It was a long election night and it's going to be an even longer week.
An unprecedented shift to mail-in voting driven by COVID has turned election night into a slog, with key states across the country struggling to tabulate massive numbers of mail ballots. It’s clear that former Vice President Joe Biden isn’t romping to an easy win like his side had hoped. Although President Trump has already made premature claims to victory, it looks like either candidate could win.
Now, the nation waits. It may take days to know who will come out on top. A nasty legal war now looks likely to follow the initial vote count after Trump said he would go to the Supreme Court to stop votes being counted. Partisans on both sides are braced for protests as the count goes on, a potentially dangerous period for the country following months of unrest. Republicans have already filed a lawsuit seeking to block Philadelphia voters whose ballots were rejected for technical reasons from fixing their ballot mistakes and more litigation will likely come in the following days.
Trump suggested early Wednesday morning that he would prematurely declare victory and accused Democrats of trying to steal the election, a baseless narrative he’s been pushing for months with zero evidence and one that was quickly labeled as misinformation by Twitter.
Trump went even further in a speech at the White House around 2:30 a.m. EST, demanding a halt to ongoing vote counts, and proclaiming he had won overall, even though it's far from clear who has emerged the victor. "We'll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don't want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. We will win this—and as far as I’m concerned we already have," Trump said.
But that declaration is hasty, to say the least—not to mention extremely dangerous.
So far, neither candidate has secured victory.
Trump has taken the must-win state of Florida, Iowa, and Ohio, according to the Associated Press, victories he needed to keep himself in the game. He also won Texas and is up in North Carolina, other states he needed to have a shot at a second term. But Biden flipped Arizona, according to the AP, a huge pickup. He also won an Omaha-based congressional district in Nebraska (the state gives each House district a single electoral vote), and won Minnesota and New Hampshire, two states he needed to for a chance at the White House.
It’s clear that both public and private polling were too bearish on Trump. That makes this the second presidential election in a row where he has over-performed in the polls in a significant way. But none of the states Trump won were places where Democrats thought they had a solid lead. The remaining states are ones where the felt pretty comfortable heading into election night.
Biden’s easiest path to victory has always been a sweep of the Rust Belt states that Trump barely won last time around, with Arizona as his best backup plan. With millions of ballots left to be counted and a murky picture from the votes that are in, it’s still far too soon to know who has won the White House.
This leaves the fate of the presidency sitting in the three Great Lakes states that Trump narrowly won in his first presidential victory—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. And those states are now in the crosshairs for potentially ugly legal fights as Trump’s campaign looks to throw out as many Democratic mail-in ballots as possible.
Nevada also has lot of outstanding ballots and hasn’t been called, and Biden was heavily favored there heading into Election Day. While Trump has a lead in Georgia, enough votes remain outstanding that the state is far from decided.
Wisconsin is expected to be the first of the three Great Lakes states to have most of its ballots counted, but local officials expect they won’t be done until Wednesday morning at the earliest. At this point it’s a must-win for Biden, and his margin there should give a much better sense of what demographically similar Michigan and Pennsylvania may look like in the coming days.
Michigan and Pennsylvania are expected to take even longer, with counts of Democratic-heavy mail votes continuing for the next few days, though Michigan is expected to finish first. Trump is up big right now in all three states, but that’s because GOP-heavy Election Day votes were counted first in all three, with Democratic-heavy mail votes still left to be tallied.
That means Trump’s current lead in these three states shouldn’t be given too much weight. Democrats disproportionately voted by mail this election, and since Republican state legislators in all three states didn’t allow local officials to start counting mail ballots early enough to have them tallied by election night, they’ll take a while to count.