Joe Biden has a lead, but it will be close.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 12 minutes.
Where the race stands and what to expect from here. Plus, a request for some patience.
Image: Tangle News / Magdalena Bokowa
What D.C. is talking about.
The election results. Heading into last night, the polling consensus was that Democrats were lined up for a clear-cut victory in the electoral college. High hopes of an early night with a victory in Florida or Texas evaporated quickly, though, as President Donald Trump made inroads with Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade county and won a state that once was a national bellwether by more than three percentage points.
In Texas, a similar trend took place: Trump outperformed his 2016 numbers with Hispanic voters and a surge of turnout across the state handed him a decisive victory, while Georgia and North Carolina also turned in strong early results for the incumbent.
A little after midnight, former Vice President Joe Biden addressed the nation from Delaware, telling supporters he was on the path to victory but urging patience. “It’s not my place or Donald Trump’s place to declare who has won this election,” he said. “That’s the decision of the American people.”
Shortly after 2 a.m., President Trump took a much different tone, insisting he had done enough to secure a victory and claiming there was “a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner,” he said. “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop.”
Then, as Tangle and most other news outlets predicted heading into the race, there was the “red mirage” of in-person vote tallies in the Midwest part of the country. Late last night, early returns in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania looked very good for President Trump. With a little more than 50% of the votes recorded across those three states, he had healthy leads — some larger than 400,000 votes. This was always expected: in those states, in-person votes are cast, processed and reported before mail-in votes, which are usually released later, in large batches, because they take longer to count.
Early Wednesday morning, returns for Joe Biden started coming in from urban areas across Wisconsin and Michigan. Quickly, a new race emerged: Biden’s margin amongst absentee voters in urban areas was even larger than expected. In one particularly representative moment, 169,000 absentee ballots from Milwaukee County were counted and released at once. At that time, Trump was leading in Wisconsin by 110,000 votes. After the drop of those absentee ballots, Biden took a lead of nearly 20,000 votes.
Since then, we’ve seen more of the same. Biden still holds a lead in Wisconsin and has taken over the lead in Michigan, with still more votes to be counted in the Detroit area — almost assuring his victory there. Pennsylvania is within striking distance, but if he holds onto Arizona (which Fox News and the Associated Press have already called for him) and wins Nevada (which will be tight), he can win without Pennsylvania. Georgia, too, is still a toss-up. Here is the current map, as I see it (gold represents toss-ups, so you can see that wins for Biden in Nevada and Wisconsin would get him to 270 electoral college votes).
Down the ballot, Republicans have also far outperformed nearly every expectation before the race. They look poised to hold onto the Senate, though we may not know for sure until Georgia’s races are decided — which could be headed to runoffs in January. In the House, Republicans could end up picking up as many as five seats. While that won’t be enough to take back the majority, most pollsters predicted Democrats would net 5-15 seats and expand their House of Representatives majority on election day.
Both sides have started to embrace two narratives: One, the polls seemed preposterously wrong again in several states that matter. And two, Donald Trump outperformed expectations and is still very much alive for the presidency. What exactly those two realities mean — or how we got there — is already causing much debate.
What the right is saying.
This is a big win for Trump — and Trumpism — regardless of whether he wins the White House or not. The president outperformed expectations of the “experts,” outperformed the polls, and even in a race with massive turnout, he looked like a favorite for certain parts of the night. The Senate currently looks like it will stay red, too.
In The Washington Post, Gary Abernathy wrote that “Trump has once again left the elites flabbergasted.”
“To be surprised by how the night unfolded is to have believed, without evidence, that pollsters had corrected their 2016 errors and that former vice president Joe Biden’s victory was assured,” he wrote. “Regardless of the final outcome, polling itself was possibly Tuesday’s biggest loser. Nationally, so many questions were awaiting answers. Would the aggressive get-out-the-vote ground game of the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee — touted as superior to the Democrats’ — overcome being vastly outspent on traditional television advertising? Were ‘shy’ Trump voters a real phenomenon that pollsters failed to measure? Did the enthusiastic multitudes who turned out for Trump’s final swing-state barnstorming tour reflect growing momentum? Tuesday’s returns seemed to answer each question: Yes.”
In The New York Post, John Podhoretz asked why we still listen to pollsters.
“Donald Trump won Florida by 3.5 points,” Podhoretz said. “In 2016, he won Florida by 1.1. Last night he tripled his margin of victory. And the polling? The final 538 average had Joe Biden winning Florida by 2.5 points. It was off by 5. You’ll hear people say this is a normal polling error, not a systemic failure. Bullbleep. This is the third race in a row (Presidency 2016, Governor and Senate 2018, and this) in which Florida polling was almost comically wrong. That Florida disaster is mirrored in a longer and deeper national story. We’ve lived through a series of national elections in which we were sold a bill of goods—about the Obama reelection in 2012, about the Senate in 2014, about the Trump-Clinton contest in 2016 and about control of the House in 2018. Most polls got all these wrong too.”
