The goal of this section is to showcase how key swing states vote totals may generally shift in Trump/Biden’s favor over the course of election night (and potentially in the days that follow) based on what type of ballots will be counted first, and the speed in which these states count their votes. For purposes of clarity, we have grouped certain projection/voting return announcements together — these scenarios are only intended to serve as general depictions of possible overall vote shifting trends! (For a more time specific breakdown of election night, see NYT analysis here.)
In all of these scenarios, we make several foundational assumptions on how states will behave, including:
1) As soon as the polls close, most non-competitive, solid blue and red states will be called for Biden and Trump respectively, regardless of how quickly they count votes. Only about a dozen “swing” states will then decide the winner of the Electoral College, including: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. These states will be the focus of our analysis, and we will specifically spotlight Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
2) As you can see below, we think Vice President Biden will start with a solid lead based on the non-competitive states throughout the country before any “toss ups” are even considered.
3) Biden will win the early vote. This is informed by the data states publish on their early voting programs, which includes the number of mail ballots that have been requested/returned, and number of ballots cast via early in-person voting. Often this also features the distribution of the ballot totals based on party registration info . Based on the early mail in voting data, Democrats hold significant advantages in the states we are focusing on, which tells us that these votes will skew in Biden’s favor when counted. Early in-person voting is much closer, but the overall historic levels of absentee voting among Democrats this cycle indicates that Biden will win the early vote by a solid margin in the states we are focused on.
4) Trump will win the election day vote. Why? In short, Trump voters have consistently indicated their preference for voting on election day, and a skepticism towards by mail voting. Many experts have attributed this to the President’s consistent attacks on by mail voting throughout the election season. The polling data on the partisan divide over in person vs. mail voting has been supported by early voting numbers, in which Democrats have embraced mail in voting, while Republicans have experienced much better turnout in states that offer early in person voting. Thus, we assume that Republican voters will go to the polls in large numbers on November 3rd, and Trump will earn a larger share of the in person election day vote in these swings states than Biden.
5) States that allow for early counting (ex: FL, AZ, NC) will initially skew towards Biden if early voting patterns hold. Because Democrats have been sending mail ballots in early and at such a high rate, these “early counting” states will probably show initial returns that skew Dem., and thus give Biden with a head start to begin the night. Absentee votes received on/closer to Election Day on average will, as a group, still favor Biden but by smaller margins than the earliest batches of mail ballots. Hence, on election night you may see an initial lead for Biden that will then be evened out when election day votes (favoring Trump) stream in.
6) Slow Counting States (ex: PA, WI, MI) that do not allow for early processing until, or just before, election day will initially skew in favor of Trump. Because Trump will win the election day vote in swing states (see reasoning above), and the first returns in slow counting states will primarily reflect in person votes cast on Nov. 3, Trump will likely see an initial advantage that will then decrease when mail ballots are accounted for.
7) Slow Counting States will need at least 2-3 days to count their votes. Because in person ballots will come in faster (easier to process) than the mail ballots — both of which will start being counted on Election Day at the same time in states like Pennsylvania — the initial totals will favor Trump in slow counting states.
NOTE: For more information about these swing states, see here.
When will we know if there will be a red mirage in 2020? First, look to Florida….
FL is a fast counting state and should have returns quickly — according to NBC News, “Florida’s counties often report their entire early vote totals in one batch in the minutes after the polls close“. Granted that the high volume of mail ballots this year may make such a feat more difficult, but at the very least, a significant portion of the early vote will be come in big for Biden right after the polls close and initial returns can be announced. So the key question is: will Trump have a large enough election day turnout to win, or at least make FL a close race?
1) If NO (weak Trump election day turnout in FL), then FL will probably be called for Biden on election night or early AM on November 4. A weak election day turnout for Trump basically defangs the red mirage.
