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Needle Update: What to Expect on US Election Night

US Presidential Elections 2020 has Donald Trump facing off Democrat challenger Joe Biden | Image credit: Reuters

US Presidential Elections 2020 has Donald Trump facing off Democrat challenger Joe Biden | Image credit: Reuters

If Joe Biden wins even one among the three states Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, he is a solid favorite to win the presidency. If President Donald Trump wins all three, both candidates have realistic paths to the presidency.

For many New York Times readers, the memory of election night in 2016 is inseparable from the image of a semicircular chart that has since become known — affectionately or not — as “the needle.”

The needle analyzes incomplete results to show who is on track to win an election. On Tuesday night, the needle will be back — sort of.

We will have needles for three battleground states, but unlike in 2016, we will not offer a single needle to tell you the overall likelihood of who will win the presidency. Why? The short version: mail voting.

Because of the pandemic, we expect more mail-in votes than ever before. These are often not representative of the final vote totals — this year, we expect them to skew more Democratic than votes cast in person on Election Day. But to interpret results responsibly, we need to understand what has been counted. Unfortunately for the needle, most counties and precincts don’t reliably report their vote by vote method.

Our three “needle” battleground states will be Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, for a simple reason: These states give us the kind of data we need to offer accurate estimates of the final vote. They report the results in unmatched detail, so our estimates might even be better than usual in these states.

Better still, these states count their votes relatively quickly. They have experience with absentee voting, and they close their polls early in the night. Much of the vote in North Carolina and Florida is expected to be counted by 8 p.m. Eastern time.

These states won’t by themselves tell us who will win the election, but they should tell us a lot about where it’s headed.

Here’s an easy way to think about it:

If Joe Biden wins even one of these states, he is a solid favorite to win the presidency. If President Donald Trump wins all three, both candidates have realistic paths to the presidency.

If the results in these states are unclear, or if Trump wins them all, we will have to wait for ballots in some states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. And that could take days.

Why do it?

The needle is a way to tell readers what we know about the results so far.

The core issue is that election results early in the evening are usually not representative of the final vote. Sometimes, only one kind of vote — like mail-in ballots or Election Day votes — has been counted. Other times, reported results are from only one part of a state. You would need to be a bit of an expert to figure out whether a 20-point Trump lead in the early Virginia results is a) to be expected; b) a sign of a Trump landslide; c) actually a sign of an unexpectedly large Biden win.

The needle will let you know when the results suggest that someone is on track to win the election. And when the needle doesn’t know, it will tell you that, too.

Specifically, why can’t you do a national needle?

A lot of it boils down to mail voting.

The needle we published in 2016 was fundamentally simple: It looked at the reported vote to make inferences about the remaining vote, based on the demographic characteristics of each county.

This works well if geography is the primary reason partial results might be unrepresentative. Let’s say, for instance, that rural Virginia has counted its votes but that northern Virginia hasn’t. Northern Virginia’s more urban and Democratic-leaning Washington suburbs have been among the slowest to report in many recent elections. In that case, the needle would say “aha!” and realize that the rest of the vote would be very Democratic. It might predict the Democrat to be in a better position, even though the Republican led in the tabulated count.

This year, an additional reason the results will be unrepresentative is the method of vote count. Our needle needs to know not only where votes remain uncounted, but also whether they were cast mainly on Election Day, early in-person or via mail. For most states, we just won’t have that data in real time.

There are other challenges, like how we’re supposed to know whether all of the votes are counted, especially in states that accept late-arriving postmarked ballots. But the additional problem of not knowing the vote by vote type is the single biggest issue we face this year.

So why Florida, North Carolina and Georgia?

They give us the results broken down by vote method. Problem solved. We’ll have a very good estimate of what kinds of votes are left, in addition to where. Other states just don’t release the data in the level of detail that we need.

Better still, all three states release copious data to let us make these estimates particularly well. They will release the results not only by method, but also by precinct — a much finer level of geographic detail than we’ve typically had. This means that we’ll have a good idea whether the remaining Election Day vote in Miami-Dade County is in a Democratic or Republican part of the county.

These states also release detailed information on exactly who voted early. We can use that, along with our Times/Siena surveys, to have a very good sense of how the results will break down by method.

What are you expecting in these three states?

All three seem like close races, according to preelection polls. Biden may have a modest edge in all three, but Trump won all three in 2016.

Florida counts its votes blazingly fast because election officials are permitted to tabulate the state’s millions of early and mail ballots before Election Day. We might get most of those votes by 7:45 p.m. Eastern time, and we expect Biden to jump to an early lead. After that, we’ll have to wait to see whether Trump will do well enough among Election Day voters to mount a comeback. Our hope is that the needle can quickly figure out whether this is happening.

North Carolina officials expect to report their early votes between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. ET. They expect to report Election Day votes from around 8:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET. So, same story — we’ll expect Biden to jump out to a lead, and then Trump to start to gain ground. Here again, the needle has a chance to quickly figure out how Trump is doing on Election Day. But if it’s a narrow race, a final determination could take a while: The state accepts mail ballots that it receives by Nov. 12.