The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board took a similar tone.
“So much for the electoral college landslide,” their headline read. “A surge of unexpected votes for Donald Trump has confounded the forecasters—again. Whether it’s enough to carry him to victory in the Electoral College, as it did in 2016, was uncertain at this publication Wednesday morning. But by making the 2020 race close, and perhaps taking it into overtime, Mr. Trump has pulled off a second huge political surprise. At least a few pollsters might be looking for a new line of work… Either candidate had a path to win by our deadline. But it’s already clear that the biggest early losers are the pollsters. The mainstream media polls all had Mr. Biden winning in a walk with a popular vote margin in the upper single digits. They were off in particular on Florida. The outlier pollsters like the Trafalgar Group, often derided by their colleagues, seem to have better judged the electorate.”
On Twitter, Republican and never-Trumper David French said this was exactly the result he had hoped for: a potential Trump loss while Republicans gained in the House and held onto their Senate majority.
“We're moving towards an outcome that satisfies only the smallest micro-slice of American politics -- those of us who wanted to dump Trump and save the Senate GOP,” he wrote. “I didn't think it could happen. Now it might.”
What the left is saying.
It looks good for Biden, and how the race plays out could turn this from a catastrophic night to at least a moderately good one. Many on the left have focused on Trump’s comments, insisting the vote counting be “stopped” and claiming he won, as incomprehensibly dangerous. At the same time, the soul-searching has already begun — and Democrats share the right’s qualms with the pollsters.
“The final result may hinge on the count of mail-in ballots in several Midwestern states, something that could require days to complete,” The Washington Post Editorial Board wrote. “If so, it’s essential that Americans remain calm and patient — and that attempts by Mr. Trump and other Republicans to disrupt or discredit the vote count be rejected…”
“In early results, Mr. Trump performed relatively well, leading the hotly contested states of Florida, North Carolina and Texas,” the board said. “But he was still well short of an electoral college majority, and Mr. Biden was leading in Arizona, a formerly red state. In the potentially decisive states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Mr. Trump was ahead — and in tweets early Wednesday he claimed “a big WIN” and charged that Democrats “are trying to STEAL the Election.” In fact, hundreds of thousands of valid votes are outstanding in those states, and counting them is not theft, but democracy. Mr. Trump’s motive is transparent: A substantial majority of the untabulated mail-in votes come from Democrats.”
In The Washington Post, media critic Margaret Sullivan wrote that we still don’t know who the next president will be, “but after consuming hours of news on Tuesday night, and observing the election results thus far, there are a few things that we can be certain of.”
“That we should never again put as much stock in public opinion polls, and those who interpret them, as we’ve grown accustomed to doing,” she wrote. “Polling seems to be irrevocably broken, or at least our understanding of how seriously to take it is…. The news media, in general, has not done a good job of covering the Latino vote. ‘One day after this election is over I am going to write a piece about how Latino is a contrived ethnic category that artificially lumps white Cubans with Black Puerto Ricans and Indigenous Guatemalans . . .’ tweeted Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times… Trump has been extremely well-served by encouraging hatred of the media. The endless mainstream political coverage and commentary about how his bungling of a deadly pandemic had changed everything and there would be a huge political price to pay? Apparently that missed the mark.”
Others questioned how the Democratic party could be impotent against a candidate like Donald Trump. “Whatever the outcome, Democrats need to think long and hard about how it's so close despite there being overwhelming support for single payer healthcare, mass investment in a clean energy economy, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and other core issues,” Saikat Chakrabarti, the co-founder of the far-left Justice Democrats group, said.
Some on the left suggested that rather than proving Trump made inroads with minorities, this election actually proved that his 2016 win was, in fact, a product of overt racism.
“Wait, so the story is all those totally non-racist white people voted for the white supremacist in 2016 because of economic anxiety and now he's given them 8% unemployment and is taking away Medicare while hundreds of thousands die and they vote for him again because...?” Tamsin Shaw, an NYU professor, tweeted.
At the same time, some folks on the left were taking a much more optimistic tone: pointing out that Biden’s victory still looks likely, that there is even still a path to win the Senate, and that they held their House Majority. If someone had told Democrats all that before the election, these folks have said, they’d have been thrilled — not calling it a ‘catastrophic night’.
