US General Election Explained: Campaign, Voting and Results

All you need to know as the world’s largest economy gets set to elect a president and vice president, a House of Representatives, 35 Senators and 13 governors on November 3, 2020.

The United States general election is seven days away. Around 234 million Americans are eligible to vote in the current presidential election, held every leap year. Either incumbent Republican president Donald Trump will be re-elected, or Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr will be the country’s 46th president. The entire electorate chooses the president, making it the most powerful elected office in the US. The president heads the executive branch of the government. Elected along with the vice president on the same ticket, the president appoints the remainder of the executive branch (cabinet), guides much of US domestic policy and has complete control over foreign policy.

Though a number of factors including a global pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, and the nature of seats facing re-election have combined to create a tougher political landscape for Republicans in 2020, the outcome of the presidential election is not certain. Opinion polls heavily favour a Biden victory in an election widely seen as a referendum on Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden outraised Trump 3-to-1 in the weeks before the election. More money and popularity are not enough to win a presidential election, though. Hillary Clinton also outspent Trump 3-to-1 and won the popular vote in 2016, but lost the election.

Also read: Even If Trump Refuses To Accept Defeat, American Democracy Will Survive Intact

The US has a multi-party system but the presidency, like most federal elected offices, has been dominated by the Republican (Grand Old Party, or GOP) and Democratic parties for 150 years. These two accounted for 94% of the vote in 2016 and 98% in 2012. In 2020, other party presidential candidates include rapper Kanye West of the Birthday Party. US voters can also ‘write in’ the name of any person not on the ballot as their choice for President. Write-in candidates in the past have included Mickey Mouse and Harry Potter; a more common choice is Jesus Christ.

The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will also be elected in November. Together, the House (lower House) and Senate (upper house) comprise the two chambers of Congress, the legislative branch through which all bills must pass before being signed into law by the president. The president can veto bills passed by the Congress, unless these are veto-proof, i.e. passed by a two-thirds majority.

The president also appoints judges to federal courts in the third branch of state, the judiciary. The Senate must vote to confirm these choices. All of which means a president whose party controls both houses of Congress is more able to execute their political agenda.

Governors of 11 states and two US territories will also be elected on November 3.

The presidential contest: Trump versus Biden

Presidents are elected by a simple majority in the electoral college (EC), comprising 538 seats. The EC gives a state one vote for every seat it has in the House, plus two Senators each, and three votes to capital city Washington DC. To become president, a candidate must win enough states to get 270 EC votes.

All states except two apportion their EC votes on ‘winner-take-all’ basis, giving all to the candidate who wins the state. Maine and Nebraka alone apportion EC votes by Congressional district, plus two for the statewide winner. Since many states like Maryland (10) and Tennessee (11) are reliably ‘blue’ (Democrat) and ‘red’ (Republican), respectively, the election is effectively decided by states which swing between either party – the purple or ‘Toss-Up’ states. Presidential campaigns usually bypass reliably blue and red states and focus on the ‘Toss-Ups’.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden

Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Photo: Reuters/The Wire

In 2020, blue and red states account for 212 and 125 EC votes, respectively, according to the non-partisan Cook Political Report. The fight is on for the balance 201. Of these, polling averages one week before voting day say Joe Biden will be the likely winner in Colorado, part of Maine and Virginia, and place him ahead in another 7½ states which altogether account for 102 EC votes. This is enough to earn Biden the presidency without winning even one Toss-Up state. Donald Trump would likely win another 7 states together accounting for 86 EC votes, still far from the halfway mark of 270. If Cook’s forecast is accurate, Trump won’t regain the presidency even if he wins all 85 votes available in the Toss-Up states. He will need to win at least 22 EC votes in states that polls show are leaning strongly towards Democrats, like Colorado and Virginia. It’s a steep challenge, but not impossible.

Table 1: Red, Blue and Toss-Up states electoral college forecast, 2020

Type of States State/s Electoral College Votes (538)
Blue States (safe Democrat) California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), Washington DC (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (1 district), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New Mexico (5), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12) 188
Likely Blue states, 2020 Colorado (9), Maine (2 districts), Virginia (13) 24
Democrat nominee Joe Biden ahead in: Arizona (11), Michigan (16), Minnesota (10), Nebraska (1 district), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), Pennsylvania (20),  Wisconsin (10) 78
Red States (safe Republican) Alabama (9), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Nebraska (4 districts), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3) 77
Likely Red states, 2020 Alaska (3), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Missouri (10), Montana (3), South Carolina (9), Utah (6) 48
Republican nominee Donald Trump ahead in: Texas (38) 38
Toss-Up states, 2020 Florida (29), Georgia (16), Iowa (6), Maine (1 district), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18) 85

Source: Cook Political Report, October 27, 2020.