2) If YES (big Trump turnout on election day) then the following can happen:
a) The race is too close to call — if within 0.5%, an automatic recount is triggered. If there’s a recount, things will be dragged out far beyond election night. The threat of a Red Mirage looms large in a situation where FL does not have a projected winner on election night because slow counting PA/WI/MI become the most likely candidates to determine the winner of the election.
b) Close Biden Win or Close Trump Win that avoids recount
The most likely scenario is that Trump or Biden wins FL on election by a close margin (approx. anything between 1%-3% margin) that doesn’t require a recount . For example, Trump’s Florida victory in 2016 fits this description — he won by ~100,000 votes ( ~ 1%) and the race was called at 11:30pm EST.
If Biden wins by a close margin in FL, then an election night win is in play but also may not be clear until Wednesday.
Given that we think Biden has 226 delegates in the bag before any swing states are considered, the additional 29 delegates in FL put him at 255.
To hit 270 on election night, he could pair his FL victory with a win in one of the following other (relatively) fast states: OH or NC or TX or GA. Or he could get a west coast combo of AZ+NV to put him over the top.
If Trump wins in FL, he’s still “alive” — without FL his path to victory is incredibly narrow. In addition, a Trump win in FL means the threat of the red mirage looms large. Why? A Trump win featuring a great election day turnout in FL bodes well for Trump’s odds of winning “lean R” toss ups like TX, GA, OH, and may prove indicative of a larger trend in which he is outperforming his pre-Nov. 3 poll numbers across the board. Hence, should things play out along these lines, slow counting PA/WI/MI would likely be left as the key tipping point states…
To illustrate this dynamic, take a look at the quick hypothetical below:
In addition to FL, let’s say Trump also wins NC, TX, GA, and OH. At this point, based on states where he is the projected winner, Trump will have 244 delegates. Although he leads in WI/PA/MI, no projections have been made due to the significant number of votes (primarily mail ballots) that have not been counted. To be clear, no reputable news outlet will call the race at this time given the large number of uncounted ballots. Nonetheless, Trump may simply declare himself the winner. Although his actual delegate total (244) is short of 270, he would conceivably point to his lead in PA + WI/MI as representing projected wins. Under this (incorrect and misleading) logic, Trump would be over 270 due to his “wins” in PA + either WI or MI (or both! — only needs one of the two). Trump’s declaration would be purely symbolic — counting would still continue, and networks would presumably explain why they have not called the race or remaining key states. Notably, as counting continues, the map could transform dramatically and end up looking like this when all the mail ballots are tallied in PA/MI/WI:
How did we get here? Trump’s strong election day performance enabled him to first win FL and then NC, GA, TX, AZ, OH, NC, and post leading initial #s in PA, MI, WI. However, WI/MI/ PA are slow counting states, and the mail ballots will not be accounted for in the initial returns. These mail votes skew heavily in favor of Biden. Thus, in a close race, mail votes could shift the entire outcome of the race — and Trump’s hypothetical victory declaration before these states counted all their mail ballots would certainly have been premature.
If these absentee votes overcome Trump’s election day lead and give Biden WI, MI, PA, we will have experienced a severe RED MIRAGE…
Can Biden Win on Election Night without FL?
How would Biden get to 270 on Nov. 3 without FL? With 226 delegates in his pocket, Biden’s magic number is 44.
For quickest road to victory, look first to other fast counting states AZ and NC (26 combined delegates). Then see if can cobble together any other relatively fast counting states for the final 18. An option that only requires one extra additional state victories = AZ, NC + OH = 270.
There are a ton of “moderate speed” counting states (GA, TX, NV, OH, etc.) that provide various paths to victory for Biden — probably not on election night, but relatively soon after:
Ex: TX (38) + any other swing state gets you to 270 (or more).
Ex: GA (16) , OH (18), AZ(11) = 271
In short, for Biden to win ON election night, he probably needs FL. If he does does NOT win FL or if its too close to call, he still has a path to election night victory, but its trickier.
SCENARIO 1: PENNSYLVANIA MANIA
Biden 280, Trump 258
1) First Returns
Fast Counting states: FL, GA, TX, AZ, NC, OH, NV all favor Biden with early vote influencing Democratic skew of initial returns.
Slow counting states WI, MI, PA favor Trump due to a disproportionate share of election day vote featured in initial counts. VA first returns will start red and then go blue due to fact most counties report election day votes first.