There are two ways to look at this. Here’s narrative one:
It’s a catastrophic night for Democrats. Their path to a Senate majority has basically evaporated, and the remaining hope seems like a long shot. They expected to pick up 10 to 15 seats in the House of Representatives and instead they actually lost seats. Donald Trump was supposed to get crushed, and some even dreamed of the election being over Tuesday night. But instead, the race has been very close and anxiety-inducing, particularly for the left. It could, in fact, last for days — and if any of the current slim Biden leads evaporate (like Nevada), however unlikely, the entire map changes, and then it comes down to Pennsylvania. A recount in Wisconsin seems almost certain, too.
Even worse, this result for the left is nothing close to a repudiation of Trump. On the contrary, it could be viewed as an embrace of Trumpism. Madison Cawthorn won his House race in North Carolina and became the youngest member of Congress in the process. His first tweet? “Cry more, lib.” Marjorie Greene, the so-called “QAnon candidate,” won her race in Georgia easily (as expected). Senate candidates up and down the ballot who embraced Trump have so far survived — and at least one who distanced herself from him late, Martha McSally in Arizona, lost badly.
At the same time, cries of “racism” are likely to fall flat. Trump clearly made inroads with Latino voters in South Florida and Texas. So far, he’s doing better with nonwhite voters than he did in 2016 — though we’ll need a lot more in the way of exit returns and data to dig into that. The same goes for the LGBT community, which looks to be voting for Trump at twice the rate it did in 2016. This race had historic turnout and Trump has been competitive in every single battleground state despite the pandemic, the associated economic conditions and the mood of the country. The Gallup polls which showed that 56% of Americans believe they’re better off now than four years ago comes to mind. In the end, it looks as though much of America would rather have a president with Trump’s personality than whatever is coming from the left in the so-called “culture war,” and that should induce some introspection from liberals.
In this narrative, I should also never make political predictions again. I stepped out on some limbs this week, repeatedly telling you all that I like to avoid political prognostication, and now you know why. I called Biden winning Texas and he got crushed. I said I didn’t see a path for Trump and he has nearly forged one anyway, all the polls be damned. I leaned on the election models and the most trusted pollsters and they all seem to have missed the mark considerably — so I suppose I share some of the blame.
Narrative two looks quite different.
In this narrative, Democrats are on the verge of succeeding in the goal they set out to achieve four years ago: unseat Donald Trump. Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nebraska’s 2nd District and Georgia could all flip blue from 2016. There is still a path to the Senate, there was absolutely historic turnout, and Democrats look poised to win all the states they won in 2016 again easily (save Nevada) this time around. By the end of the week, Joe Biden very well may break 300 electoral college votes.
This result would be a clear repudiation of Trump: Senate Republicans survive while Trump goes down in flames. Some early voting results in states like Maine are showing far more split tickets — voters casting ballots for Biden and Republicans — than were previously expected. Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate, currently has more than the margin of difference between Trump and Biden in Wisconsin. And it’s unlikely many of those votes came from the left. Trump will become a one-term president, a rarity in modern U.S. politics, and he’ll be reduced to shouting on Twitter by the end of January.
At the same time, the way he exceeded the polling expectations could be drawn up to something far more sinister than old fashioned Republican economics. The economy is in shambles, and more than 20 million Americans are collecting unemployment. These conditions are not made for an incumbent to win re-election, and yet here we are — and he still has a shot. So what can we deduce from all this? Perhaps it is that there are still huge swathes of the country that will vote for someone who has so mismanaged a national health crisis that he has hurt the economy, simply because that person shows animosity toward immigrants and Muslims and basks in the toxic masculinity of mocking anyone who criticizes him.
In this narrative, I could also claim some strong ground for what I laid out in yesterday’s podcast. The blue firewall in the Midwest looks like it’s going to hold, and Pennsylvania is clearly going to be tight (despite the polling), which lines up precisely with what I said (I predicted Trump would “find a way” in Pennsylvania, even though polls had him trailing). At the same time, I did not see any real chance for Biden to win in Florida — and that state was out of reach before 9 p.m. EST. The final margins in Texas may not be far behind Florida’s, and Georgia may end up being the surprise blue flip thanks to a strong ground game. What I said about needing at least a day or two to sort out this mess has also been prescient, and the red and blue mirages played out almost exactly as I said they would.
We don’t know which of these narratives we’re going to get yet — or if it’s somewhere in the middle — but we will soon. Buckle up for court battles on both sides. We also don’t yet know about the polls, which look terrible at the state level but could be within the margin of error nationally by week’s end. There’s a lot still on the table.
All this under wraps, the biggest major story of the election so far is that shortly after midnight, the president began tweeting that he had “a big win” and that the election was being stolen. When the president sent that tweet, Arizona had been called for Joe Biden, Minnesota was called for Biden, Georgia was favored for Joe Biden, and we had less than half of all the results in the three most important swing states: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Then Trump had a press conference shortly after 2 a.m. inside the White House.