If the result is fairly clear, the networks may call both North Carolina and Florida by midnight. That’s probably not going to happen in Georgia. It has had a slower count in recent elections, especially in the Atlanta area. But the needle will know what kinds of votes — and approximately how many of them — are still outstanding.

Will you have Senate needles? Two of these states have interesting Senate races, too.

Unfortunately, no. We’re focusing our needle attention on the presidential race. We don’t get many opportunities to test this stuff, and we’re reducing the number of moving pieces to maximize our chance of success.

Can the needle make race calls?

No. The needle does not make race calls or offer definitive statements. As always, race calls or projections will be made by organizations like The Associated Press, CNN and Fox News.

Does 70% mean 100%? Does 90% mean 100%?

No. While most of us have a tendency to round probabilities up or down, 70% really means 70%. When the National Weather Service says the chance of rain is 30%, you still might bring an umbrella with you when you leave the house.

How does it work?

We start the night with a weak expectation of the final result for every precinct, by vote method. An average precinct in one of these states may have around 2,000 voters. If you’re in one of these three states, we have an estimate for how absentee, early and Election Day votes will break down in your neighborhood.

How do we make these estimates? We use our Times/Siena polls to estimate how each registered voter in these states will vote, based on demographic characteristics and whether that person voted early, according to state records. We adjust these estimates to match the preelection polling, and then we aggregate our estimates up to the precinct, by vote method.

Next, the results. Some of our colleagues will be gathering and validating precinct results from hundreds of webpages across these states, in real time. We’ll pass those results off to the needle, which will compare the results with our preelection expectations. If one candidate is doing better than we expect, our expectations for the remaining votes will shift accordingly. The same concept applies to turnout. If the Election Day vote is higher than expected, the needle will expect higher Election Day turnout elsewhere.

As the night goes on, the needle will start to make even more specific inferences. It might be able to glean, for instance, that Election Day turnout is higher in Black precincts than we expected, but not in white ones. Or it might figure out that Trump is doing better in mostly white working-class rural areas, but not elsewhere.

The last step is simple arithmetic: Add together the counted result and our best guess of the remaining vote to get our estimate for the final vote.

How can it go wrong?

One simple way: if we don’t get precinct data. That happened in 2018 during a special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District. We had to turn the needle off. That could certainly happen on Tuesday.

Florida, North Carolina and Georgia have a good track record of reporting these results reliably, but smooth delivery of precinct data is not a sure thing. There are more than 11,000 precincts across 326 counties in these three states, and they are relatively decentralized. In the end, each county’s elections officials are in charge of compiling and releasing election results to state officials or to the public.

We think we’re prepared to handle it if something goes wrong, like if a county’s website breaks. But there are no guarantees: A lot of this is out of our control, and we don’t get a true-to-life test. Things can go wrong. We’ll have to fix bugs on the fly.

And that’s before you start thinking about the needle itself, which is far from perfect. One thing that might happen somewhere: A candidate beats our projection in the absentee vote, causing the needle to drift his way, and then the other candidate beats our projection for the Election Day vote, causing it to snap back. We’ll be cautious until we’ve seen at least some results across all vote methods.

The needle can also miss in other ways. For example, the last precincts to report could have totally different results from the ones that report first, in ways we can’t explain with demographics. This is especially true if we miss a variable — if, say, we forget that Cuban Americans have different voting patterns than other Hispanics in Florida. (Don’t worry, we’ll remember that.)

Or, the needle can simply get unlucky. If, by random chance, a candidate’s very best or worst precincts are the first ones to report, the needle may be misleading. That problem briefly confused the needle in the 2017 Alabama Senate race between Doug Jones and Roy Moore.

For a few minutes, the needle projected Republican turnout to be abysmal — but this was because the first counties to complete their count included some of the weakest Republican turnout of the night. The magnitude of our error at that point was huge — nearly 7 percentage points. But our model quickly realized that Republican turnout was going to be higher in other counties.

We could also get turnout wrong. We could think precincts are done counting or very close to it, when there are ballots left we’re not expecting. Or, we might think there are votes left when there actually aren’t.

How can it go right?

When the needle works well, The Times can give you a more accurate picture of what’s happening than perhaps any other outlet, faster than perhaps any other outlet.

The 2014 version showed Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., on track to win for hours before the reported totals did, even though Warner trailed in the reported vote count until 99% of precincts had reported. The 2016 version picked up some of the first signals in election night data that Trump was on track to win. Multiple needles indicated that Biden was on track to have a strong showing on Super Tuesday in March.

We hope to begin making estimates around 7 p.m. Eastern.

Nate Cohn, Josh Katz, Matthew Conlen, Andrew Fischer, Alice Park, Ben Smithgall, Charlie Smart and Miles Watkinsc.2020 The New York Times Company


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