5 Things to Watch for as Pennsylvania Election Day Results Trickle In

You’ve cast your ballot. Now grab a stiff drink (or three). Here’s what you need to know as election results start to roll in.

2020 pennsylvania election results

Here are five things to look for as the Pennsylvania election results roll in. Photograph by SOPA Images/Getty Images

Well, folks, the countdown to Election Day is over. Hooray? Forgive us if we’re not quite feeling relieved. Because as one countdown ends, others begin: the countdown to the first sets of polls to close (in Indiana and Kentucky), at 6 p.m. Eastern. To the first batch of mail-in ballot results from Philly, which should arrive shortly after polls close here, at 8 p.m. To the possible premature, baseless declaration of victory from Donald Trump. (We’re not being alarmist. The guy has reportedly said he plans to declare victory prematurely if it looks like he’s winning on election night.)

It’s hard enough tracking results on Election Day in the best of times. These are not those times. This year, there are all sorts of factors to reckon with. Were the polls right? Which counties are releasing mail-in ballot results quickly? What does the in-person turnout look like? When will Pennsylvania finish tallying votes? Will late-arriving mail-in ballots hold up in court?

We won’t know the answers to all of these questions this evening. Trying to predict this election is a bit like putting together a puzzle in the dark while suspended upside down with your hands tied behind your back and noise-canceling headphones playing a series of lies about voter fraud. It’s not easy.

But we know a few things: The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows an eight-point lead in the popular vote for Biden. There are fewer undecided voters this year, which should mean less volatility.

And we will be getting plenty of new information to digest tonight. There will be news from Pennsylvania, and there will be news from outside Pennsylvania that has bearings on Pennsylvania.  If you’re anything like us (and frankly, part of us hopes you aren’t), you’ll be glued to your television screen, frantically texting your friends each time John King on CNN moseys over to his touchscreen election board to check in on Bucks County.

Also, if you’re anything like us, you’ll want to be armed with some impressive factoids you can share with your Election Day group-chat as you collectively trudge through the results. So here are five things to watch for as the Election Day returns roll in.

Biden’s Mail-In Ballot Lead

In spite of all of the uncertainty surrounding this election, we actually know more than we usually would thanks to the widespread use of mail-in ballots. Nearly 2.5 million voters across Pennsylvania returned ballots in advance of Election Day, good for 40 percent of the six-million-vote turnout in 2016. This year, Ben Lazarus, a pollster for Democratic data firm TargetSmart, thinks turnout could be even higher — approaching 80 percent of all registered voters, or roughly seven million votes. Democrats have already amassed a huge advantage in the mail ballot race, having returned 66 percent of all mail-in ballots compared to just 23 percent for Republicans.

But it’s worth treating those numbers with a sprinkle of caution, Lazarus says. Some Republicans in the Philly ‘burbs might actually be voting for Joe Biden; some Democrats in more rural parts of the state might be casting ballots for Trump. Which is to say that you can’t simply slot those percentages directly into either candidate’s column.

The Democratic reliance on mail-in ballots could also mean that Trump will have a big lead in the in-person vote as the first counties begin to report their totals. But how big? “The big X factor is that we just don’t know what total turnout is going to be,” Lazarus says. Thanks to a state Supreme Court decision, Pennsylvania will accept mail-in ballots that arrive by November 6th. If the margin in the race is razor-thin, as it was four years ago, those ballots could prove definitive. It’s entirely possible we won’t have results from Pennsylvania for at least a few days.

That said, the in-person vote totals will go a long way toward helping us understand what overall turnout looks like, which will go a long way toward helping us determine who has an advantage. “The percentage of the total vote that comes from the early vote will be really telling,” Lazarus says. He thinks that if mail-in ballots end up accounting for something like 40 percent of the total vote, that’s a great sign for Biden. In general: The higher that number, the better the news for Biden.

An Early Trump Lead Doesn’t Mean He’ll Win

Jonathan Tannen, a local politics blogger, recently wrote on his Sixty-Six Wards blog that if Trump is winning by 27 points on Election Night, it actually could mean that Biden is in shape to win Pennsylvania by the time all of the mail-in ballots are counted.

Tannen arrived at the 27 percent figure by making a couple of key assumptions for simplicity’s sake: first, that turnout and results would be roughly equivalent to 2016; and second, that a total of 2.7 million mail-in ballots would be returned, maintaining the current 66-23 Democrat-Republican split. Tannen is the first to admit that these assumptions probably won’t hold. That’s not really the point. Instead, he’s trying to show how mail-in ballots can massively tilt the margins after Election Day.

So is it a guarantee that if Trump is up 27 points, he’ll still lose? No. But because there’s a huge chasm between the in-person vote and the more slowly tabulated mail-in vote, and because Democrats have banked so many mail-in ballots already, it is true that Trump has to run up the score on Election Day to have any chance of winning. Even if it appears he’s dominating Biden, he could fall behind in the final count. The question, again, comes down to Republican turnout.

Other election analysts have come to similar conclusions. FiveThirtyEight did a model of its own, arriving at a slightly more conservative scenario in which Trump could lead on Election Day by 16 points but still end up losing by five points when all of the votes are counted.

So if you see a huge lead for Trump in the initial vote count, don’t immediately panic. “If it’s anywhere close on Election Day, that’s very bad for Trump,” Lazarus says. “If Trump’s not winning by a healthy 15-to-20-point margin, he’s going to be in pretty big trouble.”

