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Uncertain Results on Election Day Lead to Anxious Waiting

Even if Joe Biden reaches the 270-vote threshold to win the Electoral College, the voting returns have confounded so many assumptions about his coalition

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Election Day has turned plural. We’ll likely be here, on the edge of our seats, until at least Friday. Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Nevada continue to count at least a tenth of their respective vote totals. Pennsylvania may take until Friday to finish counting its absentee ballots, which are presumed to favor Joe Biden by decisive margins.

That’s a hopeful sign for Biden’s campaign, which is recovering from a deficit that dimmed his first few hours after polls closed on the East Coast. In the earliest shock to progressives on Tuesday, President Donald Trump won Florida by four percentage points on the strength of his improved vote share among Latinos—notably, Cuban Americans—in Miami-Dade County, denying Biden a state that was crucial to his supporters’ fantasy of a blowout win. Elsewhere in the South, Biden upset Trump in certain suburbs, such as Williamson County in Texas, but broadly failed to surpass Trump’s strongest regional advantage: Trump won Texas by six percentage points, and he leads Wednesday’s latest counts in Georgia and North Carolina by a single percentage point or so. Out West, Biden won Arizona, and he narrowly leads Trump in Nevada, leaving him dependent on the pivotal states where Trump upset Hillary Clinton four years ago: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Though the outstanding ballots in these states seem to favor Biden, they now present his candidacy with excruciating margins and ominous indicators: Trump has already beaten Biden by eight percentage points—the same margin by which he defeated Clinton—in Ohio.

Even if Biden reaches the 270-vote threshold to win the Electoral College, the voting returns have confounded so many assumptions about his coalition. His supposed advantages (compared to Trump, Clinton, and Bernie Sanders) in the Midwest and also Pennsylvania, in particular, provided much of the rationale for his nomination. Four years ago, Trump won Pennsylvania, Biden’s birth state, by 44,000 votes over Clinton despite the state’s support for Democrats in the previous six presidential elections. Biden set out to reconstruct the “blue wall,” which Trump demolished to upset Clinton in the Electoral College. For the past several months, Biden and Trump have campaigned in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, believing these states would prove decisive in a close contest. They were right. But the returns in these states have diverged rather drastically: The ballots cast on Election Day favor Trump, while early voting, including mail ballots—cast in record numbers nationwide and counted at a slower pace in many pivotal states—favor Biden.

The disparity between partisan tendencies in early voting, mail-in voting, and same-day voting, complicates the exit polls, but so far there’s enough evidence to suggest one interesting theme: Trump lost some support among white voters to Biden, and Biden lost some support from nonwhite voters to Trump. It wasn’t just Cuban Americans in Florida. Trump improved his margins among nonwhite voters overall, even if he didn’t win them outright. Biden has fallen drastically short of Clinton’s vote share among Latinos in particular.

Regardless of the result, Election Day leaves Democrats with troublesome questions about the extent to which they’ve overstated the racial polarization of the electorate under Trump; and, if so, what this means for the party’s multiracial coalition. But even then, the exit polls risk overstating Trump’s appeal among groups that he nonetheless lost, by wide margins, to Biden. So who knows! Trump’s immigration restrictions remain unpopular, but they’ve also proved far less prominent in his reelection campaign. He’s appealed to Black voters in crude gestures, but his candidacy has nonetheless exceeded the confidence shown in his predecessor, Mitt Romney, for a presidential candidate leading a Republican ticket. So, strangely, Trump has achieved the most impressive-for-a-Republican margins since George W. Bush’s overperformance with nonwhite voters, especially Latinos, against John Kerry in 2004. The most hopeful trend for Democrats can be found in Trump’s backslide among white voters everywhere, but especially in the Midwest.

It appears Biden will win and confront Mitch McConnell’s enduring Republican majority in the Senate. Republicans ceded two Senate seats, in Arizona and Colorado, but otherwise denied the Democrats the controlling majority, which progressives imagined might empower Biden to eliminate the filibuster and pack the Supreme Court. It is, in some sense, the worst outcome for the widest variety of partisans: divided government gridlocked under a weary, transitional figurehead. Election Day yielded this unsatisfying map, shaded grey in so many critical regions and rendered still more ambiguous in its implications for both parties. Can Republicans really say they’re “winning” with nonwhite voters? Will Democrats ever truly reconcile the suburbs with the working class? So many existential questions, though I suppose it’d be helpful to know who, exactly, won.