Right now, it feels as though the entire world has its eyes on America, as we wait with bated breath to find out whether Donald Trump will serve his second term in office, or whether the Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden has been victorious. Never has there been an election like this one – in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis, off the back of the biggest civil rights movement in history and during a time where both the Earth and the people inhabiting it so desperately need change.
Though it would be impossible to avoid news and updates about election day, with all of the conflicting data, reports and rumours spreading across the internet, it can be easy to get confused about exactly what’s going on and, moreover, exactly when we’ll know whether this nightmare is over or not.
On The New York Times The Daily podcast, host Michael Barbaro enlisted Alexander Burns, a national political correspondent for the NYT, to breakdown the different ways election night could go and exactly what that means for the results.
Below, everything that could happen outlined so that you’ll know what to look out for early.
Scenario one: Joe Biden scores a significant win in a traditionally Republican-leaning state early in the night
These states are Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona, which already had well-developed mail-in and early ballot systems, prior to the pandemic and laws that allow votes to begin being counted prior to election day. Burns says we can expect results from Florida, the USA’s most important swing state, to come in first. If one of these states goes to Biden, especially Florida, it’s a sign that “the larger architecture of Trump’s electoral map is really, really flawed,” Burns says. “There are not a lot of Republicans who think President Trump can win this reelection without Florida. And when I say not a lot, I have not spoken to a single one who thinks the President can win this without Florida.” Though Trump can, in theory, win the election without Florida, this would mean he’d have to win every other state he won in 2016, which is looking unlikely.
The likelihood that Biden wins one of the above states is pretty high, which would mean a very positive start to election night for him. However, everyone is nervous about the state of Florida. “I don’t think that either side can say with any particular confidence that they expect to win Florida early in the night,” Burns says.
Scenario two: President Trump holds onto all of the above states that are called early in the night
If Biden doesn’t win the vote in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia or Arizona, it would indicate that the country would have to wait to find out the results from the mid-west to find out who actually wins the election. “It is not a far fetched scenario, where the president, despite his overall unpopularity, manages to win in states like Florida, North Carolina and Georgia – which are closely divided states, but where Republicans tend to win far more than Democrats,” Burns says. Thankfully, if Trump wins these states, it doesn’t tell us that he’s going to win the election overall, but it does show that he’s still very much in the fight. “Don’t necessarily take that first big call, if it goes to the President, as a sign that the President is on track to reelection. Take it as a sign that he has a path to reelection. And that would be a very welcome development for Trump, who does seem to be going into the count as a significant underdog.” Currently, with Biden polling to win, Republicans think this is Trump’s best-case scenario.
The most important state, other than the aforementioned ones above, is Wisconsin. If Trump wins Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, as well as the above swing states, it’s looking very good for him.
Scenario three: It’s a giant mess and we just don’t know anything
This scenario would play out if the states that are counting their votes fastest are far too close to call and the states that are taking more time to complete their votes aren’t providing any results on election night or into the next morning. “This is sort of the nightmare situation: drawn-out, total uncertainty,” Burns says. Given the amount of mail-in voting due to the pandemic, “it is not beyond imagination that this could happen in a lot of different states all at once.” But even with COVID-19 preventing people from voting in person, this scenario is very unlikely and would require a lot of things breaking down at the same time. If we don’t have final calls from any of the big states on election night, it’s going to be a very stressful wait.
Scenario four: There’s a tie in electoral votes
This scenario is very unlikely – in fact, less than 1 in 100 chance of happening – but if there does somehow end up with a situation where no candidate gets the 270 necessary votes to win the election and each candidate gets 269, the house of representatives is called on to choose the next president. The house of representatives votes in a manner that right now favours the President’s reelection. “I do not think this is a likely scenario, obviously,” Burns says. “It’s really, really remote stuff, but given everything else that’s happened in the calendar year 2020, it’s worth people having on their radar as a concept.”
Burns also noted that Biden is showing a significant lead in the polls and that while we’ve been here before – Hillary Clinton was polling ahead of Trump in 2016 – and no one is taking this for granted, it’s important to note how far we’ve come since then. “We have a lot more polling; Joe Biden has a bigger lead than Hillary Clinton did; there is not a significant third party presence in this election, and Biden is seen as far more favourable than Hillary Clinton was. If all of that being the case, President Trump comes out as the winner in this election, it would be due to forces other than the ones that took hold at the very end in 2016, rather than a simple repeat of what happened last time.”
Fingers and toes crossed.