The Morning Dispatch: Judgment Day

What to watch and what to expect on a historic election night.

Happy Tuesday! Tune in to a special edition of Dispatch Live tonight at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT. Sarah, David, Steve, and Jonah will be breaking down the early election results, and what conclusions we can—and can’t—draw from them. Details here!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • At least 22 people were killed and 22 more were injured in a terror attack on Kabul University in Afghanistan. The shootings, which Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani denounced as a “despicable act of terror,” have been claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.

  • Several people were injured and several more are believed to be dead in what Austria’s interior minister Karl Nehammer called “an apparent terror attack” in Vienna’s Inner City district. One attacker was killed in the exchange of gunfire and the other is “on the run,” according to Nehammer.

  • President Donald Trump alluded to plans to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci—the leading federal infectious disease expert—after the election. Following chants from a Florida crowd to “Fire Fauci,” Trump responded, “Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election.” Joe Biden fired back during a campaign event in Ohio: “Elect me, and I’m going to hire Dr. Fauci, and we’re going to fire Donald Trump.”

  • A November 2 report from White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Deborah Birx leaked to the Washington Post sharply contradicts President Trump’s optimistic tone on the COVID-19 pandemic. “We are entering the most concerning and most deadly phase of this pandemic … leading to increasing mortality,” Birx wrote. “This is not about lockdowns—It hasn’t been about lockdowns since March or April. It’s about an aggressive balanced approach that is not being implemented.”

  • The Vatican reportedly stepped back from Pope Francis’ apparent defense of civil union laws, saying that his comments in the documentary Francesco were taken out of context and do not change the Church’s doctrinal stance on homosexual acts.

  • Hurricane Eta is expected to make landfall today in Central America as a Category 4 storm, bringing flash flooding and destructive winds to Nicaragua and Honduras.

  • Despite widespread concern in recent months over high rates of mail-in ballot invalidation, election officials in many states are thus far finding the share of ballots being rejected is lower than in previous cycles.

  • A federal judge in Texas ruled against a Republican-led effort to invalidate nearly 127,000 drive-thru ballots cast in the Houston area.

  • The United States confirmed 82,761 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 5.8 percent of the 1,417,885 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 540 deaths were attributed to the virus on Monday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 231,507. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 48,470 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

A Morning Dispatch Guide to Election Day

Well, today’s (maybe) the day! President Trump formally filed paperwork to qualify as a candidate for the 2020 election on January 20, 2017—just hours after he was inaugurated. Former Vice President Biden officially threw his hat in the ring a few years later, on April 25, 2019. By this time tomorrow, there’s a chance we’ll know the winner of the election that seemed it would never end.

We include the “maybe” and the “there’s a chance” intentionally—and not just because technically speaking, electoral votes won’t be cast until mid-December. There’s a legitimate chance we won’t have enough votes counted tomorrow night to declare a winner with any degree of certainty. And contrary to what some may have you believe, that’s ok!

“The nation needs to be prepared for the idea that they won’t have a conclusive result on Election Night,” Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose told us last month. “And that’s not a sign that something nefarious is happening. That’s the process playing out as it was designed to play out.”

States always take days, or even weeks, to certify their vote tabulations. “All results are unofficial on Election Night,” North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell said. “We’ll have a certification period that in North Carolina is 10 days, then the counties will meet on November 13, and the state board will meet on November 24 to certify results.”

But in certain states, even those unofficial results may come in slower than usual tonight, due in large part to expanded absentee and mail-in voting and laws preventing election officials from counting those ballots prior to Election Day. Administrators in key battleground states Pennsylvania and Michigan, for example, have cautioned that their states may not have complete unofficial results until Friday. “Now, we may be making announcements before then, we may even be done sooner than that,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told us last month. But she added that she’s “trying to manage everyone’s expectations so that they know what to expect.”

Some counties and states have indicated they will count in-person, Election Day votes before turning to mail-in and absentee ballots. Others will have the bulk of their mail-in ballots ready to go right as the polls close. Because of the voting-method partisan gap that’s manifested in recent months—Republicans more likely to vote in person, Democrats more likely to vote by mail—early tabulations may lead to what experts have deemed “blue mirages” or “red mirages.” If Florida looks deep blue right at 7 p.m.—or Pennsylvania ruby red an hour later—give it a minute. All the ballots will be counted.

The Trump team is already trying to cast doubt on this process. Senior campaign aide Jason Miller told ABC News on Sunday that “many smart Democrats” believe that “President Trump will be ahead on Election Night, probably getting 280 electoral [votes]” and speculating that Democrats will then “try to steal it back after the election.” President Trump tweeted last night that the Supreme Court’s decision on voting in Pennsylvania “will allow rampant and unchecked cheating” and “will also induce violence in the streets.”

