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What to Watch for on an Unusual Election Night

images of Biden. and Trump over a political map of the US

If you want to see some drama tonight, Duke Professor Phil Napoli says you might want to check out Fox News. With President Trump, according to news reports, ready to declare victory at the end of the night if he’s leading even though millions of votes may remain to be counted in swing states, there will be enormous pressure on Fox News to follow suit.

Their analytics team may not be comfortable doing so. 

It’s a team that has established a reputation for independence, most famously in 2012 when it called the election for Barack Obama and sent Republican strategist Karl Rove taking the camera with him into the analytics office to challenge their work.

Napoli, the James R. Shepley Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, said whether Fox News follows any victory claim by the Trump campaign may be a factor in whether Trump supporters accept the legitimacy of the result if late ballots counted in the days ahead bring a Biden victory.

“It might not be an exaggeration to say that the decisions made at Fox in the days ahead are likely to be the most impactful decisions that any news organization will make this election,” Napoli said. “And perhaps the most impactful of any news organization in recent history.”

On one level, watching the results Tuesday night will be like every other presidential election: Special attention will be paid to swing states, including North Carolina, for clues to which candidate will reach 270 electoral votes. Undecided voters, while fewer this year than in elections past, will be carefully assessed to determine which direction the election will be tipping.

Duke experts say they will also be watching Senate races in North Carolina, Arizona, Maine, Iowa and elsewhere to see if the Republicans hold on to their narrow majority there.  And closer to home, scholars will watch if Democrats can threaten the Republican majorities in the state legislature.

However, in part because of the COVID pandemic, some things about this election night will be different. With mail-in ballots playing a larger role, and some state rules forbidding the counting of these ballots until polls close, more experts are preparing for a process that will last several days. The historians among them add that this isn’t unprecedented.

“I’ll be looking for Election Day to end without the presidential election called—an outcome that is both common historically and especially likely this year,” said Asher Hildebrand, associate professor of the practice of public policy whose background includes chief of staff to U.S. Representative David Price (D-NC) and director of policy and research for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in North Carolina. 

“That said, I’ll be keeping an especially close eye on Florida and North Carolina—two states that report most of their returns on election night and could be early bellwethers of the outcome. Biden doesn’t need them to win, but if he can score an early victory in either, this would foreclose Trump’s chances—and might make him more likely to accept the ultimate result -- though after the last few days I’m not optimistic.

“And if Biden carries North Carolina, it’s a safe bet that Cal Cunningham delivers a Senate majority to the Democrats.”

But, he cautioned, if Florida and North Carolina appear headed for Trump’s column, then expect a longer, messier and more contentious process, given Trump’s intent to cut short the counting of votes in states such as Pennsylvania – one of the states where many mail-in ballots won’t be counted until after Election Day.

“Biden still has a clear path to victory—but it may depend on every vote being counted,” Hildebrand said.

For David Rohde, professor emeritus of political science, turnout is key to which way the election result lands – namely, how big and for whose relative benefit.

“This will, I believe, determine the outcome,” Rohde said. “The preferences of a large percentage of the electorate are firmly fixed by now, so the role of persuasion is quite limited. The task of both parties is to get their committed voters to actually cast ballots.”

For Republicans, the hope is that there is a substantial group of voters with a preference for Trump who are not being captured as likely voters in the national and state polls, Rohde said. That could make the lead Biden has in those polls “an illusion.”

The Democrats, on the other hand, need to maximize the vote among groups with a Biden preference but a lower natural tendency to vote, like young people, minorities and disaffected Republicans, he added.

“It is already clear that the aggregate national turnout will be substantial. The early vote in 2016, both by mail and in person, was about 42 percent of the eventual final total. This year, as of Sunday morning, the early vote cast is already 68 percent of that 2016 total,” Rohde said.

“Thus, we know that a much higher proportion of the electorate will cast votes this year. We just can’t be sure how they are distributed. If the additional voters are disproportionately ‘hidden’ Trump supporters, the president may still have a chance at reelection. If they are mainly activated Trump opponents, then the Democrats will be on the road to an historic landslide.”

Sunshine Hillygus, a professor of political science and public policy who studies American political behavior, said there will be fewer swing voters because they have had four years to evaluate the incumbent.

But they will still play a significant role in the outcome.

“We’re in a two-party system, and in a two-party system, the presidential race is almost always going to be competitive enough for swing voters to make a difference,” Hillygus said during a recent media briefing.

“When we think about the potential for the election to swing one way or the other, we have to keep in mind that information learned during the campaign is able to influence how people vote and is also if they vote at all. That is a critical piece of the puzzle in terms of figuring out what the election result is likely to look like.”

She added: “At the end of the day, usually 90 percent of Democrats vote for the Democratic candidate and 90 percent of Republicans vote for the Republican candidate, and yet the people who are kind of the muddled middle are still enough to make a difference.”

Until votes are tallied, we have the polls. But how much faith should we place in them?

“I think the polls are fairly accurate,” Kerry Haynie, an associate professor of political science and African & African American studies, said during another media event. “I look at the trend lines. And I look at the candidates’ behavior. I would watch where the candidates go and don’t go, along with the polls, to get a sense of where the race is.”