OPINION: Biden v Trump: What to watch out for in US election tonight
- Credit: PA
Will it be a surprising victory or a changing of the guard tonight?
If you’ve never spent an idle hour following the weird world of US politics on CNN or Fox News, you might not realise just how obsessed many Americans are with it.
This isn’t some UK-style election campaign that is coming to an end after an intense few weeks. No, this is a campaign that began on the night Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in November 2016 and which has dominated the political conversation in the US every day since then. Tonight will be the culmination of four years full of chaos, tension, acrimony, controversy and campaigning.
If you’re planning to stay up to watch things develop, expect to be hit by a blizzard of graphics, charts, projections, talking heads and dramatic “breaking news” announcements. Think of our general election nights here in the UK, and then multiply that fanfare by 10.
So amongst all the noise, what will be the key indicators of how things are going?
The polls closing
There’s no equivalent of the 10pm Big Ben exit-poll announcement we get in the UK. In the US, polls close at different times in different states – and, of course, there are multiple time zones across the country.
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So rather than a single exit poll, much of the guidance comes from the TV networks which make their own “calls” on a state-by-state basis. The results in many of the states are easy to predict – it’s the battlegrounds that are crucial, and many of those are amongst the first to close their polls.
Georgia and most of Florida close their polls at midnight UK time. Half an hour later, they close in North Carolina and Ohio.
Because of the states already in the bag, Joe Biden can afford to lose these four states but Trump can’t. So if the networks look like calling any of them in Biden’s favour, we could get an early indication that Trump will soon be out of a job. If the president looks like he’s winning these states – or if they are too close to call – we could be in for a long night.
At 1am, a slew of polls close, including in Pennsylvania, most of Michigan and most of Texas. Results from Pennsylvania and Michigan are likely to be slow because of restrictions on when they can start counting, but Texas could be quicker. Trump should hang on here, but it will buoy the Biden camp if he can cut the 9pc margin that Trump enjoyed over Clinton in 2016.
An hour later, at 2am, a number of other battleground states close their polls, including Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In Arizona, unlike in some other states, early ballots are already being counted, so it’s possible that those figures will be announced fairly quickly. This will be another indicator as to how the wider race is going: Trump won Arizona in 2016 but the Democrats feel confident about flipping it.
Never one to shy away from stirring things up on Twitter, don’t be surprised to hear Trump claim early victory if the initial numbers in some states look good for him.
Early voting – either via post or in polling stations, some of which have been open for several weeks – has broken all records this year. As of yesterday, nearly 94 million votes had already been cast across the country, which is the equivalent of more than two-thirds of 2016’s total turnout. In Texas, more early votes have been received than were cast in total four years ago.
Democrats have embraced early voting far more enthusiastically than Republicans have, so it’s possible that Trump secures a majority of the votes cast on the day today but Biden wins once all the early-voting ballots are added to the total.
In a bid to control the message and look like a winner, Trump could set the narrative early by declaring himself the victor.
But you don’t win an election just because you say you have.
Biden is the hot favourite to win this election. There are a few things that have altered slightly in recent days – for example, Florida might be leaning slightly more towards Trump because it seems that Latino voters in the Sunshine State have not come out for the Democrats in the way many expected.
But winning the three tightest states from 2016 (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) should be enough for Biden to secure victory, and the pollsters think he will. A Monmore University poll out yesterday gave him a lead of between 5pc and 7pc in Pennsylvania.
However, the fun and games won’t finish when the votes are all counted. If Trump does pull off a shock win, don’t expect him to shower Biden with gracious praise – he’ll take great delight in rubbing it in.
If Trump loses, the next two and a half months could see things escalate to a whole new level. He will remain in office until Biden is inaugurated in January, giving the president plenty of time to enact a scorched-earth policy.
And then, of course, we start the countdown to 2024…
Adam Aiken is a freelance journalist who writes about US politics