Four years ago, I filed a late-night, shell-shocked column about Donald Trump’s stunning triumph over Hillary Clinton. Its theme was the need for humility and contrition on the part of the country’s pollsters and pundits. Election night 2020 didn’t quite equal the jolt of 2016. But it is yet again an occasion to take stock of how little any of us knows and can master uncertainty.
It was always possible, even somewhat likely, that the counting would go on for days. But it was also possible that Joe Biden would win by a big enough margin that it wouldn’t be necessary. He’d start the night by taking Florida. Then Georgia and North Carolina. And then his margins in key districts around the country would show sufficient strength to justify some bold predictions about the likelihood of him carrying the states that he’d need to lift him over the top. We’d know the winner by late Tuesday evening, even if the process of methodically counting every early vote and mailed-in ballot took us into Wednesday.
But that isn’t how the night unfolded at all.
First came Trump’s strong showing in Florida, with Biden held down by a disappointing outcome in Miami-Dade county, made possible by stronger than expected support for the nativist and xenophobic president among Hispanic and Black voters. Then came trend lines in Georgia and North Carolina that pointed to Trump prevailing in both, indicating greater weakness for the Democrat than many anticipated. Then every other state seemed to fall exactly where they did four years ago, leaving us with a much closer race than the polls seemed to augur.
At just past midnight, where does that leave us? Knowing very little, and possibly not getting the resolution we want for several more days.
Fox News called Arizona for Biden during the 11 o’clock hour, but there were reasons to wonder if their projection would stick. It could well end up extremely close. Those Georgia and North Carolina predictions also seemed less certain later in the night than they did earlier on. (Nate Cohn’s notorious “needle” at The New York Times had both states as “leaning” or “likely Trump” for much of the night, but they both shifted back toward the center, with Georgia’s needle crossing the line to Biden around midnight.) Georgia won’t be settled until some time Wednesday morning at the earliest because of a problem with ballot counting in Atlanta, while North Carolina’s absentee ballots will be arriving until Nov. 12.
And that leaves the upper Midwest — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the three states that made Trump’s victory possible in 2016. The first two were set to be counting ballots well into Wednesday, with Pennsylvania predicting a final tally at some point on Friday.
Of those three, Pennsylvania is the only one that should be close enough to be within Trump’s reach. At least if the polls were accurate. But were they? At this point, I wouldn’t want to bet on it. The final polling averages had Biden ahead by 7-9 points nationally. Tuesday’s results were not that of a candidate winning by 7-9 points nationally — unless Biden’s margin in blue states turns out to be truly enormous and Trump’s margin in red states equally narrow. Is that possible? I suppose. Likely? I have no idea, and neither does anyone else.
What that means is that the country is facing a handful of possible scenarios. If Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina all go to Biden, then he could well come out on top without having to win any of the old “blue wall” states (depending on how a few other possibilities shake out). But if any of them go to Trump, then the upper Midwest comes into play, and at this point, we just don’t know how, or when, that will end up.
And that’s assuming it comes down to a simple vote count. But the closer we come to the decisive state — quite possibly Pennsylvania — the more the campaigns will begin to do battle over which ballots to include and exclude from consideration. We enter Florida 2000 territory, in other words — the scenario that comes into play when an election is effectively a tie.
That, too, wasn’t really supposed to happen. But it looks like it might have — just as the Democrats’ hope of taking control of the Senate came close to slipping away as the evening wore on.
What many expected would be a solid repudiation of Donald Trump and his party ended up a muddle. And so it is possible to remain until the end of the week at the earliest. What will take quite a bit longer is our reckoning with the surprising outcome, whatever it turns out to be.