For an election that drew more interest from voters than any in recent memory, the early results were remarkably predictable. President Donald Trump secured wins in traditional Republican states. Former Vice President Joe Biden did the same in reliably Democratic states.
The normal-ness of the map — at least as Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning — in what has been one of the least normal extended periods in American political history created a sort of news void in the early hours of the vote counting. Twitter rushed to fill that void, with skittish Democrats wildly sharing the news that betting markets had shifted to Trump (which is indicative of not that much) and Republicans insisting that we were looking at Trump’s 2016 shock-the-world moment all over again. (One thing we do know for sure: Democrats’ dreams of a Biden landslide will not happen.)
The truth is that, despite the fact that the calendar has flipped to November 4, the race for president and the battle for the Senate majority are simply too early too call.
Without any definitive answers, where should we keep our collective eyes over the next 24-48 hours? Here are a few places.
1) The Rust Belt, again: From the start of Biden’s campaign for the Democratic nomination, he had a simple argument to members of his party: If we can win back Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, we win back the White House. And I am the best candidate in the party to do that. As the day after the election dawns, Biden’s initial pledge will be put to the ultimate test. It’s not yet clear whether Biden will need to sweep Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan or win two of the three (or one of the three) in order to get to 270 electoral votes. But there’s little doubt at this point that his (and Trump’s) fates hang on the results in that trio of states.
2) The perception game: As most Americans — even on the West Coast — began to turn off their TVs and silence their phones, Biden led in the electoral vote count but Trump was ahead in a number of key states thanks to several of them tabulating votes cast on Election Day before adding in those cast early — either by mail or in person. How do those conflicting signals influence the way people talk and think about the race into Wednesday (and beyond)? If past is prologue, being ahead — even by a single vote (electoral or otherwise) has a huge impact on public perception of who is likely to win. (Al Gore’s campaign was forever fighting the perception that he was losing the race during the Florida recount because George W. Bush was ahead.) So do people latch on to the likely Biden electoral vote lead when they get up Wednesday morning? Or do they look to Trump’s potential edges in the raw vote totals in uncalled states?
4) Senate Republicans feel good-ish: Nothing, as I noted above, is close to over just yet. But Senate Republicans feel far better about their chances of holding the majority waking up on Wednesday than they did waking up on Tuesday. Why? Because, like in the presidential race, things have generally gone as expected so far. Yes, Sen. Cory Gardner (Colorado), the most endangered Republican incumbent, lost. But so did Sen. Doug Jones (Alabama), the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. Which left the math exactly where we started at the beginning of the night: Democrats needing to net three seats for the majority (if Biden wins) or four seats (if he doesn’t). Long(ish) chances for Democratic challengers to knock off GOP incumbents in South Carolina and Texas fell by the wayside. And in toss-up races in North Carolina, Maine and Georgia, Republican incumbents held leads of varying sizes over their Democratic opponents. Those three states — plus Arizona, where Democrat Mark Kelly is holding a clear edge over Sen. Martha McSally — will decide which side holds the majority come January.