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Election Night: How to Watch the Returns

Election Night: How to Watch the Returns

The election analysis provided by Charles Schwab & Co., Inc., does not constitute and should not be interpreted as an endorsement of any candidate or political party.

One of the most tumultuous campaign seasons in recent history is about to end. Some 25 million early and absentee voters have already had their say, and tens of millions more will visit the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

But don’t expect a quick conclusion. After all, the presidency isn’t the only prize up for grabs. Voters will also be deciding which party controls the two houses of Congress, and it could take a while for the results to become clear. 

For the White House, of course, the key number is 270: That’s the number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules on when to start divvying these up. The major networks tend to hold off saying which candidate won a given state until its polls close, partly because some states span two time zones and thus have different poll-closing times. Other media outlets may be less reticent. And while exit polling data should be enough to make a call in most states, things could get more complicated for the dozen or so battleground states, where the vote counting could run into the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

Perhaps more important to the policy agenda in 2017 and beyond will be who controls Congress. Republicans currently hold a 54-46 majority in the Senate (there are two Independents, both of whom caucus with the Democrats). But 24 Republican seats are being contested on Election Day, while Democrats are defending just 10, so Democrats feel like they have a good chance to capture the majority.

Republicans stand a better chance of holding on to their majority in the House of Representatives, where they currently have a 30-seat advantage. The number of truly competitive districts is relatively small—perhaps just 40-45—meaning Democrats would have to win the vast majority to wrest control from the Republicans. It’s not impossible, but it’s a real longshot.

So, it could be a long night, particularly when it comes to determining the balance of power in Congress. Here’s a primer on what to watch for as election returns roll in. (All times listed below are Eastern Standard Time.)

7 p.m. The first polls close in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. Georgia has voted for the Democrat candidate just once since 1980, and that was in 1992. Trump has been polling ahead here, but the race is closer than expected. If Hillary Clinton wins Georgia, it almost certainly will mean a very long night for Trump.

The most interesting Senate race among these early-closing states is in Indiana. Incumbent Senator Dan Coats (R) is retiring, so this is an open-seat race between former Senator Evan Bayh (D) and three-term Congressman Todd Young (R). Bayh, who is also a former governor, was a late entrant to the race and immediately jumped to a big lead in the polls. But the race has tightened considerably in the last few weeks. Recent polls have shown Bayh with about a four-point lead. If Young were to pull an upset, that would bode well for the Republicans’ chances to retain the majority in the Senate.

7:30 p.m. Polls close in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. North Carolina and Ohio are critical battleground states. In North Carolina, Trump has a slight lead, but five of the last six polls have shown the presidential race to be within the margin of error. In 2008, Barack Obama broke a 32-year losing streak for Democrats there, edging John McCain by 0.3% to win the state’s 15 electoral votes. But Mitt Romney beat Obama here in 2012 by two percentage points. Both Clinton and Trump have campaigned hard in the Tar Heel State.

In Ohio, Trump has held a slight lead in the polls for most of the fall. Victory here is critical to his electoral strategy.

North Carolina is also home to one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate races, between incumbent Richard Burr (R) and former state lawmaker Deborah Ross (D). Averaging the last half-dozen polls taken in North Carolina gives Burr a miniscule lead of 0.8%. This is as true a toss-up race as there is in the country, and whoever wins will give a big boost to his or her party’s chances of securing the Senate majority.

8 p.m. Numbers should start to come quickly now, as polls close in 16 states and the District of Columbia. Among them are three critically important battleground states: Florida, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.

For Donald Trump, the situation is simple: If he doesn’t win Florida, he essentially has no path to the presidency. That’s because 18 states and the District of Columbia are reliably “blue,” meaning they have voted for the Democrat in at least the last six presidential elections.

Combined, those states have 242 electoral votes. If Clinton wins the blue states and Florida’s 29 electoral votes, she’ll be at 271—one more than is needed to win the White House. If there is a “must win” state on the map for Trump, it’s Florida.

Florida is also home to an intriguing Senate race between former presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R) and Congressman Patrick Murphy (D). Rubio, who originally wasn’t planning to run for re-election but changed his mind after his White House bid fizzled, has held a lead in the polls for months. A Murphy upset would be another harbinger of a bad night for Republicans.

Pennsylvania is among those reliably blue states, but it is also home to one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. Incumbent Senator Patrick Toomey (R) is facing a stiff challenge from Katie McGinty (D), who served as an environmental aide to President Bill Clinton and then headed Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. In a state where Clinton has a solid lead in the polls, McGinty has opened up a three to four point lead. But Toomey is a tenacious campaigner, and we expect this one to go right down to the wire.

Finally, there’s New Hampshire, which has another highly competitive Senate race. Incumbent Kelly Ayotte (R) is locked in a razor-thin battle for re-election with the current governor, Maggie Hassan (D). Both women have virtually universal name recognition and are generally well-liked in their state. The race is so close that three of the most recent polls have shown an exact tie. More than any other race in the country, the New Hampshire race may signal which party controls the Senate in 2017.

9 p.m. Polls close in 14 more states. The state to watch in this hour is Arizona. Voters there have voted for the Republican in nine out of the last 10 presidential elections. But Hillary Clinton is making a late push in Arizona after a mid-October poll showed her with a five-point lead. Two more recent polls have shown Trump with a very slight advantage. Flipping Arizona from red to blue for the first time since 1996 would likely mean Clinton was on her way to the White House

10 p.m. Polls close in four states, including Utah, home to one of the most unusual presidential races in the country. In this reliably red state—it hasn’t voted for a Democrat since 1964—an independent candidate, former CIA operative and House Republican staffer Evan McMullin, has gained a significant following by positioning himself as a conservative alternative to Donald Trump. Two late October polls showed McMullin polling at about 30%, just behind Trump at 32% and just ahead of Clinton in the mid-to-high 20s. McMullin didn’t enter the race until August, far too late to get on the ballot in most states, but he will be on the ballot in 11 states.

It’s a highly unlikely scenario, but if McMullin were to win Utah’s six electoral votes, and Clinton and Trump were to divide the rest of the states nearly equally, then it is possible that no candidate would reach the magic number of 270—throwing the race to the House of Representatives to choose the next president.

Nevada’s polls will also close at 10 p.m. This state is a toss-up, according to the polls, and its Senate race is also tight. With Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D) retiring, Congressman Joe Heck (R) and former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) are competing to replace him in a race that is too close to call. Polling has been all over the map: One recent poll showed Cortez Masto ahead by six points, while a second poll had Heck ahead by seven. Expect this race not to be called until the middle of the night for easterners.

11 p.m. Polls close in California, the nation’s largest electoral prize, with 55 votes at stake. California is overwhelmingly Democratic and it could be that this state is the one that puts Hillary Clinton over the line and on her way to the White House.

Midnight. As we head into the overnight hours, the focus will start to turn to which party controls the House of Representatives. The returns for House races tend to come in more slowly than the big national or statewide races. Republicans currently hold a 30-seat majority, and while we think it is unlikely (but not impossible) that Democrats can capture the majority, it is virtually certain that the Republican majority will shrink, perhaps to a single-digit margin. A sweeping Clinton win, however, could put the House majority in play. There are competitive districts across the country, from New England to California, so expect a long night before the final margin is apparent.

Source: Real Clear Politics data as of 11/1/2016.

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Important Disclosures

Please note that this content was created as of the specific date indicated and reflects the author’s views as of that date. It will be kept solely for historical purposes, and the author’s opinions may change, without notice, in reaction to shifting economic, business, and other conditions.

Data contained herein from third party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed. Supporting documentation for any claims or statistical information is available upon request.

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