Presidential Race Hangs in the Balance

Votes in key states have yet to be finalized in a close race; Republicans cling to Senate but await final tally.

November 04, 2020

By Jon Taets

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Most of last night went largely to script in the presidential race, and as of this morning, we still do not have a final answer on who will be the next president of the United States. The fact is, we may not know the final outcome for a few days.

As early numbers came in yesterday, prospects looked good for former Vice President Joe Biden in states which counted mail-in ballots first, but his lead in a number of states dwindled or disappeared as the night wore on. This result was not unexpected. It was largely believed that the early votes cast throughout the country largely favored Biden, while election day tallies were likely to support President Donald Trump.

The opposite was seen in states that reported election day votes first, followed by mail-in ballots. In state after state, those expectations were confirmed. That was the case in some of the still-outstanding states which will ultimately decide who occupies the White House for the next four years, including Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Those three states also have announced that they won’t complete the counts of ballots they already have in hand until later today at the earliest.

In one of the more unique reasons for a delayed result, much of the count in Fulton County, Georgia, was delayed due to a water main break in a room above where ballots were stored. While no ballots reportedly were damaged, it has delayed counting there. Dekalb County, Georgia, experienced “technological limitations” and indicated it will report numbers by 11 a.m. EST today. It is also worth noting that states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina will still count mail-in ballots received over the next few days as long as they are postmarked by yesterday. Pennsylvania’s deadline is Friday, while North Carolina’s is next Friday, November 13. 

Thus far only one state has “flipped.” Arizona had supported President Trump in 2016 but was called for Biden overnight. That state flipping deducts 11 electoral college votes from the president’s total of 306 four years ago. Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral college votes remains the big prize on the board, but Georgia (16), Michigan (16), North Carolina (15) and Wisconsin (10) all loom very large as well. The president won all of them four years ago and currently holds leads in all but Wisconsin, where he narrowly trails. If Biden ends up winning any two of those states, he will breach the 270 electoral vote total to be the 46th president of the United States. Much of the outstanding vote in these states is expected to skew in Biden’s favor, whether or not it will be enough to erase the president’s current leads remains unknown.

The ultimate result in some of these races could end up being determined by the courts. It is expected that many of these states will see significant legal challenges over the coming days. It is even conceivable that some court challenges could reach the U.S. Supreme Court, possibly putting a bright spotlight on the high court’s newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett.

Senate Race

Beyond the White House, the other key prize from yesterday is the majority in the United States Senate.  Democrats need to win a net of three seats in that chamber to take the majority if Biden wins and a net of four seats if Trump is re-elected, since Vice President Pence would serve as the tie-breaker in a 50-50 scenario.

Two key races were called relatively early last night. Republicans picked up a seat in Alabama with Senator Doug Jones’ (D) loss to former Auburn Head Football Coach Tommy Tuberville (R), which was largely expected. Colorado was the site of the other expected early flip where popular former Democrat Governor John Hickenlooper defeated Republican Senator Cory Gardner. The Democrats picked up another flip in Arizona, where the Democrat candidate, former astronaut Mark Kelly, defeated appointed Republican Senator Martha McSally. Other pickup opportunities for the Democrats fell by the wayside as Iowa Senator Joni Ernst (R), South Carolina Senator Lyndsey Graham (R) and Montana Senator Steve Daines (R) were declared victors.

Republican incumbents also hold leads in two other races seen as potential pickup opportunities for the Democrats. In North Carolina, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) has declared victory, but that race has not been called, and in Maine, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) maintains a lead. The number to watch in Maine is the 50% threshold. Collins is currently above that number but below 51%. If her Democrat opponent, Sara Gideon, can pull her numbers below the majority threshold it will trigger that state’s controversial ranked-choice voting system. That means the slightly more than 6% of the vote garnered by independent candidates could become very significant. Outside of Georgia, the last race still on the board is actually a sleeper pickup opportunity for the Republicans. In Michigan, Republican candidate John James holds a lead over incumbent Democrat Senator Gary Peters as that state continues to count votes. 

If Tillis or Collins ultimately fall, then much attention will be focused on Georgia’s two Senate seats on the ballot this year. In the special election, Democrat candidate Raphael Warnock was the top vote getter but fell far below 50% and will face incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler in a runoff on January 5, 2021. In Georgia’s other race, Republican Senator David Perdue currently leads his Democrat opponent, Jon Ossoff, as that state works to finalize its vote count. If the winner here doesn’t top 50%, that race will go to a January 5 runoff as well. So, while the outcome is trending toward Republicans maintaining their majority in the Senate, it is not yet certain.

Democrats Keep House

One thing that seems certain is that the Democrat’s majority in the U.S. House is not at risk. Recent court-ordered redistricting in North Carolina aided Democrats in picking up a couple of seats there that had been vacated by Republican incumbents. Republicans successfully flipped a pair of south Florida seats relatively early in the evening. As the night progressed, Republicans picked up some wins over Democrat incumbents but far short of the net of 17 they needed. With a number of races still outstanding across the country it certainly appears that the House will end up roughly where it is today with the Democrats holding a moderate to small majority.

Another thing we know for sure is that this is the highest turnout in U.S. history. The raw vote numbers topped the 136 million plus who voted four years ago. At an estimated 67%, it’s also likely the highest percentage of eligible voters to participate in an election since 1900.

That’s what we know as of now. There are a lot of votes yet to be counted so stay tuned.

Jon Taets is NACS director of government relations.