With all of the discussion going on about polling, postal voting, legal battles, and various other things, it’s easy to lose track of one pretty straightforward question: what states do Joe Biden and Donald Trump need to win on Tuesday if they want to be President of the United States when we go to bed on January 20?
To put this into context, let’s start by reminding ourselves what happened in 2016. When the faithless electors are put back to where they should have gone, Donald Trump finished with a relatively modest majority in the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton finished 38 electoral votes short of the 270 needed to win, which consequently implies that Joe Biden will need to flip 38 electoral votes’ worth of states in order to win this week.
To find these, I’m going to look at the states which Trump won by relatively small margins. I’m going to give away any state that Clinton won in 2016 to Biden, and I’m going to give away any state that Trump won by a margin of 10% or higher to Trump. That gives Biden 232 votes, Trump 125 votes, and puts 181 votes that we’re going to consider “in play” for the purpose of this discussion.
The fact that Texas is not considered a safe state for the Republican candidate for President is, in itself, extraordinary (FiveThirtyEight puts Biden’s odds of winning Texas at around 1 in 3). But it is also the second most populous state in the country, and worth 38 electoral votes to the winner. Given that Biden needs to flip 38 votes in order to win, he can get away with flipping Texas and nothing else and win the election. (Of course, if Biden does manage to win Texas, he will almost certainly win a lot more besides.)
Florida is the largest traditional swing state, worth 29 electoral votes, and while it is normally known for leaving the country on a cliffhanger, the fact that they process absentee ballots as they come in mean it’s expected that we’ll have the results of their absentee votes very early on election night.
If Biden wins Florida, then he only needs to find another nine votes to win the election. All other states bar one in the battleground are worth more than nine electoral votes, and so if Trump loses Florida, he will practically have to win everything else in the battleground if he wants to win the election.
Pennsylvania, worth 20 electoral votes, is the largest of the “rust belt” states in the midwest. In 2016, it was part of the “blue wall” that Trump broke down to win the White House. This year, the results there may not be clear on election night as absentee votes cannot be processed until the morning of the election.
Biden winning the Pennsylvania will leave him 18 votes short of victory. Neighbouring Ohio happens to also be worth 18 votes, though polling suggests that this will not be easy for him to do. If he misses Ohio, then nearly any combination of two other battleground states, such as Michigan and Wisconsin, will together get Biden over the winning line.
If Trump wins both Florida and Pennsylvania, then he becomes the clear favourite to win the election. In this case, he’d be almost certain to defend several other battleground states further down the list, such as Georgia and North Carolina. When you consider the process for dealing with a tie, this would leave Trump one vote short of victory. This means that Biden would have to win all of Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and the the district around Omaha NE to take the narrowest of wins.
Michigan and Wisconsin
Given that we may not have a clear result from Pennsylvania on election night, we’ll also want to watch the two other “blue wall” states, Michigan (16 votes) and Wisconsin (10 votes). Both states require that absentee votes are processed on election day, though Wisconsin has pledged to count them through the night to have a result by Wednesday morning.
If Trump wins Florida and Pennsylvania is too close to call by the end of election night, then it’s unlikely that states such as Georgia and Ohio will be in play. This would make Michigan and Wisconin essential for Biden to win, though they would not be enough on their own.
Even if Pennsylvania is slow in its count, North Carolina, Arizona, and Nebraska are expected to be quicker counters. Biden winning Michigan, Wisconin, and either North Carolina or Arizona + Omaha NE will be enough to get him to 270 votes. However, it’s basically a coin toss whether he would be able to win either of these combinations.
On the other hand, if Trump manages to hang onto Michigan and Wisconsin, then it leaves Trump ten votes short of victory once the tie-breaking procedure is accounted for. This would mean that Biden would need to win all three of the remaining states in order to win the election, which would simply not be feasible if he’s already lost these two.
A reminder of how ties are broken
If no candidate wins 270 votes in the Electoral College, then the incoming House of Representatives will elect the President and the incoming Senate will elect the Vice President. However, in the House, each state gets one vote, and a candidate would need 26 votes to win. In the 2018 election, despite the Democrats winning a majority of seats, Republicans were the majority in 26 state delegations (Democrats were the majority in 22, and two had an equal number from both parties). Given how unlikely it is that Democrats will be able to flip a state’s delegation away from the Republicans, it seems fair to assume that a 269–269 tie in the Electoral College will result in a Trump win.
So what states to watch?
Florida and Pennsylvania are both must-win states for Trump. If Biden is able to take either of them, then it will be an uphill battle for Trump to win. If Trump wins them both, then it will be an uphill battle for Biden to win. But given that Pennsylvania is unlikely to count the majority of its votes on election night, it could leave us in an electoral cliffhanger for the rest of the week.