What To Watch For On Election Night : The NPR Politics Podcast Voting ends tomorrow. It could take time to know results. We talk about what we're watching for, how we'll report who won, and the moments that stood out in a campaign cycle none of us could have foreseen.

Tomorrow, we will be live on NPR.org starting at 7PM ET. We will publish an episode here late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning.


This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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Here's What We'll Be Watching For On Election Night

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SHEILA: Hi. This is Sheila (ph) in Tennessee. You got me through the 2016 election, and I'm counting on you to let me know when it's safe to crawl out from under my covers, where I'm hiding. This podcast was recorded at...


2:13 p.m. on Monday, November 2.

SHEILA: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Enjoy the show.


KEITH: I'd say stay under the covers a little while longer.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Oh, I would say come out from under the covers.

KEITH: I mean, if I could stay in bed right now, I would.


KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: Here we are. Voting ends tomorrow. In the coming days, we could even have results.

Domenico, let's start with you. What will you be paying attention to as the results come in?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, there are some early states that are going to give us some kind of clue about what's going on. So the earliest, you know, poll closing time is 7 o'clock. Virginia is going to come in. And that was an early indicator canary in the coal mine in 2016 that Hillary Clinton wasn't having as good a night or might not have as good a night as her team thought she would because she was underperforming there. Also, North Carolina, Florida - those two states are supposed to be able to count their votes pretty quickly, we're hearing.

And, you know, look; if Joe Biden is able to win a Florida or North Carolina or even Arizona, which - you know, their polls close later, but they're expected to have a lot of their vote in. If he were to win one of those three, you know, it's likely to be a pretty good night for him. On the other hand, if Trump were to win all three, we could - this thing could go on a while.

LIASSON: Yeah. And the interesting thing is even though the polls have been really stable, what we remember from 2016 is that there was a late surge toward Trump, particularly among undecided voters and voters who didn't like either candidate.


LIASSON: And it was hard to pick up. It's hard to poll in the last 24 to 48 hours. But this time, there's just fewer votes that are left to surge because of the incredible number of early votes.

RASCOE: You know, what I will be interested to see is, what has all this early turnout meant in states like Texas and Georgia? We've seen tremendous turnout there. And I just wonder, what is all of that momentum about? You know, Democrats have obviously had their eye on these states. They're still pretty long shots. I mean, you know, but to be able - you know, for Democrats, if they are able to make some type of crack in you know, what has been very staunchly Republican states, strongholds for a long time, that would be a big deal. And like, you know, I'm just interested to see what happens there.

MONTANARO: This may be the biggest difference from 2016 overall is that we're seeing across a lot of red states, you know, President Trump really underperform; places like not just Arizona, Texas and Georgia, North Carolina - places he won. But Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, all these places where he should have big, strong support, he's not seeing the same, you know, levels that he had in 2016. The reason for that is because of his overperformance with white voters, especially white women with college degrees. And if Joe Biden can blow out that margin, it's difficult to see how that won't translate to red counties in swing states, and that is a big path to victory for Biden. You know, the Trump campaign is hoping that all those polls are wrong and that their voters will come out in much bigger numbers to blunt that effect.

KEITH: I'm watching for two things - one, Congress; what happens with the Senate? There are a lot of competitive Senate races. Does President Trump help pull Republicans over the finish line or is he actually pushing them down? And more broadly, the Trump campaign's whole theory of the case here is that they have an incredible ground game, that they are going to turn out their voters on Election Day itself, that, you know, Democrats are just doing all this early voting stuff and all these mail ballots, and we're going to get our people right there on Election Day. That's a really big gamble. And the only way to find out if they're models and their numbers and everything they're telling us is true is to see who actually shows up and votes tomorrow, which is kind of exciting. You know, there is suspense here about who's going to show up. How many people ultimately are going to end up voting? Is this going to be the record-breaker that we're expecting?

LIASSON: And, you know, also, even though Democrats have voted in higher numbers by mail and early than Republicans, we also know that a lot of Democrats got the message recently to not vote by mail, to wait till Election Day.


LIASSON: And we also know among African Americans, a lot of them are worried about voting by mail. And they will tend to vote on Election Day. One of the things I'm watching for are these countrypolitan counties, exurbs...

KEITH: Countrypolitan - this is a new term.

LIASSON: Yeah, countrypolitan, where - you know, Donald Trump did great in the exurbs and in the rural areas, and of course, we've seen the Democrats do really well in the suburbs, especially in 2018. But the exurbs is where Joe Biden is hoping to lose less badly than Hillary Clinton did. And that's going to make a huge difference because Donald - if he does, that means Donald Trump isn't going to be running up the incredible margins in these exurbs, you know, some people call them countrypolitan areas.

KEITH: So, Domenico, what does the path to victory look like here for both candidates?

MONTANARO: Well, for President Trump, you know, the roads are going to go through Florida and Pennsylvania. He needs to win all of the tossup states with that - are all, by the way, within the margin of error right now.

And it's not inconceivable that if they all break in one direction and go his way, that we get to a point where he has a shot to win. He would just have to peel off one more of those states leaning in Biden's direction. And right now their campaign is looking very hard at Pennsylvania and think that could put them over the top. So Florida, Pennsylvania - two states that are key to Trump's path to victory.

