Tight US election after surprise Trump victory in Florida

4th November 2020

The winner of the election may not be known for days after Trump defies polls to win the key state of Florida.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

By Andrew Hillman

This story was also published on Birmingham Eastside.

The text reflects the situation at time of publication (6am ET, November 4th) but graphics have been updated to reflect the final results.

The US presidential election hangs in the balance, with results from Florida suggesting a close race nationally, and tight contests in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.

Votes are still being counted across the country and so far, only 41 of the USA’s 50 states have been declared by ABC News.

During a speech in the early hours of Wednesday morning, President Trump falsely claimed that ballot counting was subject to “major fraud”.

He also appeared to suggest that vote counting had been halted in Arizona because the remaining ballots to be counted were likely to favour Republicans. Fox News and the Associated Press have called Arizona as a victory for the Democratic party but all ballots will be counted before an official result is declared.

Trump claimed that he had already won the election, specifically saying that he had won Georgia, a state that is currently too close to call.

Pennsylvania, considered the key tipping-point state that is most likely to determine the presidency, is not expected to publish complete results until next week.

Surprise Trump win in Florida, close races in Arizona and Georgia

Joe Biden began election day with an 8-point lead in pre-election polls and the possibility of a landslide victory.

Donald Trump’s path to re-election was far tougher, with the Republican candidate needing to win several states where Biden was a favourite, including Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

But Florida, which reported results quickest of all the battleground states, showed Trump with a 3-point lead over Biden. Florida would later be declared for Trump, as would Ohio and Iowa – where the Republican party holds 8-point leads.

This was followed by a resurgence from the Democratic party. In Arizona, initial voting data revealed a strong advantage for Biden among early voters. Trump is slowly chipping away at Biden’s lead as ballots cast on election day continue to be counted.

The race also remains undecided in Georgia, where Trump leads by 3 points but most of the remaining votes to be counted belong to urban voters who typically favour the Democratic party.

Neither Arizona nor Georgia has voted for a Democratic nominee since 1992.

Meanwhile, Biden leads by six points in Virginia, a state which voted Republican at ten successive elections from 1968 to 2004. In contrast, in West Virginia, which voted Democrat in 2000, Trump leads by 39%.

With some states turning further red and others becoming bluer, and with states like Arizona and Georgia leapfrogging traditional bellwether states like Florida and Ohio, the electoral landscape has never seemed more confusing.

To make sense of the shifting and unfamiliar electoral map that is now taking shape, I have explored the dynamics driving changes in voting behaviour – is it demographic change, turnout, Trump, Biden, coronavirus or vote-by-mail – for six of the key states that are likely to decide the election.

What do the results in Florida so far tell us?

Early results from Florida are typically viewed as a key indicator for how the election is going overall. This was especially true this year, since the state was able to process vote-by-mail ballots prior to voting closing, allowing it to report results quickly.

Biden held around a 2.5% lead in pre-election polls in Florida, so when the state reported results, showing Trump with around a 3% advantage, it suggested that Trump might get the nation-wide polling error that he needed to win again in 2020.

Trump’s victory in Florida comes with 29 electoral college votes, making it as valuable as Arizona and Ohio – two other crucial swing states – combined. This electoral college weight is part of the reason that the candidate winning the sunshine state has also won the 270 total votes required for the presidency in all but one election (1992) since the Second World War.

What has changed in Florida since past elections?

In the run up to election day, there were concerns from Democrats in Florida that the party was failing to court the Hispanic vote. These worries were not necessarily borne out in polling data – the October survey by Siena College had Biden leading among Hispanic likely voters 55-33 compared to Clinton’s 58-38 advantage in 2016.

However, as votes were reported, New York Times analysis showed that Trump was performing far better – in the region of 10-15 points – in precincts which were majority Hispanic or Cuban, compared to his performance in 2016.

Biden’s underperformance in Hispanic neighbourhoods was especially damaging given that Hispanics now make up one in five eligible voters in Florida, up from 11% in 2000.

The analysis showed that Biden was also faring worse than Clinton in urban and majority black regions. Nationally, Trump is believed to have cut the Democrat’s advantage among Black voters, especially among young Black men.

What do the results in Georgia so far tell us?

The Republican party have won in Georgia in the last six presidential elections. On multiple occasions those victories have been by a landslide – in 1992, for instance, George W. Bush defeated John Kerry by 17 points in the state.

But in 2016 Trump’s margin of victory in Georgia was just 5% and Democrat’s believed that the state was in play coming into the 2020 election.

Disappointing initial results from that state tempered Democrat’s enthusiasm, as did Trump’s surprising dominance in neighbouring Florida.

But as further results came in, Democrat’s prospects started to improve. Since around 6am GMT (1am on the US east coast) the race has been even: Trump holds a narrow lead which is being gradually whittled down as remaining ballots are counted in Atlanta, the state’s capital where voters favour the Democrats by large margins.

The processing of remaining ballots has slowed in Atlanta's two most populous counties so with the race on a knife edge and the vast majority of votes already counted, we will have to wait a while for a winner in Georgia.

