Essential Politics: How to watch election night like a pro

Election workers sort early ballots at the Maricopa County Recorder's Office in Phoenix.
Election workers sort early ballots at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office in Phoenix. More than 2.2 million Arizonans had already voted as of Thursday night.

The 2020 presidential campaign is moving into the final weekend with Joe Biden holding a lead in polls as large as any a candidate has enjoyed since President Clinton cruised to reelection over Sen. Bob Dole in 1996.

The Associated Press was able to call that election shortly after 9 p.m. Eastern time on election night. That won’t be the case this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has combined with President Trump‘s attacks on the election process to create a fog of anxious uncertainty over this year’s election, despite Biden’s polling lead. The former vice president remains the heavy favorite to win — the election forecast model, which gave Trump a 29% chance of victory in 2016, currently has his chances at 11% and dropping. But 11% isn’t zero, and Trump continues to have a path. It’s a narrow and improbable one, to be sure, but if this year has taught anything, it’s that improbable things sometimes happen.

When will the outcome be known? Tuesday night remains possible if Biden wins some key early states. If not, however, Americans may not know for sure until Friday or even the following week.

To Californians, that should come as no surprise — the state routinely takes days, sometimes weeks, to count all its ballots and resolve close contests. In other states, as well, close elections often take several days to sort out, despite what Trump frequently says about needing to know the results on Nov. 3.

Anxiety comes built into the process, but understanding what to look for may help keep it under control. So read on.


Don’t obsess over early-vote statistics

Unprecedented numbers of Americans have voted early. In Texas, to take a leading example, more than 9 million votes had been cast as of Friday morning, state officials reported. That surpassed the state’s total 2016 turnout with a full day of early voting, plus election day, yet to come.

On social media, experts — some real, some self-proclaimed — are dissecting early-vote statistics for clues to the outcome. Best to ignore most of that.

Why? The pandemic has changed voting behavior so much that in most states, we have almost no past history by which to judge what the early vote numbers mean.

Thanks to the analysts at TargetSmart, the Democratic vote analysis firm, we can see that in Texas, the share of first-time voters is much higher than in the past and that voters younger than 30 have turned out at a higher rate than in either 2016 or the 2018 midterm election. We can also see that Republicans so far have turned out at a higher rate than Democrats.

What does all that mean? Are those young voters people who would have cast ballots anyway? Or are they truly new voters who in the past would have stayed home? And does the large Republican turnout presage a big vote for Trump or a heavy cross-over vote for Biden? In 2018, Beto O’Rourke almost won the Senate election in part because of Republican cross-over votes in the state’s suburbs. How big will that vote be this year? No one really knows.

Finally, while we know from Prof. Michael McDonald‘s U.S. Elections Project that more than 82 million Americans had voted as of Friday morning, we don’t know anything about the biggest remaining piece of the puzzle: How many people will vote on election day?


McDonald and other experts expect more than 150 million people to vote this year. As a share of the adult population, turnout may well be the largest ever, as Janet Hook reported. But until the vote count starts, we have only scattered clues about what’s going on.

Watch for the early states

One thing we do know is that some states will report results much faster than others.

In Florida, officials expect to report nearly all the vote on election night. The same goes for North Carolina.

Pennsylvania, by contrast, could take until Friday, perhaps longer. So might Michigan.

Why the variation? Each state has its own laws governing how and when ballots get counted. Some states, like Florida, have long experience with mail-in ballots and laws written to handle them. Other states, including many in the Midwest and Northeast, have never before dealt with a large number of mail-in ballots, and few have updated their laws to deal with this year’s flood.

Florida officials start processing mail-in ballots in mid-October — verifying signatures, notifying voters of any problems, getting them ready for counting. That means that as soon as polls close on election night, the state can report the results of the millions of ballots cast in advance.

Pennsylvania, by contrast, won’t even begin processing mail-in ballots until election day. Some counties won’t start until Wednesday. So in that state, the results reported on Tuesday will be almost exclusively election-day returns.

In Florida, the first wave of early votes almost certainly will favor Biden. Then, watch to see if his lead can withstand a wave of election day votes by Trump supporters. If it does and Biden carries the state, the results could be known as early as 10 p.m. Eastern time on election day. And if Biden carries Florida, that would all but close Trump’s path to victory.


But if Trump wins Florida, the next early state to watch could be North Carolina, another must-win state for the president. There, too, mail-in ballots get processed early, and the first election returns likely will show a strong lead for Biden followed by a rising tide of election-day votes for Trump. Somewhere between midnight and 1 a.m. Eastern time, officials expect to have reported nearly all the state’s votes.

If Biden fails to capture either of those states, the presidency likely will turn on Arizona and the trio of big industrial states that went to Trump in 2016 — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In Wisconsin, the results may be known by early Wednesday morning, but the other three are all but guaranteed to take longer.

While Florida and North Carolina likely will both feature an early blue wave that shifts toward red as the night goes along, states like Pennsylvania will go the other way. Early returns on Tuesday will almost certainly favor Trump, who may then try to claim victory before the rest of the vote gets counted or go to court in an effort to block a full vote count.

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Handle exit polls with care

Every four years, early results of the exit polls get leaked and are gobbled up by people desperate for clues about how the election will turn out.

Try not to get suckered. Exit polls can provide a great tool for understanding the election, but the early results are only partial and often misleading — just ask John Kerry, who had a big lead in the early exit polls in 2004, which vanished as more data arrived.

