In keeping with long-standing tradition, we are pleased to offer the 2020 version of our usual election scorecard. We do not predict the outcome of the presidential election (at least in writing), and it is certainly not our intention to endorse any candidates. This is simply a guide to what to watch on November 3 as the election unfolds, organized by when polls close state by state. As usual, the guide is leavened with a fair amount of electoral history (and a little humor) for our readers who are as politically wonky as your faithful correspondent. Much of this information is drawn from the fabulous work done by political researchers and data scientists at RealClearPolitics.com and 270towin.com.
The 2020 election is fraught with existential anxiety on both sides, heightened by the challenge of conducting a national election during a pandemic. Around 75 million people – about a third of all registered voters – have already cast their votes, either by voting early in person or by mailing or hand-delivering a ballot. What happens tomorrow is not an election – it is 51 separate elections, and each state (and the District of Columbia) has its own protocols regarding how and when ballots are processed and counted, and how and when the results are disclosed and ratified. It is possible that the results of votes on election day will be so overwhelming that delays in counting absentee ballots will be moot. It is probable, however, that these delays will prevent some critical battleground states from releasing election results until several days after November 3. Election Day may become Election Week, and some races may not be decided for several weeks.
As important as the presidential race is, control of the Senate is also in question this year. 45 Senate seats are in solid Democratic states or not up for re-election, while 46 Republican Senate seats are similarly safe. Nine races in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina and South Carolina will determine if the Republican party continues to control the Senate, or yields to Democratic leadership when the 117th Congress convenes on January 3, 2021.
Friends and clients of Brown Brothers Harriman know that we are fundamental investors, and that our investment strategy does not depend on the outcome of this or any other election. We would rather pursue the more durable approach of identifying companies that have a greater-than-average degree of control over their own destinies, and then buying them at an appropriate discount to their fundamental value. The prospect of a Democratic sweep of the White House and Congress does, however, pose the risk of changes to income, investment and transfer tax laws, and we encourage our readers to speak with their relationship teams and wealth planners about the implications for their own financial plans.
Now, on with the guide. Remember to vote, if you haven’t already, and settle in for what could be a long evening.
Results from the first polls to close on election day are usually foregone conclusions, but Georgia is in play this year, and offers two competitive senate races in addition to a close presidential race. The outcome in the Peach State could provide an early look at how the evening will go, both for the presidency and the senate. Lindsay Graham’s (R) surprisingly tight race for re-election in South Carolina might provide some drama at the seven o’clock hour as well. In total, 6 states and 60 electoral college votes are up for grabs at this earliest hour.
The polls in two additional swing states close at 7:30, and will provide further indications into how the evening is going for both candidates. Trump won North Carolina and Ohio handily in 2016. If both states swing to Biden in 2020, Trump’s prospects for re-election drop precipitously.
Eight o’clock is prime time for a handful of big swing states, including Florida and Pennsylvania. Trump must win at least one of these two states for the electoral college math to work in his favor. As Pennsylvania does not begin processing absentee and mail-in ballots until the morning of election day, the count here may take some time to complete. Florida, on the other hand, started processing absentee ballots 40 days ahead of the election, and should be able to report results sooner. A competitive Senate race in Maine is worth watching.
Nineteen states with a total of 172 electoral college votes are on offer at the eight o’clock hour. If Biden has already won either North Carolina or Ohio at 7:30, and if Biden wins either Pennsylvania or Florida at 8:00, the election is all but his, as Trump will have run out of paths to 270 electoral college votes.
Only one state closes its polls at 8:30 Eastern time. Here’s your chance to get a bite to eat, take a socially-distanced walk, or check Facebook to see if friends and family are still on speaking terms …
In a normal year, in which results were available as soon as polls closed, the nine o’clock hour wouldn’t hold much drama. This year, however, we likely won’t know the results of large swing states from earlier in the evening, and, additionally, this hour has some big swing states of its own for a change.
Seventeen states worth a total of 156 electoral college votes close their polls at 9:00, including the toss-up states of Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas (!) and Wisconsin.
After the excitement of the nine o’clock hour, the short list of polls closing at 10:00 will not likely swing the race one way or the other. The Senate race in Iowa will be an important factor in determining party control of the Senate.
Five states and 82 electoral college votes are on the table at 11:00, but with little doubt as to the outcomes.
Alaska usually reports the results of its election well after the networks have called the winner of the presidential race, and sometimes even after concession and victory speeches have taken place. This year will likely be different. If you’ve stayed up late enough to learn the Alaska results in real time, then congratulations on being a true political junkie.
Although we committed to not predicting the outcome of the election, the polls and the Electoral College math favor Joe Biden to win the presidency. It furthermore seems likely that the Democratic party winds up with a narrow majority in the Senate. But polls are not votes, and the unprecedented number of early votes, absentee ballots, and mailed ballots, along with the variety of ways in which these votes are processed and counted in different states, makes this election particularly hard to analyze. Additionally, the threat of litigation is much higher in this election as well, and may delay a definitive outcome of some key races, including the presidency, even further. If you’re keeping a scorecard on election night, there are likely to be several gaps in your tallies when you finally go to bed.
Enough analysis. Vote.
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