For Biden, it's about rebuilding that old blue wall, you know, in the upper Midwest, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and then being able to hold Pennsylvania. If he were to do that, it doesn't almost matter what happens anywhere else if he holds everything else that Hillary Clinton won. And that's why when I look early on to see Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, those states - if Biden picks off one of those, suddenly Trump's path is closed off almost entirely.

KEITH: And because there's been some question in the past 48 hours about whether President Trump might try to declare victory before the results are actually in, I just want to be very transparent about how it will work for NPR and the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. NPR will announce the winner of the race or winners of various states not based on any proclamation from President Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden, but based on calls made by the Associated Press. And they have a very sophisticated system that we have a whole podcast about - about how they make those calls.

LIASSON: Rigorous - sophisticated and rigorous.

MONTANARO: And the AP is sometimes slower than some of the other networks 'cause they don't do projections. They make calls based on whether another candidate still has a remaining path to victory. Now, that doesn't mean all the vote will be counted at that point. In fact, it means the all the vote will not be counted and the vote will continue to be counted over days. In fact, states have days, if not weeks, in many cases, to certify their results.

RASCOE: And that's always been the case that, you know, you don't - we don't declare. Even though we may know who won on election night - I'm not saying that's going to happen this time 'cause we know it could take longer. But, you know, those states haven't certified - don't certify the results for a while. Right.

KEITH: And we are going to take a quick break. And when we come back, our reflections on this year where so much has happened and yet so little has changed.

And we're back. And I was hoping that we could take this moment, as we await actual election results, to think back on what this campaign has been like. I mean, it is certainly not the campaign that any of us expected 11 months ago or two years ago when it got started. I just want to go to this one week in February that I think, had everything else not happened, would've been the craziest news week of the entire year, which was - on Sunday, it was Super Bowl Sunday. On Monday, it was the Iowa caucuses. On Tuesday, the president gave the State of the Union address where he basically laid out his reelection agenda, and it was all about how great the economy was. And he was going to run against a socialist in Bernie Sanders. And then the next day, he was acquitted by the Senate in his impeachment trial - all in one week.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and then a month later, we're, you know, stuck in the coronavirus pandemic, which has continued all the way through. And, you know, I just remember sitting in a hotel conference room awaiting results from Iowa, and they couldn't count the votes. And I just thought, this is a really inauspicious way to start 2020, and I hope nothing like this happens the rest of the year.


RASCOE: Oh, simpler times. Yes.

KEITH: And then my other very strong memory of that time was I think it was March 10. And so it was - Super Tuesday had already happened. I think it was like Big Tuesday or whatever it was called. And both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden - they're the last two candidates in the race - all of a sudden cancel their election night parties and head back home. And it was this moment of, oh, wow, this coronavirus thing...


RASCOE: Is that Buster?

KEITH: Hello, Buster.

LIASSON: Buster, shush.

KEITH: Which is perfect because this is the life we've been living now for the last seven months, which is dogs and children and everything (laughter). We no longer tape a podcast in a studio together. We tape it over a phone call with our dogs and our kids.


KEITH: But it - like, so much changed in that very - that moment, that week. I mean, by the end of that week, we were doing 15 days to slow the spread, and we were all locked in our houses.

MONTANARO: Remember 15 days?


KEITH: Fifteen days.

RASCOE: Fifteen days to slow the spread. And, you know, I didn't have any idea whether this was going to end up being a big deal, whether this was going to be - you know, it felt like it could go either way. Was this really going to be a crisis? Were things really going to shut down? And then, lo and behold, everything did. And not only did things shut down; they stayed shut down. And we ended up, you know - the president himself - the October surprise was President Trump getting the coronavirus himself and being rushed to the hospital.

MONTANARO: And I'm really curious to find out how the coronavirus actually does affect the election. You know, we are going to have those questions in the VoteCast survey about what people thought about all this and how it affected their vote because, you know, there have been a lot of theories. There have been a lot of different ways people think that they can cut this and slice it. And, you know, it's just such a huge variable in an election that we just have never seen before following the kind of election that we'd never seen before in 2016. So it's a lot of volatility and a lot of frayed nerves, frankly, heading into Election Day.

RASCOE: And one thing about it is that, you know, I always think that - we obviously always - as journalists, we want to give context. We want to give the historical kind of analysis. But at a certain point, there - you know, there is no real do-over. Like, 2016 was 2016. It was its own unique thing. And we are in a very unique year. And so, you know, this is its own story and its own path that's going to come out of this. And there'll be other lessons that will be learned out of this election that weren't - you know, sometimes we're always learning the lessons from the last election, but this is a whole new ballgame.

MONTANARO: I think that's exactly right.

KEITH: Yeah. I mean, I feel like in 2016 at this point, we were like, oh, it's almost over. I don't know that we know, but I think this podcast right this second is over. And I hope that you will join us tomorrow night. Check us out at NPR.org at 7 p.m. to listen to our coverage. And of course, we will be back here in your feeds late tomorrow night to share what we know.

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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