Election Day is finally here.
Or at least what we still call Election Day, since nearly 100 million Americans had already cast ballots by Tuesday. That’s the result of an election system that has been reshaped by the worst pandemic in a century, prompting many voters to take advantage of advance voting rather than head to polling places in person at a time when coronavirus cases are rising.
Here’s what to watch as the final votes for President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are cast:
What do Americans want from a president?
Elections are always about where Americans want to steer the country. That’s especially true this year as the U.S. confronts multiple crises and is choosing between two candidates with very different visions for the future.
Trump has downplayed the coronavirus outbreak and panned governors — virtually all Democrats — who have imposed restrictions designed to prevent the spread of the disease. He has bucked public health guidelines by holding his signature campaign rallies featuring crowds of supporters — often unmasked — packed shoulder to shoulder.
Biden has said he’d heed the advice of scientists. He’s pledged to work with state and local officials across the country to push mask mandates and has called on Congress to pass a sweeping response package.
The candidates also hold distinctly different views on everything from climate change to taxes to racial injustice.
Trump cast protests over systemic racism across the U.S. this year as radical and has emphasized a “law and order” message to appeal to his largely white base. Biden acknowledges systemic racism, picked the first Black woman to appear on a major party’s presidential ticket and has positioned himself as a unifying figure.
Whose turnout approach wins?
The two parties took wildly different approaches to contacting voters amid the pandemic.
Democrats stopped knocking on doors in the spring, going all-digital and phone. They resumed limited in-person contacts in September. Republicans continued traditional field work the entire campaign.
The GOP can point to success in increasing their voter registration in battleground states. Democrats can point to their early voting success, including from notable slices of new voters. But only the final tally will vindicate one strategy or the other.
Will voting be peaceful?
Each major party can install official poll watchers at precincts. It’s the first time in decades Republicans could use the practice after the expiration of a court order limiting their activities. So it’s an open question how aggressive those official poll watchers will be in monitoring voters or even challenging eligibility.
The bigger issue is likely to be unofficial “poll watchers” — especially self-declared militias. Voter intimidation is illegal, but Trump, in the Sept. 29 presidential debate, notably refused to state plainly that he’d accept election results and instead said he is “urging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am urging them to do it.”
In Michigan, where federal authorities recently arrested members of anti-government paramilitary groups in an alleged plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic secretary of state tried to impose a ban on carrying firearms openly at a polling place. A Michigan judge struck down the order.
What about the exurbs and smaller cities?
Trump’s reelection depends on driving up his margins in rural areas and smaller towns and cities — those expansive swaths of red on the county-by-county results map from 2016.
But acres don’t vote, people do, and Biden is casting a wide demographic and geographic net. His ideal coalition is anchored in metro areas, but he hopes to improve Democratic turnout among nonwhite voters and college-educated voters across the map.
There are places where the competing strategies overlap: exurban counties — those communities on the edges of the large metropolitan footprints — and counties anchored by smaller stand-alone cities. Both campaigns will be closely watching places like Forsyth County, Georgia, where 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney won 80% of the vote but Trump’s share dropped 10 points, and Montgomery County, Ohio, which flipped from Democrat Barack Obama to Trump.
A 1968 redux? How about 1980?
Trump spent considerable energy this year posturing as a “law and order” president, seeking to replicate 1968, when widespread unrest in the U.S benefited Republican Richard Nixon as he built his “silent majority.” But Nixon wasn’t the incumbent in 1968. In fact, the political atmosphere was so bad for President Lyndon Johnson that the Democrat didn’t seek reelection.
Many Democrats and some Republicans are now pointing more at 1980, when
Republican Ronald Reagan trounced President Jimmy Carter and the GOP flipped a whopping 12 Democratic Senate seats. Trump’s standing in the polls over 2020 has tracked only slightly above where Carter spent much of the 1980 election year, as he battled inflation, high unemployment and the Iran hostage crisis. But what appeared a tight race on paper as late as October turned into a rout. Even Democratic heavyweights like Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh and South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, once a presidential nominee, fell.
It’s a more polarized era four decades later. But the lesson is that Trump would defy history to win reelection amid such a cascade of crises and voter dissatisfaction.
When will the race be called?
Absentee voting amid coronavirus has changed the vote-counting timeline, and there aren’t uniform practices for counting across the states. That makes it difficult to predict when certain key battlegrounds might be called.
For example, Pennsylvania and Michigan — battlegrounds Trump won by less than 1 percentage point in 2016 — aren’t expected to have complete totals for days. Florida and North Carolina, meanwhile, began processing early ballots ahead of time, with officials there forecasting earlier unofficial returns. But those two states also could have razor-thin margins.
Early returns, meanwhile, could show divergent results. Biden’s expected to lead comfortably among early voters, who tend to skew toward Democrats. Trump is likely to counter with a lead among Election Day voters. Depending on which counties report which batch of votes first, perennially close states could tempt eager partisans to reach conclusions that aren’t necessarily accurate.