The label “exit poll” no longer really describes these surveys. Because so many people vote before election day, exit pollsters now combine the traditional poll of voters leaving polling places with large preelection surveys of people who have already voted.

The country has two election-night exit polls. Four television networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN — contract with Edison Research to handle their exit poll. The Associated Press has its own poll, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which Fox News also uses.

Each of those news organizations has a large decision-desk operation, staffed by statisticians and political scientists, who take the exit poll numbers and combine them with the vote count as the evening goes along. The exit polling firms use the actual vote to adjust their numbers so that the analysis they provide — how did women vote compared with men, for example, or which issues did voters consider most important? — accurately reflect the electorate.

The decision desks at each network and the AP are the ones that call the results of states. Each news organization makes its own calls based on its own decision desk. Other news organizations, which don’t have their own decision desks, rely on them to tell their audiences where the race stands.

The L.A. Times, for example, will report a state as won or lost if either the AP or any two networks have called it.


Those news media calls, however, have no legal force. Each state certifies its election returns based on its own laws. Under federal law, states have until early December to finish and certify their work.

Three more things we’ll be watching for

How will Latinos vote?

Several preelection polls, including the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a very large, long-running academic survey, have reported Trump doing better with Latino voters than he did in 2016. That appears to be especially true in Florida, where Trump has made a strong pitch to the state’s large Cuban American community, among others. If you haven’t read it already, make time for Brittny Mejia’s look at the diversity of Florida’s Latino voters.

Other surveys, however, have not shown Trump gaining among Latino voters. Latino voters are difficult to poll — the population is younger than the national average, with more recent immigrants, both groups that tend to be harder to reach and also late in deciding on political races.

Low turnout in heavily Latino precincts has also been a long-standing challenge for Democrats in Texas and Arizona, among other states. The size of the Latino vote could determine whether Biden’s polling lead in Arizona translates into a victory and whether the Democrats are truly able to flip Texas to blue.

Will the suburban revolt against Trump deepen?


In 2018, Republicans lost congressional seats they had held for generations in suburban regions from Orange County to the outskirts of Philadelphia. This year, Republican operatives worry that Trump’s unpopularity will cause their party to lose even more seats in places like the suburbs outside Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, as well as smaller urban areas like Omaha, Indianapolis and St. Louis.

Democrats hope to pad their majority by 10 seats or more. Republicans will view just holding the status quo as a victory.

How will blue-collar white voters go?

In 2016, Trump’s support among white voters who did not graduate from college provided the key to his victory. But all year, polls have shown him losing ground with that group, at least in northern states. In the South, where white voters are more likely to be evangelical Christians and where racially polarized voting is more entrenched, Trump has largely held his own.

Biden won’t take a majority of non-college whites, but his ability to win the presidency and to assemble a big enough coalition to govern effectively will depend in large part on winning back a decent share of these voters. Polls suggest he’s on track to do that.

The latest from the campaign trail

Biden is overwhelming Trump in final TV ad spending, Michael Finnegan reported. The former vice president has booked $54.1 million in TV ad time over the final eight days of the campaign. Trump has booked $26.9 million. In addition, Biden can count on tens of millions in additional ad spending by Michael Bloomberg, who has been financing a major anti-Trump barrage of ads in Florida, Texas and Ohio.

We looked at each of those states and some others:

  • Ohio has become a battleground in the closing days of the campaign, Melanie Mason reported. The shift reflects the deterioration of Trump’s position in a state he carried handily in 2016.
  • You may have heard a lot of speculation about “shy Trump voters,” well, there are plenty of shy Biden voters, too, as Mark Barabak and Mason reported from Pennsylvania.
  • Fears of election violence are widespread among California voters, according to the final UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies poll. More than four in 10 voters polled said they thought violence was “very likely” if there were disputes about the election.

Sen. Kamala Harris’ presence on the Democratic ticket has generated a lot of donations from Indian Americans, Seema Mehta reports. Indian Americans have donated at least $5.4 million to Biden and his allies and $3 million to Trump and his backers, according to an L.A. Times analysis of Federal Election Commission filings.

What would happen if the electoral college deadlocked? It’s not likely, but Sarah Wire answers your questions, including the scenario that leads to President Nancy Pelosi.

Republicans’ worries about losing control of the Senate have continued to mount, Jennifer Haberkorn reports.


The latest from Washington

The Supreme Court turned down GOP appeals to limit time for mail ballots in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, David Savage reported. Three conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — sided with the Republicans, but Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh sided with the court’s three liberals. The court has sided with the GOP on several other election cases, but Roberts has been trying to keep the justices out of the election fray.

The election isn’t over yet, but already Democrats have begun to jockey for key foreign policy positions in a possible Biden administration, Tracy Wilkinson reports. Former National Security Adviser Susan Rice could be a leading candidate for Secretary of State if the Democrats win and also take control of the Senate. Rice might have difficulty winning confirmation from a Republican Senate.

The Trump administration has dropped the gray wolf from the endangered species list, Anna Phillips reported. The decision is already being challenged by conservation groups.

The U.S. economy rebounded sharply in the third quarter, Don Lee reported, but the resurgent pandemic is threatening the economic recovery.

As part of the COVID-19 response, the administration has doled out billions to drug makers and hospitals with few strings attached, Noam Levey reports.

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