2) Biden lead plummets from artificial high in first returns. Election day vote comes in big for Trump in tossup/lean R states of GA, TX, OH. Strong Trump performances on Nov. 3 also leads to fast counting NC, FL, AZ balancing out. VA begins counting mail ballots and moves to toss up. Slow states (MI, WI, PA) still not moving enough absentee votes for Biden to catch Trump
3) Election day vote almost completely in and strong performance for Trump indicated by his narrow leads in OH, GA, NC, FL, TX, AZ. His lead in WI/MI/PA decreases as mail ballots counted but he still remains ahead.
To be clear, its still too early to call the race at this point. However, Trump is easily above 270 based on his current advantages in decisive swing states across the country — possible he may try to declare victory while he still remains ahead in WI/MI/PA and before all late absentee come in these three and other closely contested contests.
4) Vast majority of mail ballots finally get counted, which helps Biden move WI/MI to toss up. PA slower so Trump still clings to narrow lead. Big Trump wins declared in key swing states of FL, GA, OH, NC, TX but AZ still too close to call.
5)WI/MI complete counting and Biden finishes comeback. AZ called for Trump. All comes down to PA. Trump may declare victory before final tally/actual projection.
6) All states finalized other than PA. Biden now slightly ahead of Trump as mail ballot counting is finalized.
7) Mail ballots continue to elevate Biden — he pulls more ahead of Trump by clear margin (more than 0.5%). Biden projected as PA winner.
SCENARIO 2: BIDEN LANDSLIDE
Biden 407, Trump 131
1. First Returns
Fast Counting states: FL, NC, TX give Biden an early lead. It is immediately apparent that Biden has a very good chance of winning Florida, and that Texas will be a closer race than many expect.
Slow counting states: PA, WI, MI are close, possibly with a slight Trump lead, during early returns. With Florida leaning Biden early, Republicans zero in on these states as the last hope for a Trump victory.
2. As Election Day votes stream in, Trump makes up ground and the initial fast counting states (TX, FL, NC) move from heavy Biden to Biden lean. Slow counting states still reflect early election day numbers, lag behind in tallying absentee totals.
3. GA, FL, NC fast counting allow them to make a call late on election night for Biden. OH is progressing through the mail ballots and now leans toward Biden. Slow counting MI, WI, PA still have Trump slightly ahead, and his lead is shrinking as more mail ballots are counted. TX is now a dead heat and remains too close to call. Conservative media and the president himself are now spreading rhetoric about voter fraud, realizing that the election is over unless a state that has been called reverses its position.
4. Biden takes the lead in TX, with almost all votes counted. Biden also takes a slight lead in MI and WI as they continue counting mail ballots, but it’s still a toss-up. PA is–very slowly–moving through mail ballots and still has a slight Trump lead, but it is dwindling. OH is officially called for Biden. Biden claims victory.
5. As all of the votes are counted, these trends continue. Biden narrowly wins TX and OH, and wins PA, WI, and MI by a substantial margin. The rhetoric of voter fraud fizzles as it becomes clear that there is no changing this result. Biden wins in a landslide.
SCENARIO 3: TRUMP WINS
Trump 278, Biden 260
Key Trump Wins: FL, PA, NC, AZ, OH
Key Biden Wins: WI, MI
1a) First Returns
“Fast” states: FL, AZ, NC give Biden an early lead during first returns.
“Slow” states: PA, WI, MI all favor Trump during first returns.
1b) “Moderate” states: TX and OH both initially skew blue (not depicted) but then turn toss up (TX) and slight Trump adv. (OH) as significant number of election day vote streams in.
2) Trump begins to gain ground in the initial fast counting states (FL, AZ, NC). These states move from Biden lean to toss-up. Slow counting states (PA, WI, MI) still favor Trump, but his lead slowly decreases as they tally mail ballots. Rhetoric is cautions, as reporters begin to suspect that Trump was in a better position than polls reflected.