The decision, of course, does not permit cheating of any kind.  This is not remotely how the process works. 

“Hey guys, please ignore this type of garbage,” Utah’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox said in response to Miller’s comments. “The truth is that elections are never decided on election night. In Utah (and most states) it takes 2 weeks to finalize counting and certify results. It really doesn’t matter who is ahead on election night, it only matters when every eligible vote is counted and each county canvasses and certifies the vote totals.”

Does this mean we won’t know the winner until Friday?

Not necessarily—and in fact, it’s quite possible we will have a general sense of the outcome tonight if things break a certain way. Here’s what you should be paying attention to as polls close.

Generally speaking, there are eleven states that will be key to determining which candidate hits the 270-vote Electoral College threshold: Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nevada, and Arizona. Without those states, Biden has 217 electoral votes in the bank, and Trump has a little over 164. Therefore, Biden can effectively block Trump’s path to 270 by securing just 53 of the remaining 157 electoral votes up for grabs—and the former vice president is favored in nine of those eleven states. Trump, meanwhile, has to come close to running the table in those 11 states to secure four more years in the White House. (Texas is a swing state this year too, but if Biden wins there, Trump’s path goes out the window.)

So what will we know tonight? Not Pennsylvania, and not Michigan; this is why Biden’s campaign manager felt comfortable saying “under no scenario will Donald Trump be declared a victor on Election Night.” (Trump has reportedly told advisers he is considering declaring a premature victory if it looks like he’s “ahead” on Tuesday night, charges he later denied.)

But if Biden is comfortably ahead in two or more of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, or Arizona—all of which will have a sizable portion of their ballots counted tomorrow night (click that link, it’s a super helpful FiveThirtyEight guide to results timing by state)—Trump is in real trouble.

When you’re watching the returns come in, we recommend you go either directly to Secretary of State websites themselves or reliable aggregators like Decision Desk HQ, Associated Press, and Fox News. Be wary of websites or TV anchors claiming 100 percent of votes are in if outstanding mail-in ballots remain. Ignore candidates declaring premature victories. We have an incredible system of elections across the 50 states—and their administrators are confident the results will be fair and accurate. Be patient, and let the process play out.

Beware Election Disinformation

To quote the late Steve Jobs, “there is one more thing.”

Back in August, Declan wrote a piece about “the coming wave of disinformation,” and how bad actors—both foreign and domestic—may work to sow seeds of doubt about our electoral process. Experts warned him of misleading viral videos purporting to show voter fraud, or voter suppression, or voter intimidation. “An awful lot of the time, if you reverse search the video or the photo, you find out it happened five years ago in a different country,” said Ben Nimmo, the director of investigations at Graphika, a network analysis firm.

Declan checked back in with Nimmo yesterday. Here’s what he had to say:

The main thing to watch out for on election day and in the immediate aftermath is false claims of election violations that could be designed to de-legitimize the outcome. There’s been a tiny verified volume of election fraud in the past few electoral cycles: it’s much easier to make a false claim of fraud than it is to actually commit it. In the same way, we might see foreign influence operations trying to claim that they’ve already swung the election. It’s much easier to claim that than to do it. 

The most important thing for people to do is just be wary. Don’t take lurid claims of interference or fraud at face value. Don’t share dramatic stories. It will probably take longer than usual for the results to become clear this year, because of the volume of postal voting. There will be the temptation to spend every minute looking for updates. Instead, step back. Influence operations try to make people angry or afraid, because that’s when they’re easiest to manipulate. The best response is to be wary, and not over-expose ourselves to every minute of the news cycle.

You heard the man! As you go about your Election Day activities, be sure to slow down and verify what you’re sharing—not everything is what it may appear at first glance. And if all else fails, send stuff our way and we’ll get our Dispatch Fact Check team on it.

What Sarah’s Watching

One of our favorite additions to the Dispatch menu of options in recent months has undoubtedly been Sarah’s twice-weekly Sweep newsletter focusing on campaigns and elections. Today’s edition won’t be her last one—there will be plenty to Mop Up in the coming days and weeks—but it might just be her magnum opus. In it, she breaks down 19 different counties she views as bellwethers for the presidential election, as well as 15 different senate races to keep an eye on as the next few days unfold.

There’s too much good stuff in there for us to include all of it, so we highly recommend you take the time to read the whole thing here and keep a copy with you as watch returns tonight. Here’s her sneak peek of the counties that could tip Florida:

Florida

The FiveThirtyEight polling average shows Biden up 2 points in Florida—within the margin of error—but the momentum has been with Trump. Trump does not have a realistic path to a second term without Florida; Biden does. Florida has four counties that flipped to Trump from Obama in both of his elections, and we’ll look at each of them below. 