Key Bellwethers Inside Pennsylvania

Turnout in Philadelphia, where in 2016 Hillary Clinton received just shy of 585,000 votes, or 82 percent of the vote, is going to be a critical factor in determining who ultimately ends up winning Pennsylvania. But with so many mail-in ballots cast in Philly, it could take days to know how many people really ended up voting.

Fortunately, we can turn our attention to some other fast-counting counties that could have more of their in-person and mail-in ballots counted on election night proper.

One to keep an eye on: Allegheny County. Clinton received 367,000 votes in Pittsburgh and its suburbs, or 56 percent of the vote share. Any Biden improvement on those margins could provide a hint about turnout in Philly as well as on how he’s performing in other important suburbs.

Normally, we’d also suggest paying attention to the results in Northwest Pennsylvania’s Erie County, which voted for Trump in 2016 by one and a half points before swinging back to Democrats in 2018. It’s been referred to as the “oracle of Pennsylvania” for a reason: With its high number of blue-collar, non-college-educated voters, it’s full of people who normally vote Democratic but deserted the party for Trump in 2016. Whoever goes on to win in Erie will be in good shape to carry the whole state. Unfortunately, the oracle — which is to say the county election officials — cares not for our earthly need for instant knowledge. The county won’t even start tabulating mail-in ballots until late on election night.

So we’ll have to look elsewhere for bellwethers. Lazarus suggests Bucks County, where Clinton managed to win by fewer than 3,000 votes of more than 340,000 cast. Like the other Philly ‘burbs, Bucks has been turning increasingly blue post-2016; the county government is currently controlled by Democrats for the first time since 1983. If Biden manages to keep a close margin there with the in-person vote, Lazarus says, it could be a “really good night for Biden” once all the votes are counted. Bucks is also the site of the 1st Congressional District, where Republican incumbent Brian Fitzpatrick — the last Republican Congressperson in the ’burbs — is trying to hold on for dear life against Democratic challenger Christina Finello. Keep an eye on that race, too, which will have implications both national and local.

Key Bellwethers Outside Pennsylvania

Trends in voter preferences tend to shift on a national level. For instance, if suburban women abandon Trump in other parts of the country, or if some white non-college-educated voters who went for Trump in 2016 switch to Biden this year, chances are a similar dynamic is at play in Pennsylvania. Lazarus says he’ll be watching a few specific counties on election night to gauge how things might end up looking here.

The first clue could come from Florida, which counts votes extremely quickly. Pay attention to the neighboring Gulf Coast counties of Pinellas and Hillsborough, both in the Tampa area, which are similar in some ways to the Philly ’burbs. In 2016, Trump won Pinellas by just 6,000 votes out of more than 485,000 cast; Clinton won neighboring Hillsborough by seven points. Lazarus says Pinellas is akin to Bucks (where Clinton won by fewer than 3,000 votes), while Hillsborough is more like Chesco (where Clinton had a healthier nine-point margin). “If Biden is crushing it in Hillsborough, which is pretty suburban, that portends well for a place like Chester County,” he says.

It’s worth paying attention to how Trump performs in the Florida panhandle, too. He routinely won counties there by 40 or 50 points in 2016, compared to margins in the 30 to 35 percent range for Mitt Romney in 2012. If Trump’s margin backtracks, that could bode well for Biden in the more rural sections of Pennsylvania.

Finally, keep an eye on Missouri — another fast-counting state that, like Pennsylvania, is comprised of two big cities with lots of rural stretches between them. Any fallback from Trump’s 2016 margins in the rural parts of Missouri could signal that Biden is set to recoup some ground lost here by Clinton four years ago.

Legal Challenges and Disqualified Ballots

We won’t know how this all plays out on Election Day, but the possibility of legal challenges and disqualified ballots is worth keeping in the back of your mind as a potential bad sign for Biden. The New York Times recently reported that fewer absentee ballots are being rejected nationwide than in past years. But Philly City Commissioner Lisa Deeley has said that Pennsylvania’s rule banning “naked ballots” — those that arrive without the extra secrecy envelope — could disqualify more than 100,000 votes across the state. We’ll need to wait and see how that plays out.

As for the legal challenges: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has already allowed mail-in ballots to be counted as long as they arrive by November 6th. And though the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue a stay in the case earlier this month, it could return to the question of which mail-in ballots to count post-election. State officials have already instructed counties to separate any ballots arriving after November 3rd, just in case they have to disqualify those votes by court order.

In a state that’s expected to be close, like Pennsylvania, that could make all the difference. Trump has already said that he plans to descend on swing states with lawyers the second the in-person count has concluded. It’s something to follow if the race isn’t called on Election Day and the counting wears on. And to be clear, the race probably won’t be called on Election Day. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College poll, says “either Friday or Saturday would be the earliest” for a potential call.

That makes the race all the more difficult to weigh. Maybe there will be enough signs on election night — say, if Biden manages to flip Florida, North Carolina and Georgia (all states in which he’s narrowly ahead in the polls) — for us to deduce how the final results will look. But that’ll only be clear in the event of a Biden blowout. And Madonna, at least, doesn’t think that’s likely to happen: “The polls have tightened.”

That’s just one reason he’s not making any ironclad predictions. “There are so many aspects of this that we can’t be sure of,” he says. “That’s why this is one political scientist who’s being cautious about what we predict. Because we’re in uncharted territory here.”

Better buckle up, everyone. It’s probably going to be a long night.