Election 2020

How to Track the U.S. Elections Like a Foreign-Policy Pro

Our reporters guide you on what to watch—and what to watch out for.

An employee watches a broadcast of the final debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the shuttered indoor bar area at The Abbey, which remains open with socially distanced outdoor seating, on October 22, 2020 in West Hollywood, California. Indoor bars remain shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Los Angeles.
An employee watches a broadcast of the final debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the shuttered indoor bar area at The Abbey, which remains open with socially distanced outdoor seating, on October 22, 2020 in West Hollywood, California. Indoor bars remain shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Los Angeles. Mario Tama/Getty Images

At long last, Election Day is here. Whether this election cycle has left you energized or exhausted, there are ways to watch the results while still retaining your sanity and cutting down on the signal-to-noise ratio.

To help you out, Foreign Policy reporters are opening their notebooks to offer some tips on what to watch, how to watch it, and how to understand what’s really going on as the United States chooses its next president. We’re also tracking some important House and Senate races that could have serious impact on Washington’s foreign-policy world down the line, no matter who wins the presidential election—Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

So without further ado, here is how to track the U.S. elections like a foreign-policy pro.


What to Watch

No clear result.This year an unprecedented number of Americans are voting by mail, thanks mostly to the coronavirus pandemic, and that means many states won’t have complete results on election night. As a result, we might all go to bed late Tuesday night without knowing the winner. The New York Times lists every state’s vote counting schedule to give you a better idea when the results can be expected.

The swing states.The 2020 race will likely boil down to a few key swing states. The toss-up ones to watch this year are: Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Other potential battleground states that appear to be leaning Democratic include Nevada, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Trump appears to have the advantage in Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. For the number junkies out there, it’s hard to beat FiveThirtyEight on polling data and analysis.

Can we count on the polls? The 2016 polling errors have created trust issues for a lot of people. Us, too. First, here is a good analysis from the Pew Research Center on what polls can and can’t tell us. Second, Wisconsin Public Radio has a handy explainer on why presidential polls are expected to be more accurate this time around.

Demographic dividend.For the first time in U.S. history, Latinos make up the largest share of nonwhite voters in the electorate (a Latino turns 18 and becomes eligible to vote every 30 seconds in the United States, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by The World). That demographic evolution accounts at least partially for the fact that Arizona and Texas are in play for the first time in years. A rise in the number of Asian American voters in the electorate (including Democratic-leaning Indian Americans) is also contributing to the leftward shift as immigrant communities become more influential in key states.

Read more about important constituencies with roots abroad in Foreign Policy’s Postcards From the Wedge series.


What to Watch Out For

Premature victory laps. Trump has told his confidants he’ll declare victory on election night if things look to be going his way, according to Axios. Trump’s campaign might also argue (falsely) that ballots counted after Nov. 3—valid mail-in ballots that would likely favor Democrats—indicate fraudulent election results. Don’t fall for it. Counting will take time.

Disinformation.Top U.S. national security officials have spent the past four years issuing warnings about disinformation from China, Russia, Iran, or their proxies designed to sow confusion and discord in an already-heated election cycle. Watch for statements from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, or U.S. intelligence community—agencies that track the issue. When it comes to Russia, the Kremlin’s main goal is to sow distrust in the electoral process and to pit Americans against each other. Disinformation experts caution that Russia may seek to amplify both domestic discord and doubts about the integrity of the vote.

Court fights.While the Supreme Court opted not to override extended ballot deadlines in two key swing states last week, Trump’s reelection campaign has pledged to wage a possible fight in U.S. appeals courts to stop Pennsylvania—considered by many analysts to be a tipping-point state in the Electoral College—from counting mail-in votes received after the election. 22 U.S. states allow for late-arriving ballots—which in this election could well affect the outcome of the race.


Beyond the White House

What to watch for in House races:
Democrats are widely expected to retain control of the House. In fact, David Wasserman of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report predicts that the Democratic Party will pick up anywhere between five and 20 new seats. Here are the races that foreign-policy pros should be watching most closely:

Texas 10th District: Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is in a toss-up race against second-time Democratic challenger Mike Siegel, according to the Cook Political Report. (Siegel lost his bid to represent the Republican-leaning district by just over 4 percentage points two years ago).

Texas 22nd: Sri Kulkarni, a former foreign service officer, is running for Congress in Texas’s 22nd District—an area where voters have helped turn Texas from a deep red state to a potential battleground for Democrats.

Texas 23rd: Gina Ortiz Jones, a U.S. Air Force veteran, is in a heated race to gain the sprawling 23rd District of Texas that spans nearly one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border. Republican Rep. Will Hurd, a former CIA officer, announced last year he would not run again.

Michigan 8th: Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and senior Pentagon official, is running for reelection in Michigan. She has been vocal about fears of homegrown extremism and how the hyperpartisan and ultra-politicized atmosphere across the country could become a grave national security threat.

New Jersey 3rd: Rep. Andy Kim, a former National Security Council staffer in the Obama administration, is running for reelection in New Jersey’s 3rd District after winning by a narrow margin in 2018. He is one of a group of national security experts who ditched the Beltway to run for Congress in 2018. He’s also co-chair of the House’s National Security Task Force.

New Jersey 7th: Rep. Tom Malinowski, a former senior State Department official in the Obama administration, is running in a tight race for a second term in Congress. From his perch on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Malinowski has been one of the Democrats’ most vocal critics of Trump’s foreign policy and of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.  

Virginia 7th: Once represented by two-term Republican insurgent Dave Brat (who knocked off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary upset), this suburban Richmond district is now the site of a close fight between Rep. Abigail Spanberger—a Blue Dog Democrat and former CIA official who sits on the House Foreign Affairs committee—and Republican challenger and Army veteran Nick Freitas.

What to watch for in Senate races:
The race for control for the Senate is much tighter. Whichever party wins will have a razor-thin majority, according to projections. We’re not likely to have final results on election night.

Who controls the committees? The Democrats stand a good chance to lead key foreign-policy oversight committees, including the Senate’s armed services panel, where many members are in close campaigns. Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, David Perdue of Georgia, and Martha McSally of Arizona are all in toss-up races. Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan faces a challenge from Republican businessman John James, who has run ahead of Trump in state opinion polls. Likely to lose his seat is Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who also sits on the Armed Services Committee.

South Carolina: A potential game-changer could come in South Carolina, where the well-funded Democrat Jaime Harrison has consistently outraised Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the congressional panel overseeing the State Department’s appropriations. Graham has been one of the Republican Party’s most dogged defenders of funding for U.S. diplomacy and aid amid repeated attempts by the Trump administration to make deep spending cuts.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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