Pinellas: Out of all the counties on this list and in this country, this is the one to watch for me, because if Trump wins Pinellas, he’s won Florida and we’re in for a long night (month?). This county is in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, and with more than 450,000 votes up for grabs, it’s the largest of the counties in Florida that flipped for Trump. Obama won this county both times—by eight in 2008 and by six in 2012—and Trump won it by just over a point in 2016. One recent poll of this county has Biden winning by more than 13 points. But in 2018, Andrew Gillum, the Democrat running for governor, and Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat running for reelection, both won this county—albeit by small margins—despite losing their elections.

St. Lucie: Tucked between Orlando and Miami on the Atlantic side, with around 150,000 voters, St. Lucie is part of what’s called the Treasure Coast. Obama won this county by 12 (‘08) and eight (‘12) points and then Trump won it by just over two points in 2016. But just like Pinellas County, this county voted for both Gillum and Nelson in 2018.

Jefferson County: Unlike Pinellas and St. Lucie, Jefferson County, which neighbors Tallahassee on the east, flipped after going for Democrats in 2008 and 2012 and stayed that way in 2018. In fact, Trump won the county by five points in 2016 but Ron DeSantis, now the Republican governor of Florida, increased that lead and won it by almost seven points two years later. Even though there are only around 7,000 voters in the county, it will be a bellwether that Trump will almost certainly need a win to stand a chance of taking the state.

Monroe County: Welcome to the Florida Keys. Believe it or not, these 35,000 or so voters may make the difference in 2020. Despite Obama’s back-to-back victories in the county, Trump won Monroe County by a comfortable seven  points. In 2018, Democrat Bill Nelson won the county by 16 votes (you read that correctly) and Republican Ron DeSantis won it by 1,333 votes. Keep an eye on this one; it could be a squeaker!

Worth Your Time

  • Still haunted by the state polling errors from the 2016 presidential race, many Democrats fear that Trump will defy the odds again and emerge victorious this week, despite a preponderance of data suggesting otherwise. But Trump-friendly Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center Henry Olsen thinks that these concerns among Democrats are completely unwarranted. “Democrats need not fear,” he writes. “This, my sixth published biennial election prediction essay, is perhaps my easiest: Former vice president Joe Biden will win comfortably unless we experience the greatest polling failure in modern history. Democrats will also gain control of the Senate and expand their majority in the House.”

  • Or will they? Although Biden has maintained a steady national polling lead over Trump for months now—and still carries most battleground states by a comfortable margin—FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver is here to remind us that Trump can still win. The incumbent’s reelection chances are veryslim, but as Silver points out in a must-read piece, a 10 percent chance of winning the Electoral College is not zero. “All the election models are bullish on Biden,” he writes, “but they are united in that a Trump win is still plausible despite his seemingly steep deficit in polls.”

  • In what has been alternately referred to as poll-watching and voter intimidation, the Trump campaign is making a last-ditch effort to recruit supporters for an organization called the Army for Trump. It may not matter—Trump could win outright, or Biden could. According to The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, the group is tasked with policing local voting sites and compiling video and photographic evidence of any perceived suspicious activity—and the campaign may have motives for collecting such material beyond just ensuring electoral honesty. “If the president decides to contest the election’s results, his campaign could let loose a blizzard of misleading, decontextualized video clips as ‘proof’ that the vote can’t be trusted.”

Something Fascinating

It’s no secret that media and information ecosystems are siloed off nowadays. There’s no longer a Walter Cronkite figure that everyone trusts; people are able to find thinkers, writers, and commentators that affirm their own beliefs.

It’s worth spending a few minutes playing around with this online tool, created by Tristan Edwards, to see how this phenomenon manifests itself in reality. You can filter through different media “bubbles”—from liberal to conservative, socialist to alt-right—and better understand how people can reach the conclusions that they reach depending on what media they consume. 

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In their Election Eve episode of the Advisory Opinions podcast, David and Sarah  break down some pivot counties in key swing states and talk through the 15 Senate races they’re watching closely this week. Plus, a controversial election lawsuit in the Lone Star state.

  • Assuming you haven’t already had your fill of horse-race stuff by now, Andrew and Audrey both have pieces up at the site today diving into unexpectedly tight Senate races: Kansas and Montana, respectively.

Let Us Know

You know those cheesy questions moderators like to ask candidates at the end of debates? We’ve got one.

Name one positive thing that would come from the candidate you are not supporting winning the election.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).