3) FL, AZ, and NC are almost finished counting, and eventually, call the race for Trump. OH is just a bit behind them, but calls the race for Trump also. The slow counting )states still favor Trump, but their lead is shrinking. Trump is likely alluding to victory although not quite claiming it yet. Rhetoric about mail fraud is rampant to prepare for possibility that all three slow-counting states eventually fall for Biden. Biden and select media sources are cautioning the public to wait for the eventual counting of all the ballots.
4) WI and MI transition into toss-up territory as votes are counted. PA is still a Trump lean, but the lead is shrinking. The rhetoric is increasingly divided along party lines as the gradual transition of WI and MI are used as evidence by Democrats of a Red Mirage and by Republicans of the problems of mail voting. Trump claims victory, Biden refuses to concede.
5) WI and MI are eventually called for Biden, however PA remains for Trump until the very end. Trump narrowly wins and is re-elected. Biden concedes.
SCENARIO 4: BIDEN CLOSEST E.C. WIN
Biden 270, Trump 268
- Key DJT Wins: FL, PA, OH, NC, GA
- Modest DJT Wins: Iowa, TX
- Key Biden Wins: WI, MI, NV, AZ
- Modest Biden Wins: MN
- Red Mirage does not initially appear, but emerges in post election day counting. Trump comes back only to lose to Biden due to slow counts in MI, WI
How election night would play out under this scenario:
- First returns
- Fast Counting states: FL, NC, TX give Biden an early lead during first returns.
- Slow Counting states: WI, MI, and PA all favor Trump during these first returns.
2. As Election Day votes stream in, Trump makes up ground and the initial fast counting states (TX, FL, NC) move from lean Biden to toss up. Slow counting states still reflect majority election day numbers, lag behind in tallying absentee totals.
3. TX, GA, NC fast counting allow them to make a call late on election night for Trump. OH called for Trump too. Slow counting MI, WI, PA still have Trump ahead, but his lead is shrinking as more mail ballots are counted — to be clear, still no call made for any of the “big 3”. FL is now a dead heat and remains too close to call and so does NV. The late mail ballots will break for Biden in these states, and thus this would fit his “warning” about how Dems would steal the election.
4. Biden catches up with Trump in MI and WI, and appears to be set to take the lead. MI and WI now toss up. PA still favors Trump, but with a smaller margin. Nevada trending for Biden with mail ballots providing the boost. FL still too close to call (recount territory).
5. PA trending for Trump even with absentee ballots, NV for Biden; however, Biden now leads in MI, WI. FL still too close to call, but trending for Trump.
6. All these trends continue — FL goes Trump. PA takes longer but ends up in Trump’s column as well. However, MI/WI victories for Biden enough to get him to 270. Razor thin Biden victory.
SCENARIO 5: ELECTORAL COLLEGE TIE
Biden 269, Trump 269
Although the overall odds of an electoral college tie are remote, when you create a scenario in which Trump wins FL, GA, NC, and PA, and Biden wins AZ, there is a 13% chance of a tie. That means that, in that scenario, a tie is almost as likely (16.6%) as rolling a 1 when rolling a die. Thus, the important setup for this assumption is that Trump exceeds expectations in some key swing states (FL, PA, GA, NC) and Biden exceeds expectations in AZ.
- Biden begins with an early lead in AZ, FL, and NC.
- After initial returns show Trump down in TX/OH, he is boosted by election day vote and has a slight lead these two states. Trump also holds a substantial lead in PA. Georgia and–notably–both ME 2nd district and NE 2nd district are toss-ups.
2. GA shifts from Toss-up to Trump lean, and FL and NC start to shift toward Trump, moving from strong Biden lead to toss-up as in-person votes are increasingly counted. PA begins to shift toward Biden but is still a Trump lean. Clearly partisan states begin to lock in their results.
3. Many states are now decided, a few remaining ones are largely leaning one way or the other. Notably, FL and NC have become slight Trump leans, OH is now solidly favoring Trump, AZ is still favoring Biden. At this point, the focus begins to zoom in on NE and ME 2nd Districts, which each have an incredibly valuable 1 Electoral College vote, and are both now leaning Trump.
