The Most Important Swing States to Watch on Election Night, Ranked

Playing with the FiveThirtyEight interactive map simulator.

It’s the evening of November 3, 2020 — or, a day or week after — and the election returns are trickling in. When states are called for one candidate or another, how can you tell if that’s good or bad news for the Biden campaign?

Poll aggregator and electoral statistical analysis hub FiveThirtyEight released their interactive map simulator that lets you explore the various ways Biden or Trump can draw a path to victory. We played around with it this morning to give some insight as to how the percentages change as certain swing states are called for one candidate or another, and we’ve ranked how Biden’s odds of winning increase or decrease certain states go one way or another. Below, we’ve ranked how the numbers shift.

Where the Race Currently Stands

FiveThirtyEight currently estimates Joe Biden — up 10+ percentage points nationally, yet heavily drawing upon state-level polling in their analysis — with an 88% chance of winning the Electoral College count. That’s a decent lead, yet not airtight.

Naturally, given the stakes of this election and wide disparity between what a second Trump term and a first Biden term would mean for the health of democracy and the nation as a whole, people have plenty invested in how states are called. We’ve played around with each state to see how those percentages changed and ranked them via our Worry Index. (Calculated by subtracting the likelihood of Biden victory given any individual state’s outcome one way or the other, on [or after] election night.)

First Tier: Low Worry Index

14. Texas (100% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 82% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 18)

13. Georgia (100% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 77% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 23)

12. Ohio (100% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 77% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 25)

These three states are “gravy states.” Texas and Georgia are traditional Republican strongholds in the sunbelt, Ohio’s a swing state that’s swung more red in the past decade.

Texas, with its enormous electoral vote haul, is the crown jewel, yet one that — although newly minted this cycle as a swing state — Biden’s expected to come close in, although not expected to win.

Georgia’s 16 electoral votes are a bit more of a toss-up, with polling currently suggesting a dead-heat in the state, and FiveThirtyEight projecting even-money chances for both candidates. Should Biden carry this state, it bodes well he’ll also carry sunbelt swing states like Florida and North Carolina (see below).

Similarly, the margins in Ohio (18 electoral votes) are razor-thin and either candidate’s equally likely to win. If Biden wins Ohio, it suggests he’d also win demographically similar Rust Belt states like Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

All three states, should Biden carry them, mean the election — barring any irregularities, judicial or extrajudicial challenges mounted by the Trump campaign — is in the bag if Biden wins them, but his chances of losing the whole thing don’t drop considerably should they be called for Trump.

Second Tier: Medium Worry Index

11. Arizona (98% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 65% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 33)

10. North Carolina (99% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 64% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 35)

9. Florida (99% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 60% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 39)

8. New Hampshire (93% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 52% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 41)

7. Nebraska’s Second Congressional District (96% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 55% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 41)

Arizona hasn’t swung Democratic since the Goldwater days — back when party affiliation was essentially flipped demographically —but its sprawling population in the Phoenix metro area and increasingly young electorate means the state’s ripe for democrats this year. Biden doesn’t need to carry it to have a good chance of winning, but he’s currently slightly favored to win it and doing so would greatly solidify his standing as an election night favorite overall.

Barack Obama carried North Carolina by 0.3% in 2008, but otherwise, the state’s leaned Republican since the Reagan revolution. This state’s a genuine toss-up with Biden listed as a slight favorite to carry it again.

Florida’s everyone’s favorite — and I use that term semi-ironically — wildcard in election math, and with 29 electoral votes, it’s a damned important one. After Trump carried Florida in 2016, Biden’s made significant inroads to shade this state light-blue, even if the state — despite its perpetually shifting, growing, highly polarized and unpredictable electorate — leans more red than the country overall and less blue than one would expect given its wealth of diverse population centers. You’d expect this state to rank higher on the list than it does given its noteworthy bellwether status. It does not.

New Hampshire, while not electorally important (4 EVs), will send out an outsized signal as to how the night’s going. This perpetually independent, libertarian, and sparsely populated (and very white) state — similar to (yet a bit more blue than) Alaska —is polling for Biden, yet well within the margin of error.

The same could be said for Nebraska’s Second Congressional District — Nebraska and Maine split their electoral votes by precinct, in addition to allocating two statewide — it’s one electoral vote, yet it will tell us a decent amount about how the night could shape up overall.

