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Jeff Greenfield on what you should watch out for on Election Day

As tens of millions of Americans and people around the world tune in on Election Day to watch the most expensive and extensive American election in recent memory, early clues can indicate which way the election is headed -- even if there is a delay in announcing the final winner. Jeff Greenfield joins Hari Sreenivasan to tell us what to watch out for.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tuesday night—and possibly into Wednesday morning—tens of millions of Americans will be tuning in to watch the most expensive, extensive election in memory. But what, specifically, should you be watching for?

    We asked Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield, who's covered a few decades worth of elections, to share his perspective. I spoke with him earlier.

    All right, Jeff, let's start at the top: the presidency, what's on everybody's mind.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Well, let's look at where we were four years ago when Trump's very narrow victories in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan—under one percent each—gave him his Electoral College majority. For a while, those were the three states that people were looking at most closely. But as it turns out, there are any number of states, at least seven all over the country, where Biden is either narrowly ahead or tied effectively, and these are some states that Trump won very handily, any one of which could be really devastating to, to Trump's hopes for victory.

    If you're looking for early clues, though, I would look in at Indiana, because it's the first state to report. And while Trump is going to carry it, it was his enormous margin the last time that was a hint that the pollsters had missed the rural white conservative vote that actually propelled Trump to victory in key states. So if Trump is winning by really narrow margins in Indiana, that would be bad news for him as the night rolls on.

    The other state, obviously, to look at is Florida with 29 electoral votes. It reports usually early, but it's always been close: less than one percent or so the last three elections. So if there's a decisive win in Florida, that's going to set the tone for the rest of the night.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jeff, let's also talk about the Senate. There's so much concern on where the balance of power is on whether the presidency goes one direction. Does that also mean the Senate goes the same direction?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    That's exactly why it's as important as the presidential outcome.

    Just imagine a President Trump with a Democratic Senate or a President Biden with a Republican Senate, you are defining gridlock.

    Right now, Democratic challengers seem to be leading in Arizona, in Colorado, in Maine—that Susan Collins's seat—and in North Carolina, and Republicans are pretty confident they're going to take that Alabama Democratic Senate seat. That would leave the Senate 50-50 with the vice president breaking the tie.

    So in that scenario, whoever wins the White House wins the Senate. Except that there are seven Republican incumbents in six states who are being challenged very hard by their Democratic opponents, most of whom, unusually, have vastly outraised their Republican incumbent rivals.

    The one state I'd look at was Georgia. Two seats are up, one and maybe both could go to a runoff if there's no 50 percent winner. And that means we might be waiting until January to find out who actually controls the Senate.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there any suspense in the House races right now? The Democrats are looking to hold the House. The Republicans, depending on who you speak to, say that they've got a chance to take some seats back.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Yeah, I think that chance has pretty much evaporated.

    Remember, in 2018 in the midterms, Democrats won the House by picking up suburban districts—literally from one end of the country to the other—in New Jersey, in Kansas, in Texas, in California. And right now, what appears to be happening is a replay. That is, suburban voters are moving heavily against Trump and that has given Democrats the chance, they think, to pick up some seats, again, in Texas and even in a state like Indiana, in a couple of suburban districts.

    Republicans have a shot at some rural districts held by Democrats but I think nobody is putting as much as a plugged nickel on the idea that the Republicans can take back the House.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jeff, the national press and everyone has a tendency to focus on the presidential race. But elections are about a lot more than that. What happens to state legislatures?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    I think the state legislature races have been the most undercovered important political story of the last decade.

    In 2010, Republicans were in total political control in virtually every big state except New York and California. So what? you ask. That's where decisions are made about whether abortion rights are eased or limited. That's where labor union power is strengthened or weakened. That's where Medicaid expansion does or doesn't happen.

    And also, because 2010 was a census year, that victory gave Republicans, in state after state, the power to redraw the lines for the legislature and the House of Representatives. One estimate says that there are 17 extra seats in the House of Representatives because of that Republican dominance at the state level. This year, Democrats think they have a chance of flipping at least one House in Texas, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, while Republicans are hoping for gains in Wisconsin that would give them such a majority that they could override the power of the Democratic governor.

    And while I know this sounds kind of, well, who cares compared to the president, remember, one other thing — every key vote that the Supreme Court has to make about issues like abortion, like affirmative action, like labor power, like voting rights, stems from what state legislatures do or don't do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Finally, Jeff, a bonus round: What happens if there's a popular vote that goes one way and an Electoral College vote that goes the other. Again?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Well, nothing happens constitutionally because that's a system that was set up. But it's interesting that last time Hillary Clinton won by slightly less than three million votes, about a two percent margin. Given what we see from the polling, where Biden is going to win huge in places like here in California, New York, and if Trump wins in places like Ohio and Texas, he's not going to get the margins he got last time, which could mean a seven or eight million votes spread—a percentage of five or six points in which you still have the loser of the popular vote winning the Electoral College.

    And if you ask what's to be done about it, there's no way to abolish the Electoral College, given you need a constitutional amendment and there are states who benefit from this current system. There are all kinds of mechanisms that are being looked at to see if there's something to be done about it. But the best thing that I can tell you is unless Biden wins by more than six points, according to the mathematical types, he's in danger of losing the Electoral College.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jeff Greenfield joining us from California. Thanks so much.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Pleasure to be here.

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