The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to the most special Surge of all, the Surge of all Surges, Election Day Surge.


What can we say? The numbers look great for Biden. He led Trump comfortably for the entirety of the race. We detect no major problems under the hood. Polls of states and districts, and the generic congressional ballot, all tell the same story: Trump is off his 2016 pace, across the board, by 5–10 points, and hurting down-ballot candidates. There are fewer undecided voters than there were in 2016, mitigating Trump’s ability to ride a wave of late deciders to victory. There are also fewer third-party voters than there were in 2016, mitigating Trump’s ability to win with sub–50 percent totals. FiveThirtyEight’s model shows Trump has a 1-in-10 chance.


And yet you—yeah, YOU!—think it’s definitely going to be that “1” that we see, don’t you? You’re expecting all the polls to be off, even worse off than they were in 2016, in all the wrong places, for no rational reason. You are an absolute wreck right now, losing your mind, drinking, nervously eating leftover Halloween candy that you bought for trick-or-treaters because you’re too thick to realize most kids wouldn’t trick-or-treat in a pandemic. You think that you haven’t figured out how the polls are off, despite spending the past four years investigating. Yeah, that’s you, all right. It is you doing this, and not us, the Surge, projecting.


Anyhow, here are the seven things you gotta watch out for today. 

Donald Trump and Joe Biden campaign, arms outstretched toward each other, in front of blue and red shapes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Joe Raedle/Getty Images and Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Rank 1

1. A Democratic breakthrough

Has the Sun Belt finally arrived?

A simple explanation of Donald Trump’s win on election night 2016 is that the North and Midwest were trending red faster than the Sun Belt was trending blue. That allowed Trump to maintain holds on traditionally red states like Georgia, Texas, and Arizona while picking up Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and nearly taking Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire. If we were hacks intent on finding a poetic justice to bookend the Trump era, we’d observe that the opposite could happen this time to make Trump a one-term president. Good news, folks: We’re hacks! Joe Biden has the opportunity to do to Trump what Trump did to Clinton in 2016: hold down traditionally blue states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maine, and New Hampshire and convert Arizona, Georgia, and—don’t rule it out!—Texas to the cause. We are not waiting to see if Tuesday night shows a “realignment.” This realignment is underway and has been underway for years. Tuesday is just our biennial check-in on how far along it’s gotten.

Rank 2

2. Battleground Pennsylvania

There’s a reason the campaigns are living there.

But enough with the Sun Belt! (For a hot second.) Let’s talk about the center of the universe. Joe Biden has visited Pennsylvania more than any other state, by some distance. Mike Pence and Donald Trump held three events there on Monday. The reason is very simple: It’s the state most likely to tip either campaign over 270 electoral votes. Trump’s simplest (and perhaps only) path to victory, which requires systemic errors across national, state, and district-level polling of a greater magnitude than the 2016 errors, goes like so: Trump holds everything he won in 2016 except Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska’s 2nd District. That would give him 279 electoral votes and a win. If he loses Pennsylvania, he has 259. The end. Now: To say we’ll be “watching for Pennsylvania on Election Day” is only partially true. We will be watching it just to see what absurd lawsuits the president’s campaign files to stop votes from being counted there. But we don’t expect a result in the state for a while. So please: DO NOT PANIC ABOUT PARTIAL PENNSYLVANIA RESULTS ON ELECTION NIGHT.

Rank 3

3. Biden backup plan No. 1

Hint: It’s Arizona.

Let’s say the polls are garbage again and underestimate Trump’s strength among white working-class voters in the North and Midwest, and Biden picks up Michigan and Wisconsin but doesn’t take Pennsylvania when it’s eventually counted. Biden’s next best chance, then, might be Arizona. Pollsters undershot Democrats in the state in 2018, and its demographics look nothing like those of the Midwest—meaning, this is where Biden can win without the white working class, if he gets enough Latino and suburban women votes. In this case, Biden holding all Clinton 2016 states and adding Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Nebraska’s 2nd District would give him … drumroll please … 270 electoral votes to Trump’s 268. Arizona has a well-established mail-voting process too, and we should get a decent sense of the returns on election night. This may be the state where you, a vomiting basket case on the verge of a psychic break, will either take solace late in the night or completely lose it.

