georgia’s Senate races), we could be looking at a blue landslide that will create a Democratic Senate majority. More generally, Georgia is the first of a number of states (with Arizona, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio) that are more or less must-wins for Trump. If they start falling to Biden before midnight, it’s probably lights out for the president even if he tries to claim victory based on possible leads in the tabulated vote.

South Carolina should have a relatively quick count, and if Trump is struggling there, it’s bad news for the GOP. The big race in the state is Jaime Harrison’s underdog challenge to Senator Lindsey Graham.

Media outlets are unlikely to “call” Florida until polls close in the panhandle counties at 8:00 ET. But there will be intense interest in the raw numbers from central and south Florida, particularly the Latino vote in both areas.

7:30 p.m.: The North Carolina Bellwether

Polls close in North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia.

As with Georgia, North Carolina will initially report mail ballots processed earlier as well as in-person early votes — both should tilt Democratic. Election Day votes will then dominate and move the momentum to Trump and Senator Thom Tillis, an endangered Republican incumbent. If (as is likely) these races are very close, the state’s decision to accept mail ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by November 12 could be significant. Tillis’s race against Democrat Cal Cunningham is extremely important to both parties. If Tillis hangs on, a Senate Democratic majority becomes a much iffier proposition and could even depend on the results of one or two January runoffs in Georgia.

Ohio is another state in which early in-person and mail ballots counted before Election Day will be reported first, likely giving Biden the early lead. Then Election Day in-person votes will pour in, tilting the landscape back toward Trump. Election officials anticipate a pretty fast count, but if it’s close, the late-arriving mail ballots (Ohio accepts them until November 13 if postmarked by Election Day) could decide it weeks later. If Ohio is called for Biden by the wee hours, it’s extremely unlikely that Trump can win, though a call for the president would by no means guarantee his reelection. Trump won this state by eight points in 2016.

8:00 p.m.: Watch Pennsylvania Closely

Polls close in Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, D.C., Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas; CT parts of Florida, Kansas, and South Dakota; and ET parts of Michigan.

This is the busiest poll-closing hour of the evening, though there’s a bit less than meets the eye when it comes to close and critical results.

Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Tennessee are all noncompetitive presidential states without competitive gubernatorial or Senate races. Mississippi and Missouri are lead-pipe cinches for Trump with one notable down-ballot statewide race each: Mississippi’s Senate race, in which Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith is heavily favored in a rematch with Democrat Mike Espy, and Missouri’s gubernatorial race, in which Democrat Nicole Galloway has an outside chance of an upset against incumbent Republican Mike Parson).

This is the hour when an early call of Florida could make big waves. New Hampshire was once considered a battleground state, but Biden has been leading by double digits in most recent polls. Only a small share of Michigan voters live in a Central time zone, so an early call of that state is theoretically possible, but a slow count, based in part on restrictions on when mail ballots can be processed, seems very likely there. Michigan also has one of just two Senate races in which Republicans have some hopes of flipping a Democratic seat, with John James challenging low-profile incumbent Gary Peters — though a James win would be a big upset.

Kansas has a competitive Senate race for an open Republican seat in which an upset win by Democrat Barbara Bollier over Republican Roger Marshall is entirely possible. If Bollier wins, the odds of a Democratic Senate takeover become very high.

Pennsylvania is considered the most likely state to decide the presidential election if Trump overcomes the narrow polling leads for Biden in the Sunbelt states the president carried in 2016 (Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina). But Pennsylvania officials cannot so much as look at mail ballots before Election Day, and efforts by election officials in the Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to get some of them counted on Election Night may determine whether a certain Trump advantage in Election Day voting gives him a big lead by midnight or later.

In Maine, one of two states (Nebraska is the other) where congressional districts independently cast Electoral College votes, keep an eye on the Second Congressional District, which Trump won by ten points in 2016. If Trump loses this predominantly rural, red-trending district, it’s a bad sign for his national prospects. Maine is also the site of a red-hot Senate race in which veteran Republican Susan Collins has narrowly but consistently trailed Democrat Sarah Gideon. Maine has a ranked-choice voting system that could produce an “instant runoff” if neither candidate wins a majority, which would delay the final result for a number of days.

There has been a lot of buzz about heavy early voting in Democratic urban strongholds in Texas, making it another state where an early Biden call (or even a too-close-to-call judgment) could spell doom for the president. A huge Democratic surge could also give Senate candidate MJ Hegar a chance for an upset against Jon Cornyn, and there are three highly competitive House races in seats left open by Republican retirees.

If you want an indicator of a really massive national Democratic tide, you can’t do better than the possibility of incumbent Democratic senator Doug Jones hanging on against Tommy Tuberville in deep-red Alabama. If Jones isn’t toast by midnight, this could be a big Donkey Party night.

8:30 p.m.: Take a Break (Unless You’re From Arkansas)

Polls close in Arkansas.

In this very red state, there is one competitive House race in a Little Rock urban-suburban district that Democrats have a chance to flip.

9:00 p.m.: All Eyes on Arizona and Wisconsin

Polls close in Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, and Wisconsin.