"We are going to win this election, frankly we did win this election," Trump said.
But, as expected, by this morning, Wisconsin and Michigan both looked to be surefire wins for Joe Biden.
The difference in the responses from Biden (who preached patience and confidence last night) and Trump (who said it was being stolen and spent the morning spreading baseless rumors) couldn’t have been more stark, and to me it is the story of the night. At no time in American history has a president so prematurely claimed victory under such an absurd accusation of fraud or shady dealings than what we saw last night. If it was happening in any other country, we’d be screaming about Banana Republics. But it happened here, under Trump, and there is no excuse for it.
Of course, the president’s own language was a walking contradiction. He wanted the counting of votes to stop in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, where absentee ballots are likely to cost him those states, but insisted the counting in Arizona and Nevada continue, where Biden leads but late votes will tighten the race. It’s also true that Republicans have fought to limit vote counting both before and after the election, effectively creating the mess that we’re in now (in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Democrats warned this would happen and fought to start counting mail-in votes before Election Day). Could the strategy be any more transparent or hypocritical? This is all the stuff I tried to flag yesterday and last week.
Until we have a winner, Trump prematurely claiming victory — when he is actually at a clear disadvantage — is the most notable and historic part of what we’re witnessing. And not for good reasons.
Typically, most Tangle editions would go into a reader question or story that matters or some good news of the day here. Instead, I’m just going to share a collection of interesting news bits that have come out of this election so far.
In Florida, the minimum wage was increased to $15 an hour.
In Michigan, Democrats flipped the Supreme Court blue.
In California, voters approved Proposition 22, which will keep app-based ride-hailing drivers and food delivery workers classified as independent contractors.
In California, voters approved Proposition 17, restoring voting rights to all formerly incarcerated citizens.
In New York, President Donald Trump won both Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. In 2016, Trump won in Suffolk but lost Nassau.
In Illinois, residents rejected a “fair tax” amendment that would have introduced a progressive income tax that increased tax rates on those making over $250,000 a year.
In Oregon, voters decriminalized the possession of all drugs and legalized psilocybin (magic mushrooms) for use in therapy.
In Washington D.C., voters decriminalized psilocybin.
In New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota, voters legalized recreational cannabis.
In Louisana, voters passed an anti-abortion measure declaring “Nothing in this constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion, or require the funding of abortion.”
In Mississippi, voters approved a new state flag with red, yellow, and blue stripes alongside a magnolia flower, replacing the 1894 flag that featured a Confederate battle cross.
Republican Cynthia Lummis won a Wyoming Senate seat and will become the first woman to represent the state in the Senate.
Many statewide measures are still playing out across the country.
Quote of the night.
Before the first results came in, Politico wrote this: “No matter who wins, it is likely that we will continue on the trajectory we’ve been since 2000: a country that at the presidential level, partly because of the quirks of the Electoral College, remains competitive, and an electorate that is often more certain about what it doesn’t want than what it does.”
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- 66.9%. The percentage of eligible voters who turned out for the election according to Election Project, the highest turnout rate in an election since 1900.
- 79%. The percentage of Americans who did not expect a winner of the presidential election on election night.
- 20,000. Joe Biden’s estimated margin of victory in Wisconsin, as of 11:30 a.m.
- 38,264. The estimated number of Wisconsin voters who cast a ballot for Jo Jorgensen.
- 13%. The percentage of Black men who voted for Trump in 2016, according to exit polls.
- 18%. The percentage of Black men who voted for Trump in 2020, according to early exit polls.
- 4%. The percentage of Black women who voted for Trump in 2016, according to exit polls.
- 8%. The percentage of Black women who voted for Trump in 2020, according to early exit polls.
- 69,287,830. The number of people who voted for Joe Biden so far in this presidential election, the most ever for a presidential candidate in U.S. history.
- 66,528,764. The number of people who voted for Donald Trump so far in this presidential election.
See you tomorrow.
Hey everyone. There’s a lot we don’t know yet — but we’re going to have much more clarity on all of it tomorrow as the data comes in. We’ll better understand how wrong the polls really were, how wide Biden’s lead might be, if Trump has a path in Pennsylvania or Nevada, and what was the cause for Trump staying so competitive. We’ll also get clearer insights into the key remaining battlegrounds, the Senate races, and how many seats Republicans may have picked up in the House. As I said on the podcast, we all need to exercise patience and be sure to keep an eye out for bad information. Nothing is being stolen, there have been no legitimate reports of fraud or election mishaps, and so far things are actually going quite smoothly. We just need to count the votes. See you soon.