Rank 4

4. Flooooooooorida

Do not let this state control your brain.

Thinking about Florida elections makes Democrats want to DIE. It broke Democratic hearts in 2000, of course. It also broke Democratic hearts in 2016, but so did a lot of states. Florida then had the nerve to be the one state that broke Democratic hearts in 2018 in an otherwise splendid year. This history is part of the reason why election obsessives (that’s you) don’t quite believe, say, the 2-point Biden win forecast on FiveThirtyEight, and it’s also why the alarms about lagging turnout among the low-propensity voters Democrats need in Miami-Dade County have been sounded. The Surge, despite having zero solid evidentiary reason to believe that Trump has a better shot than the candidate narrowly leading in the polls, also doesn’t trust this state whatsoever. Like Sabato’s Crystal Ball, we feel weirdly more confident about Georgia than Florida. Here’s the good news about Florida, though: If our superstitions are correct and Trump carries it, that’s OK! It is not vital to Biden’s electoral math. Once again: If Biden can hold Clinton states and take Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nebraska’s 2nd District, he needs only one of the following states to win the election: Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, or Texas. What happens in Florida, with its complex and unique set of voting blocs, does not tell you what will happen in those other states (and if Biden does win Florida, Trump is finished).

Rank 5

5. The Senate

Do we have a new tipping point for control?

Want to hear something “mad funny”? What if Joe Biden won the presidency but Republicans kept the Senate? Buddy, it’s not just that he won’t be able to pass a public health insurance option—he may not even get a secretary of health and human services in this scenario. So, one last time, let’s run through the situation: If Biden wins, Democrats need a net pickup of three seats to take control of the chamber. And since Alabama Sen. Doug Jones is going to lose, that means they need four flips. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner is done in Colorado. Republican Sen. Martha McSally is very close to being done in Arizona. Democratic sex-haver Cal Cunningham has been polling pretty well against incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis in the waning days of the North Carolina race, despite/because of the sex. So that’s three. The deciding race, then, looks like it could be our old friend Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, who is narrowly trailing Democratic challenger Sara Gideon. What we’d like to do in closing, then, is give you a vision of hell: Collins wins, leaving a 49–49 tie as we wait on two (2) Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5. Anyhoo …

Rank 6

6. The House

Hooray, a single entry that won’t make you hyperventilate.

Over the next month, as you watch Justice Samuel Alito personally visit Pennsylvania election offices to shred Joe Biden ballots on national television and you again invest all of your emotional energy into the political abilities of Jon Ossoff, rest assured that there is one body of power in the United States that does not appear to be up for grabs. Democrats are predicted not just to take the House of Representatives but to expand it. The Cook Political Report’s final forecast suggests that Democrats will pick up 10–15 seats on net, and they already have 232. In fact, the only Democratic seat that Sabato’s Crystal Ball lists as “Lean GOP” is Rep. Collin Peterson’s broad, rural Minnesota district in which Trump is expected to crush. So if you want to guarantee yourself a soothing night, pretend that there’s no presidency and no Senate—a slice of heaven!—and the only legislative body in the country is the House of Representatives.

Rank 7

7. Patience and fortitude

You can do it.

This is our last Surge entry of this stupid election and the only one in which we will be completely earnest. The president and his campaign are straightforwardly announcing that they will seek to invalidate the will of the voters if it’s not in their favor (it’s not). If the race is close, they will sue to stop the acceptance and counting of mail ballots that lean Democratic in key states, and they will hope that the revamped, conservative federal judiciary goes along with it. On the PR front, Trump will “declare victory” on Tuesday night and claim that any “blue shift” in vote counts amounts to Democrats “stealing” the election. This strategy is dangerous and offensive, and no one on the Trump campaign should be welcomed in polite society ever again if they attempt it. The narrative is not legitimate, and any journalistic outlet that treats it as real or worth considering has failed at its job. Don’t give an inch.