What has changed in Georgia since past elections?

At each election since 2004, the vote margin in Georgia has converged upon the national vote margin, demonstrating the state’s slow shift from a Republican stronghold to a swing state.

The biggest driver is demographic change. 32% of eligible voters in Georgia are black, compared to 27% in 2000. In contrast, the number of white people without a college degree who are old enough to vote has actually fallen by 80,000 in the past four years.

With a relatively small and shrinking base (whites without a college degree made up just 38% of voters in Georgia in 2016, compared to 45% of voters nationally), you might wonder how Trump can be competitive in Georgia at all.

The biggest factor is exceptional support among that base – in Siena College’s October poll of the state, a whopping 76% of whites without a college degree supported Trump. Unusually, the survey also had Trump leading among whites with a college degree – 52-40.

In other words, Georgia’s electorate is the most racially polarised of all the battleground states. Its demographics and voting preferences have little in common with Florida (high Hispanic population and high elderly population) or Ohio (heavily white) explaining why it was possible for Georgia to leapfrog the two bellwether states.

Another factor that has traditionally benefitted Republicans in Georgia is poor turnout, partly due to voter suppression tactics.

But that has changed in recent years. 54% of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2018 midterms, compared to just 38% in 2014. Turnout in Georgia is projected to be around 65% in 2020, up from 59% in 2016.

What do the results in Pennsylvania so far tell us?

Simply put, not a lot. We should not read too much into Trump’s current lead in Pennsylvania, since the state has primarily reported in-person ballots so far.

In Pennsylvania, more than 1.6 million mail ballots were returned by voters registered with the Democratic party, compared to 600,000 Republican mail ballots, according to the US Elections Project. Therefore, as mail ballots are added to the vote counts in the following hours and even days, Biden is likely to eat away at Trump’s lead.

Officials in Pennsylvania have warned that vote counting will be slow, and the state will continue to process ballots that are received by November 6th, so it could be many days before we know who wins the state.

What has changed in Pennsylvania since past elections?

In 2016, pollsters misjudged Trump’s support in Pennsylvania by 5 points and he sneaked to victory with a margin of fewer than 25,000 votes.

This surprise Republican win was driven by an increase in turnout from white voters without a college education (57% compared to 53% in 2012). Trump won 62% of ballots from white voters without a college education.

He also held ground among white voters with a bachelor’s degree, winning 42% of their votes, down just one percentage point from Mitt Romney’s share in 2012.

In 2020, Trump needs a similarly sized polling error in Pennsylvania. Biden, who grew up in Pennsylvania, has eaten into Trump’s advantage with white voters without a college degree (Trump leads 56-39 among this group according to a poll by Siena College), while extending the Democrat’s advantage among white voters with a bachelor’s degree from 10 points in 2016 to 22 points this year.

Trump is also struggling against a demographic shift that is occurring across the country but is particularly acute in Pennsylvania. Since 2016, the number of white Pennsylvanian’s without a college degree who are eligible to vote has fallen by 430,000, while the number of minority voters and whites with a degree has increased by about the same margin.

What do the results in Arizona so far tell us?

The Democrat’s lead in Arizona is a clear swing from 2016, when Trump won the state by 3.5%.

Crucially, if Biden wins the state, he can just about reach the 270 electoral college votes needed for the presidency without winning Pennsylvania or Georgia, providing that he also wins Wisconsin and Michigan.

What has changed in Arizona since past elections?

A Democratic win in Arizona seemed a long way away in 2008, when the state voted for John McCain 54-45, despite Barack Obama’s 7-point lead nationally. Prior to 2020, Arizona voted Democrat in a presidential election just once in 70 years.

Maintaining such a win streak in a demographically stable state like Louisiana is one thing, but in Arizona, the voters who elected Reagan in 1980 have little in common with those who voted for Trump four years ago. Since 1980, the state’s population has rocketed from 2.7 million to 7.3 million, and just 46% of Arizona residents were born within the state.

Arizona’s demographics have been changing too. In 2016, Hilary Clinton closed the Republican’s lead to just 3.5%, partly due to strong support among the Hispanic population.

Hispanics make up around one-quarter of all eligible voters in Arizona, compared to 15% in 2000. These voters strongly favour Biden – in last week’s Siena College survey of the state, they said they would vote Democrat by a margin of 40 points (66% - 26%).

Arizona was hit hard by the second wave of coronavirus in the US in June, when the state was forced into a second partial lockdown, with bars and gyms forced to close. Overall, Arizona has the highest deaths per 100,000 people of any battleground state.

This toll likely hurt Trump’s chances in the state – 54% of likely voters in Arizona think Biden would do a better job of handling the pandemic.

What do the results in Wisconsin so far tell us?

In 2016, Wisconsin was considered so safely Democrat that Hilary Clinton did not even visit the state during campaigning. But Trump’s support among white voters without a college education had a big impact in the Midwestern state, where 91% of the electorate are white.