Arizona is another quick-counting state carried by Trump in 2016 where a Democratic win on Election Night could give Biden a big Electoral College lead even if the final results drag out. If it’s too close to call, late mail ballots (which have to be received by Election Day) could decide it. Democrats expect to pick up a Senate seat in the special election to fill the term of the late John McCain; the appointed interim Republican senator (and 2018 loser) Martha McSally has trailed Mark Kelly in nearly every poll. The winner will take office immediately.

Colorado is an experienced all-mail-ballot state where Biden has been steadily favored and where Democrat John Hickenlooper has been regularly forecast to knock off incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner. A House race to watch involves an open Republican seat for which the GOP nominated the extremist QAnon sympathizer Lauren Boebert.

Nebraska’s system of awarding Electoral College votes to congressional-district winners could give Biden an electoral vote in the Omaha-based Second Congressional District.

There are also competitive House races involving one vulnerable Democratic incumbent in Minnesota and one Democrat and two Republicans in New York. By this time of the night, Democrats should have nailed down their continued control of the House, with the Senate quite possibly still in doubt.

Wisconsin was originally thought to be the crucial swing state in the presidential contest, but Biden has led regularly in late polling of a state going through a COVID-19 resurgence. Results may be slow but will probably be finished by early Wednesday.

10:00 p.m.: Can Trump Keep Iowa?

Polls close in Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, and Utah.

The only two competitive states in the presidential race closing at this hour are Iowa and Nevada. Iowa is yet another state where an Election Night call for Biden would spell doom for Trump, who carried this state by more than nine points in 2016. A state rule allowing mail ballots postmarked by November 2 but received by November 9 could keep the results in question past Election Night. Polls have shown a close tracking of the presidential and Senate results; the latter race, between incumbent Republican Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield, is another key to control of the upper chamber. Polls are showing a late Republican trend in Iowa.

Nevada sent a mail ballot to all active registered voters and will allow the post–Election Day receipt of ballots postmarked by then. It’s a state Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 that Republicans have thought they might flip — though polls aren’t showing that happening.

Another major indicator of both how the national vote is going and whether there’s significant ticket splitting will come from Montana, a state Trump is expected to win handily. Democrats are competitive in Senate, gubernatorial, and House races there, but the big contest is the close Senate race between Republican incumbent Steve Daines and Democratic governor Steve Bullock.

11:00 p.m.: Three Blue All-Mail-Ballot States Begin Reporting

Polls close in California, Oregon, and Washington.

There’s no suspense about where these very blue states will go in the presidential contest, and there are no competitive statewide races in any of them. There are four competitive House races in California and one each in Oregon and Washington. All three states have sent mail ballots to every active registered voter this year, and California and Washington will accept ballots postmarked by November 3 and received later. Results in those two states will take a long time to be finalized.

Midnight: The Alaska Senate Race

Polls close in Alaska and Hawaii.

The 49th and 50th states aren’t competitive in the presidential contest, but Alaska does have potentially close Senate and House races. If Democrat-independent Al Gross is running very close to incumbent Republican senator Dan Sullivan after the polls close, then it’s another sign of a big Democratic night nationally.

The Wee Hours: Does Someone Declare Victory Prematurely?

For months now, there have been concerns that the big partisan split between Election Day and mail-ballot voting, along with the earlier tabulation of the former, would tempt Trump to declare victory on Election Night based on very partial results. It’s the so-called red-mirage scenario, in which the president’s built-in advantage in the earliest-counted votes would give him and his party the opportunity to tout early returns as definitive and then fight the tabulation of late-arriving mail ballots as “fraudulent.” Over the weekend, Axios reported that Trump plans to do just that.

For this to happen, Trump would need to be in the lead on Election Night in states representing a majority of Electoral College votes and at least avoid projected defeats in states that are likely to ultimately give the presidency to Biden. It’s a very tricky proposition, and it could depend, if it becomes Trump’s primary victory strategy, on stopping or refusing to acknowledge the counting of late mail ballots that are likely to tilt toward Biden.

In the many states where Republican Senate candidates are riding on Trump’s coattails, this effort to suppress post–Election Night mail ballots could make a difference down-ballot as well.

It’s also possible that, in a close race, the Biden campaign will try to preempt any Trump victory claim via its own premature declaration of victory, perhaps based on estimates of votes by mail that will ultimately boost Democratic margins up and down the ballot.

November 4 and Beyond: Do We Go Into Overtime?

The big question when we all wake up on November 4 will be whether the 2020 election goes into overtime via a too-close-to-call or contested result. The president has already consistently claimed that his own reelection must live or die based on Election Night returns, following his endless attacks on the mail ballots likely to drift in for days and weeks after November 3. A clean Biden win on or very near Election Night, or a possible Republican reluctance to follow Trump down the road to election theft, could keep the country from a 2000-style disputed result or, worse yet, violence in the streets. If not, the country may fall into a troubled twilight state of uncertainty in the ensuing days and weeks.

What to Watch for on Election Night: An Hour-by-Hour Guide