The EC consists of ‘reliable’ electors chosen by parties to reflect the choice of the electorate in their respective state. If Trump wins Ohio, for instance, Republican electors will vote on behalf of Ohio in the EC. But 18 states allow seated electors to vote for anyone. This practise has seen electors go against the choice of millions of voters and give their vote to whoever they wish. In 2016, Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Ron Paul and Faith Spotted Eagle accounted for 7 of 538 EC votes — against the choice of the electorate. An ongoing debate to end the EC system thus rages in the US.

Close Senate races to watch

No less riveting than the presidential election is control of the upper house of Congress, in play on November 3. All 50 US states have two seats each in the Senate. Parties control the Senate with a simple majority of 51/100 seats. Currently, Republicans have control with 53 seats; Democrats have 47. Senators enjoy six-year terms. Every even year, a third of the seats in the Senate and any vacancies see elections. This year, 35 Senate seats will see elections. To take control of the Senate from Republicans, Democrats need to win three more seats should Joe Biden win the presidency, as vice president Kamala Harris can caste tie-breaking votes. If Trump wins re-election, Democrats will need four more seats to control the Senate.

Also read: President Trump, the Pandemic and the Politics of the 2020 US Poll

Of the 35 seats, 10 each are safe for Republicans and Democrats. Then, problems begin for the GOP. Republicans have to defend 13 seats and Democrats only two in 15 close races, all of which will be covered breathlessly on results day. A week before November 3, opinion polls put Republicans ahead in only five, gaining one seat from Democrats. Democrats, meanwhile, were ahead in three, gaining two from Republicans. That leaves seven seats super close with neither party ahead — all held by Republicans.

Table 2: Close US Senate races, 2020 

No. State Incumbent Senator Challenger
1 Alabama Doug Jones (D) Tommy Tuberville* (R)
2 Alaska Dan Sullivan* (R) Al Gross#
3 Arizona Martha McSally (R) Mark Kelly* (D)
4 Colorado Cory Gardner (R) John Hickenlooper* (D)
5 Kansas Roger Marshall* (R) Barbara Bollier (D)
6 Kentucky Mitch McConnell* (R) Amy McGrath (D)
7 Michigan Gary Peters* (D) John James (R)
8 Texas John Cornyn* (R) MJ Hegar (D)

Source: Cook Political Report, October 27, 2020

*Ahead in opinion polls, as of October 27; #Democrat-supported independent; Seat vacant, last held by Republican 

Table 3: Super close US Senate races, 2020

No. State Incumbent Senator Challenger
1 Georgia David Perdue (R) Jon Ossoff (D)
2 Georgia Kelly Loeffler (R) Raphael Warnock (D)
3 Iowa Joni Ernst (R) Theresa Greenfield (D)
4 Maine Susan Collins (R) Sara Gideon (D)
5 Montana Steve Daines (R) Stephen Bullock (D)
6 North Carolina Thom Tillis (R) Cal Cunningham (D)
7 South Carolina Lindsey Graham (R) Jaime Harrison (D)

Source: Cook Political Report, October 27, 2020

Seat vacant, last held by Republican

Close House races to watch

US states’ share of 435 district-wise seats in the House of Representatives is based on their size. Parties control the House with a simple majority of 218/435 seats. Currently, the Democrats have control with 232 seats, while Republicans hold 197 (the other six seats are nominated).

US elections

Republican and Democratic parties’ symbols. Photo: Needpix/Public Domain

Representatives have only two-year terms and elections are held every even year. The House is not considered to be in play this year; Democrats are widely expected to retain control. The contest, however, is drawing much interest because it could be ‘map-changing’, with Democrats closely contesting Republicans in traditionally conservative seats such as in Nebraska, Texas and Virginia, attributed to growth of suburban populations with high numbers of minority voters around cities. This, combined with polls putting Democrats ahead in the presidential and Senate elections, has energised Democrats, who claim 2020 will see a ‘Blue Wave’.

Of the 435 House seats, 344 are considered ‘safe’ for either party (Democrats 191, Republicans 153), leaving 91 seats in play. Of these, Democrats are likely to win 18 and are ahead in 19, potentially taking four seats away from Republicans. The GOP is likely to win 13 and is ahead in 15, but without gaining any seat from Democrats. That leaves 26 seats that are super close with neither party ahead, and likely to be a focus of commentators on results day. Seven of these are vacant, and only one was last held by a Democrat. Republicans are defending 17; Democrats only nine.