4. At this point, almost all states are called for their candidates. WI, MI, and AZ are called for Biden and OH, GA, FL, and NC have been called for Trump. Additionally, Trump won the individual vote in both NE and ME 2nd districts. It all comes down to PA, which is leaning trump but the lead is decreasing as votes are counted. Trump is beginning to discuss a tie, calling victory in PA. Biden is urging patience in PA, in hopes of avoiding a tie.
5. PA is officially called for Trump, by a razor-thin margin. There is a tie at 269. What happens now? Please see our FAQ on this topic for more.
SCENARIO 6: OUR BEST GUESS!
BIDEN 306, TRUMP 232
1) Biden jumps out to early lead with fast reporting states FL, NC, AZ showing initial Biden lead. TX, OH also skew Dem as significant # of early ballots included in the initial returns. Slow counting MI/WI/PA skew R for first returns.
Note: VA looks favorable for Trump off the bat due to the prevalence of in person votes in initial counts but will likely change once early votes counted. Not accounted for in all of our scenarios given that it is considered relatively “safe” Biden state but worth keeping an eye on.
2) In person election day votes come in big for Trump in TX, AZ, FL, NC, OH, erasing the initial “blue mirage”. GA leans Trump, NV leans Biden.
3) TX, OH, GA trending towards Trump wins with most of votes counted. FL still too close to call but Trump in position to overtake Biden’s initial lead. NC also neck and neck. AZ gives small edge to Biden. Slow counting states WI/MI/PA still display Trump up by large margins, but smaller than initial returns.
4) FL, TX, GA inching towards a Trump win as almost all ballots counted. OH called for Trump. NC, AZ are close but favor Biden.
NOTE: This is when Trump would prematurely declare victory. For more info on this possibility, see our Q&A section.
NOTE pt. 2: WI may be faster than MI/PA at this point in terms of votes counted, and as a result, WI may have Biden ahead or the race may simply be too close to call rather than still showing Trump leading. That would take Trump under 270. However, he could still be in a position to be “over” 270 based on actual wins + leads if he’s ahead in NC or AZ at this point.
5) WI goes blue as absentee ballots are counted. MI trending towards from Biden “comeback” as well. PA still gives Trump a clear advantage — though smaller than in previous returns — as absentee votes counted at slower rate than MI/WI. AZ and NC called for Biden. The race not over as there is no projection yet for WI, but at this point Biden victory looks imminent.
6) Wisconsin called for Biden and the race is over! We think this could happen on Wednesday evening. MI also called for Biden later, and PA trending blue too. However, Biden does not need to wait on either, although they certainly will help provide cushion to any Trump attacks on legitimacy of his win.
Our final predicted map!
Wow. You’ve made it all the way to the last scenario on our site. You must really be a fan. So, as a reward here’s the logic behind our “best guess” pick:
As mentioned at the top under our “scenario assumptions”, this election basically comes down to Biden needing to win 44 delegates, and Trump needing 135 delegates. We think MI and WI go for Biden. Why?
In 2016, FiveThirtyEight final polling average had HRC +4.2.
Trump ended up winning by 0.2
But in 2020, FiveThirtyEight’s final polling avg had Biden +8
In 2016, FiveThirtyEight final polling avg. had HRC +5. Trump won by 0.8
In 2020, FiveThirtyEight final average has Biden +8.2
MI (16) + WI (10) = 26.
So Biden needs 18 delegates.
We also think NV (6) is a (relatively) safe bet to go for Biden. The magic number is now 12. And we think its fair to assume that Biden wins ME-2 (currently Biden +2.8) or NE-2 (currently Biden +3.8). So give him one of those. And just like that we’re at 11.
Biden needs ONE of the following states to win: PA, OH, FL, TX, GA, NC, AZ.
We think he probably loses FL, TX, GA, OH.
NC/AZ are total toss ups. We think they both end up for Biden. But again, he only needs one!
And that leaves PA. For the sake of everyone’s mental health, pray it does not come down to PA. But we think Biden ultimately prevails in the Keystone State.
That’s all we got. Thanks for reading. Now it’s time to find out who will become the most powerful man in the world!