This could be an election night like no other. Since television coverage began, several elections took until the next morning to declare a winner — 1960, 1968, 1976 — and, technically, a winner was never declared by the networks in 2000. Some — 1964, 1972, 1980, 1984 — were landslides, with a winner known early when polls closed in all states.
And, of course, there was 2016. Experts had warned that Donald Trump’s defeat was not a done deal with a tightening race in its final days. As hard as it might be to top the drama of that night, this year — despite a consensus on Joe Biden being ahead — the real-time story evolution could be filled with even more twists and turns, and the potential for confusion and misdirection is massive.
So how best to follow the results? Here are some hints I’ve learned from being a political junkie; my first viewing was as a seven-year-old in 1960, including the next morning hearing an exhausted David Brinkley declare that JFK had won. I’ve eagerly followed — though often been disappointed — in results every four years since, once in the state headquarters of a losing campaign for whom I worked. Every four years the event is a guilty pleasure, and for me a must-see adrenaline rush.
For less-obsessed types who simply want to figure out what is happening, here are some suggestions:
Keep an Eye on Fox News
If you never would think of tuning into Fox News, this might be a time to do so.
Election coverage is the one time I check them out. Why? They usually play it straight. They are known for having an excellent projection desk — that’s the people who declare winners based on available data. And Fox is aggressive about being first, and are almost always right. They have a top-end production, with their normal evening news line-up not front and center.
Who knows what incredible ulterior pressure they may be under this year, so no guarantees about the lack of bias. While Fox News president Jay Wallace told the New York Times that he would hesitate to put Trump on the air if he called in during election night, their viewers are strongly pro-Trump. There could be an even greater fear of alienating them from the corporate suites — a decision that could have ramifications if, after he loses, Trump decides to set up a competitor network. There could be real tension there.
The reason for checking them out will be how they convey the results. The care in which they emphasize the post-election day counting of mail-in ballots is critical. As Trump is intimating in his recent campaign appearances that voting done day-of — which should lean more in his favor — is somehow, preposterously, more valid that ballots counted within the legally authorized window, it is critical for Fox to do their duty to communicate the truth of the situation. There could be enough tea leaves to suggest a strong Biden showing, but what if Trump declares victory based on incomplete numbers? How Fox reacts could be the most important story of the night.
In 2012, when they declared Obama won Ohio, and thus the election, analyst Karl Rove had a meltdown claiming his sources told him they were wrong. It led to an amazing moment when Megyn Kelly broke the fourth wall and walked back to the sealed projection office, and had them confirm their projection. Will we see similar this year?
Watch Those Exit Polls
All coverage likely will drown in caveats and caution, but the best coverage will look at data available and hint at results. Look for a late afternoon eastern time release of broad exit poll data. Responses can indicate the fundamental concerns of voters and can allow for some reading of the tea leaves; for example, if COVID-19 is the top issue by a wide margin, it suggests Biden and down-ballot Dems will do well. If crime is strong, that points towards Trump and the GOP.
Kentucky and Indiana are usually the first states to report, and though their outcome isn’t in much doubt, smart analysts will compare local results to 2016 for indications of direction.
Wait for Florida — and You Won’t Have to Wait Long
Yes, as the third largest state it’s crucial. But it might also be the key to an early evening on the projection front. Most of the state’s sites close at 7 p.m. EST, although the northern panhandle is an hour later, and no projections will be made until polls close there. It’s a quick-count state, with those early votes already included in the tally, and then Florida reports quickly. If one candidate is clearly ahead, a call might be made before 9 p.m. EST. If it’s for Biden, the rest of the night would likely be anticlimactic, irrespective of delays elsewhere.
North Carolina and Texas are in similar situations even if their results are revealed slightly later. If even one is a Biden win, he’s doing great. Two out of three, it should be a done deal, even if it takes a while to get to the required 270 electoral votes.
Know the Difference Between “Too Close” and “Too Early”
Understand the nuance on display. For example: When a state closes, and an initial assessment is made, it is usually labeled either “too close to call” or “too early to call.” Those are different things, similar to a tornado watch compared to a tornado warning. Too early means analysts could guess with near certainty who will win, but want a little more data. Too close means it is much less clear.
In 2016, when Virginia — expected to be an easy Clinton win — was called “too early” it was, to me, a sign of things to come. She wound up winning by five points, but the closer race than anticipated suggested Trump was doing better than expected.
This year, if a state like Pennsylvania or Michigan — which initially will report mostly same-day votes — show a small Trump lead, that is likely to be a boost for Biden. The night will be full of moments like this, and the best place to watch will be the network that is willing to mention these subtleties.
Don’t Forget Senate/House/Governor Races
Control of the Senate is on the line. Sixteen of the 35 races are considered competitive, a majority of them close, with Republicans vulnerable since they hold 13 of these. Many of these will be in late reporting states, so whether Democrats gain the three or four needed to reach majority — that’s 50 or 51 of the 100, depending on who is President and Vice President — may not be known. Complicating matters is that Georgia has two races, one regular six-year term and the other a vacancy, and that state requires 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Both of these seats may end up being a delayed result, and with that, a delay on what party has control.
The House is a certain Democratic hold, unlike 2018 when that outcome was the biggest story of the night. Only 11 states hold governor races this year, with most incumbents likely to win and little if any party change expected.
And, for the First Time, TV Is Not the Best Place for Results
If I had to choose between watching broadcast and cable coverage, or relying on the internet alone, I’d choose the latter. It involves much more work for the political junkie, but saves you from the natter of hosts trying to fill dead air between results. Access to raw incoming election data is easy. Networks announce their projections on Twitter. And though it now has rivals, fivethirtyeight.com has both a vital live blog and instant analysis. They usually are less constrained than TV sites in likelihood of results.
That being said, some networks have hired many of the best experts to offer analysis on the night. Politico’s Dave Wasserman is my go-to Twitter expert, and he is part of NBC’s decision desk and offline election night. His working for them actually could be why I follow MSNBC or NBC — they have separate broadcasts, but the same projection desk — much of the time along with checking in at Fox. My remote and Twitter will be busy.
For a comprehensive list of what networks are hosting election specials tonight, click here.