Table 4 Super Close US House races, 2020

No. State/ Seat@ Incumbent Rep/Party Challenger
1 Arizona/ AZ-06 David Schweikert (R) Hiral Tipirneni
2 California/CA-25 Mike Garcia (R) Christy Smith (D)
3 California/ CA-21 TJ Cox (D) David Valadao (R)
4 Illinois/ IL-13 Rodney Davis (R)


Betsy Dirksen Londrigan (D)
5 Indiana/ IN-05 Victoria Spartz (R) Christina Hale (D)
6 Iowa/ IA-01 Abby Finkenauer (D) Ashley Hinson (R)
7 Iowa/ IA-02* Rita Hart (D) Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R)
8 Michigan/ MI 03 Peter Meijer (R) Hillary Scholten (D)
9 Minnesota/ MN-01 Jim Hagedorn Dan Feehan (D)
10 Minnesota/ MN-07 Collin Peterson (D) Michelle Fischbach (R)
11 Missouri/ MO-02 Ann Wagner (R) Jill Schupp (D)
12 Nebraska/ NE-02 Don Bacon (R) Kara Eastman (D)
13 New Jersey/ NJ-02 Jeff Van Drew (R) Ann Kennedy (D)
14 New Mexico/ NM-02 Xochitl Torres Small (D) Yvette Herrell (R)
15 New York/NY-02 Andrew Garbarino (R) Jackie Gordon (D)
16 New York/ NY-11 Max Rose (D) Nicole Malliotakis (R)
17 New York/ NY-22 Anthony Brindisi (D) Claudia Tenney (R)
18 New York/ NY-24 John Katko (R) Dana Balter (D)
19 Ohio/ OH-01 Steve Chabot (R) Kate Schroder (D)
20 Oklahoma/ OK-05 Kendra Horn (D) Stephanie Bice (R)
21 Pennsylvania/ PA-10 Scott Perry (R) Eugene DePasquale (D)
22 Texas/ TX-21 Chip Roy (R) Wendy Davis (D)
23 Texas/ TX-22 Troy Nehls (R) Sri Preston Kulkarni (D)
24 Texas/ TX-24 Beth Van Duyne (R) Candace Valenzuela (D)
25 Utah/ UT-04 Ben McAdams (D) Burgess Owens (R)
26 Virginia/ VA-05 Bob Good (R) Dr Cameron Webb (D)

Sources: Cook Political Report and multiple media, October 27, 2020.

@AZ-01=Arizona 1st Congressional district, etc; *Seat vacant, last held by Democrat; Seat vacant, last held by Republican

Close governor races to watch

The states of Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia and the territories of Puerto Rico and American Samoa will elect governors on November 3. Only two of these 13 state-specific races are considered competitive. In Montana, Matt Rosendale (R) and Kathleen Williams (D) are competing closely to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Steve Bullock. In Missouri, incumbent Republican governor Mike Parson is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Nicole Galloway, but remains favourite to win.

The White House is the official residence and workplace of the president of the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When will we know the results?

Results start coming in soon after polls close on the US East Coast and counting gets underway on November 3 evening, which is 5.30 am IST on November 4. Usually most races are ‘called’ — i.e. winners are unofficially declared by the Associated Press — within 24 hours. This year could be different because of an unprecedented surge in early voting as COVID-19-wary voters try to avoid election day crowds.  It may take more time than usual to count the greater numbers of mailed-in ballots.

Early votes and trends

Of 234 million eligible voters in 2020, 66 million Americans (28%) have already cast their ballot by October 27. This represents 48% of total votes cast in the last general election in 2016, which saw a total 58.3 million early votes. In 2020, early voters who are registered Democrat supporters outnumber registered Republican supporters 5-to-3. All told, 15 million (48.5% of total early votes) registered Democrats have voted, while the figure is just under 9 million (28.7%) for Republicans. While it can’t be known for sure how a registered party supporter votes, it’s safe to extrapolate that early voting is favouring Democratic candidates so far. Another 6.9 million (22%) of much-pursued voters with no party affiliation have also voted.

In potentially ominous tidings for Republicans, Democratic candidates from President to Congressional have been flush with campaign funding, outraising them by 50% ($5.06 billion to $3.38 billion) and outspending them by 39%, as of October 27.

Also read: How Joe Biden Can Win This November

Where to follow the results

Every US and international news channel including ABC, Bloomberg, BBC and CNN will have non-stop coverage of the count. To see actual election returns, media non-profits Associated Press and C-Span will update verified totals.