Third Tier: High Worry Index

6. Colorado (90% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 35% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 55)

5. Nevada (94% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 35% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 59)

4. Minnesota (93% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 29% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 64)

Colorado’s shifted from red to blue over the past four decades. This is because of the growth, diversification and youth influx of its several-million strong Front Range megalopolis [Fort Collins, Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Pueblo]. Biden is polling at a double-digit lead there currently, so it doesn’t move the needle much for Biden if he wins, but it would be fairly damaging if Biden somehow loses a state he’s clearly favored to win.

On the other hand, Nevada’s very much in play for both candidates — with Biden slightly favored to win, yet less overwhelmingly so than he is in Colorado. Biden’s performance in Nevada correlates a little bit with his performance in Arizona, so a good night for him in the desert boosts his chances overall.

Minnesota forms part of the Rust Belt “Blue Wall” — more on that below — yet it’s generally the bluest of the bunch. [Biden is currently projected to carry it by about eight percentage points, similar to his forecasted nationwide popular vote margin.] A Trump win in Minnesota would be a huge upset, and suggestive of a hard break in the Upper Midwest.

Fourth Tier: Severe Worry Index

3. Pennsylvania (97% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 25% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 72)

2. Wisconsin (96% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 23% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 73)

1.Michigan (93% chance of Biden EC victory if Biden carries, 19% Chance of Biden EC victory if Trump carries, Worry Index: 79)

Speaking of the Upper Midwest: Here’s the “Blue Wall” states, loaded with white working-class voters in the suburbs and rural areas, featuring at least one — two, in Pennsylvania’s case — major dark blue metropolitan areas. These are the lands of the Obama-Trump voters (all three broke slightly unexpectedly for Trump in 2016), and the reason they’ve held such an outsized strategic importance, with their 46 pivotal electoral votes between them.

Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes, is projected to be the likeliest “tipping-point” state [the state that grants the winner their 270th electoral vote] for the election, and has been since the Spring. Biden’s been up between 3–8 percentage points since June, and is projected to carry the state by about 6. Should he win it, it increases his chances of overall victory to 97%. Should he lose it, he drops down to a 1-in-4 chance. Here, turnout will win the shouting match between — as political strategist inelegantly opined — “Pittsburgh in the west, Philadelphia in the east, and Alabama in the middle.”

Wisconsin, the Upper Midwest-ist of Upper Midwest states, has polled fairly consistently in Biden’s camp for the duration of the general election. That said, its the second most likely “tipping-point” state, and it ranks second on the Worry Index, due to Biden’s projected winning margin of 6.7 points, and the states significant correlation with the aforementioned Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A loss in Wisconsin would be just as devastating of a blow to Biden’s electoral chances as a loss in Pennsylvania — although it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Biden wins one state but not the other. So, your level of concern will heighten based mostly on which state’s called first.

That leaves Michigan — a state in which Trump carried in 2016, but Biden’s projected to win by about eight, and currently leads in the polling average their by eight. A loss in Michigan for Biden is the surest sign the vote won’t go Biden’s way, and would be both a massive upset and a catastrophic loss, precisely because there’s been little reason to worry — by swing state standards — about Biden’s performance here. He’s projected to finish better by margin in Michigan than he is in any other state listed here besides Colorado and New Hampshire, both of which combine to form a lower electoral vote count (13) than Michigan’s 16. Plus, Michigan’s margin correlates with neighboring Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota, which combine with Michigan to form a block of 84 electoral votes … equal to California plus New York and far less reliably blue.

There’s 13 days left and there’s still the potential for change in the overall race, although this election features: fewer undecided voters, fewer third-party voters and heightened electoral polarization, so the race has been remarkably stable despite the extreme instability of the news cycle.

As it stands, Biden has [again, according to FiveThirtyEight] a 6-in-7 chance of winning the election. On election night 2016, Hillary Clinton held a 7-in-10 chance of winning. And while the relative strength of Biden’s position and relative stability of this race may be cause for encouragement, it’s no substitute for active engagement. It’s reason to be cautiously confident, yet no reason to be certain.

After all, if you load a bullet in a revolver, spin the cylinder at random … would you point it at your head and pull the trigger? Our odds of survival are the same, until the chambers are all empty and the gun’s been safely locked away … for another four years, anyway.

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Essayist and storyteller on life, liberty and the battle for happiness. Several million served. Words at Human Parts, Forge and PS I Love You. IG: heygorman

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