By the time the state reported results in 2016, neighbouring Michigan and Iowa had already flipped to Republican. When Wisconsin was declared for Trump, it took him over the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the presidency.

Democrat’s were hoping for a different story in 2020 and dreaming of situation where initial ballots in Wisconsin reflected Biden’s lead in the polls, which would have been clear evidence that a red wave in the Midwest would not be repeated in 2020.

Instead, with 82% of the expected vote reported, there is no clear winner in Wisconsin. Biden’s underwhelming support suggests that he may be struggling on two key battlefronts: regaining many of the Midwest’s white working-class voters who traditionally lean Democrat but defected four years ago, and convincing independents who apathetically sat out the 2016 election to vote Democrat in 2020.

The close race also points to a challenge for Democrats in Pennsylvania, which has a similar demographic profile to the Midwestern states and whose vote tends to be a shade more Republican. Pennsylvania is not expected to publish complete results until next week as it processes a record number of vote-by-mail ballots.

What has changed in Wisconsin since past elections?

There was little separating Trump and Biden in Wisconsin’s polls in early April. Then, as coronavirus swept across America, followed by the George Floyd protests that began in neighbouring Minnesota, Biden pulled ahead, with his largest polling lead of 10 points coming in June.

Following further protests at the police shooting of another African American man, Jacob Black, in the Wisconsin city of Kenosha in August, Trump denounced the “anti-American riots” and claimed to be the only candidate that could maintain law and order, evoking Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign.

But there was little evidence of a silent majority in Wisconsin in 2020. A Siena College survey in September showed that 49% of the state’s likely white voters had a favourable view of the Black Lives Matter movement, compared to 44% with an unfavourable view.

In the same survey, likely white voters said Biden would do a better job handling the protests (47% vs. 45%) and would be better for race relations (53% vs. 39%).

Participants also said Biden would handle coronavirus better (51% vs. 40%), reflecting national dissatisfaction with Trump’s response to the global pandemic.

Trump’s handling of the pandemic became a critical weakness as election day neared, with cases in Wisconsin soaring. In the week leading up to November 4th, Wisconsin reported the third-highest new case rate among all US states.

What do the results in Texas so far tell us?

Younger readers might assume that Texas has been a guaranteed Republican state since it joined the United States in 1845, but the lone star state actually voted Democrat at all but five elections prior to 1980 (the last time Texas voted Democrat, in 1976, it did so alongside Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, while the Republicans won California, Washington and Oregon– if you have not seen the 1976 electoral map it is well worth a look).

In recent decades, Democrats have not come close in Texas: Clinton’s 9-point loss in 2016 was the narrowest margin of defeat in five elections.

Therefore, the Democrat’s defeat – by a margin of 6% based on votes so far – is not a shock. It will however, be disappointing to Democrats that dreamed of winning Texas amid a blue wave of record turnout in the sun belt states.

What has changed in Texas since past elections?

Simply put: turnout. Record turnout is the factor that drove Democrat’s optimism that a victory in a presidential election in Texas was possible for the first time since 1976 was possible.

The 2018 midterm elections hinted at high voter enthusiasm in Texas, with 46% of eligible adults voting, compared to just 28% in 2014.

But the state’s early voting figures were shocking – 9.7 million people voted early in Texas, compared to a total, including on election day, of just 9 million ballots cast in 2016.

Overall, it looks like around 60% of eligible Texans will cast a vote in 2020, up from 51% in 2016 (with 51%, Texas had the fourth lowest turnout in 2016, so while the increase this year is substantial, Texas is still likely to record lower turnout than a number of states, including Florida and Pennsylvania).

This surge in turnout is all the more remarkable considering that neither Trump nor Biden committed financial capital to the state.

With both campaigns believing that the vote in Texas would not decide the election, by late-October Biden had splashed out just $2.5 million on TV ads in Texas and Trump’s campaign had spent less than $200,000. In comparison, the parties have spent a combined $280 million on TV ads in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Texas’s high turnout is emblematic of higher engagement in the presidential election across the country. Recent Gallup polls found that 69% of registered voters were more enthusiastic to vote than in the past and that 77% believed that the outcome of this election mattered more than elections in previous years.

Historically, high turnout has been a good sign for Democrats, since the demographics who are less likely to vote unless they are enthusiastic – young people and ethnic minorities – all favour the Democratic party. This should be especially true in Texas, where 30% of eligible voters are Hispanic (up from 22% in 2000) and the median age is just 35.

However, that dynamic has been complicated by the Republican party’s surge in support from white people without a college education, who also turnout at below average rates, and a mixture of precinct-level results and exit polls suggest that the nationwide increase in turnout is partly due to new voters coming out to vote for Trump for the first time.

More on the US Election...

Six states, six factors that decided the US election

Georgia runoffs: how Republicans lost 140,000 votes in just 62 days

Polarisation in America

VIDEO: Biden cannot reunite America - Republicans can


Other side of the tracks: the racial divisions shaping the Bay Area’s housing crisis