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Don't expect a winner tonight. Image: Pixabay.
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Mail-in ballots, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida will be key tonight in determining who takes the white house

As Canadians, we’re often guilty of paying more attention to American politics than we do to our own. On one level, this is hardly surprising: as Pierre Trudeau famously said, living next to the United States is like “sleeping with an elephant,” a maxim that can probably be extended to the American relationship with the entire world.

Today, of course, is election day in the United States, and this year the stakes are particularly high. President Donald Trump, who has made volatile news cycles and political norm-breaking a large part of his legacy, is challenged by former vice president Joe Biden, who promises a return to the liberal international status quo.

COVID-19 has meant that millions of Americans have cast mail-in and absentee ballots (despite the political rhetoric, these are the same thing). Unfortunately, because many states do not start counting absentee ballots until election night and because their infrastructure isn’t designed to handle such a huge quantity, it could be days or weeks before we have a final vote tally from every state.

So what does this mean for election night results? First of all, don’t assume that we’ll learn who the winner is tonight. We may have some strong indicators in the event of a blowout race – for example, if Biden flips Texas, a Republican stronghold since 1976; or if Trump racks up an insurmountable lead in Pennsylvania, which will likely not be called tonight but which is important for a Biden path to victory — but if the race is closer, expect to wait at least a few more days. Although President Trump is reportedly poised to declare premature victory tonight, claiming (without evidence) that votes counted after Nov. 3 are fraudulent, it’s unlikely that either candidate will reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win by the stroke of midnight tonight.

Second, be prepared for the possibility of ‘blue/red mirages.’ Although usually a nonpartisan activity, mail-in balloting has leaned more heavily for the Democratic Pary this year due to Trump’s repeated downplaying of COVID-19. Depending on the state, in-person voting numbers will be released first, which are expected to overrepresent Republican votes — the ‘red mirage’ — which will then be slowly corrected as mail-in results trickle in over the next couple of days. The opposite is also true in some states which release the mail-in ballot total before the in-person vote count, so be careful of over-representation of either party when analyzing early results for states.

Finally, of the handful of states which will have near-complete vote counts as of tonight or early tomorrow, look out for a few key bellwethers which will give you a sense of which way the race seems to be going.

Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas, all historically deep-red states, were carried by Trump in 2016 and are essential to his 2020 path to victory. If Biden wins any one of these, it could be an early sign of a Democratic Party blowout victory. But because polls take national averages, including other states, into account, if Biden loses all three it negatively affects his chances in other swing states, lowering his odds of winning the Presidency from 90 per cent to around 50 per cent.

Florida is a historically fickle swing state, and with 29 electoral votes at stake, it would add plenty of heft to either campaign’s momentum. (If Trump loses Florida, his odds of reelection approach zero; Biden does have some alternative paths, although it would also be a serious blow.) It will also be one of the only states to have relatively complete results out early: mail-in ballots have been counted as they arrive, which means that we should expect the state to be called tonight. Expect first results at 8 p.m.

Pennsylvania currently has Biden up by five points, but an upset here would indicate that Democrats are underperforming with key demographics, such as rural white or Black voters, that would lower their chances elsewhere. In order to have a shot at carrying the state, Trump needs a polling error larger than that of 2016 — unlikely, but not impossible. Don’t expect the state to be called for either candidate tonight, though: Pennsylvania will likely take the rest of the week to count all its mail-in ballots.