Explainer

Everything You Need to Know About the American Elections

A guide to the American voting system, the parties, the candidates and the key issues.

White House Washington
Aerial view of the White House in Washington DC (Shutterstock/Vivvi Smak)

Presidential and congressional elections will be held in the United States on November 3. Democrats have nominated former vice president Joe Biden against Republican incumbent Donald Trump. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the Senate will also be contested.

Here is everything you need to know.

Bottom lines

  • Trump is expected to lose reelection. He has consistently polled in second place.
  • However, there is a slim chance he will prevail in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote — again.
  • Europeans far prefer Biden, who was Barack Obama’s vice president.
  • Democrats are likely to defend their majority in the House of Representatives. They are favored to take control of the Senate, where Republicans have 53 seats.

The electoral system

  • Americans don’t vote directly for president. Rather, they elect 538 members of the Electoral College, who in turn elect the president and vice president on December 14. The winner is inaugurated on January 20 and serves four years.
  • Electors are allocated on a winner-takes-all basis in 48 states. Maine and Nebraska award two electors each to the statewide winner and two and three, respectively, to the winner in their congressional districts.
  • Each state has as many electors as members of Congress, giving sparsely populated states an advantage. That enabled Trump to win in 2016, despite losing the popular vote due to his unpopularity in populous states like California and New York.
  • Each state has two senators regardless of population. Senators serve six-year terms. A third are up for reelection every two years.
  • 435 representatives are allocated proportionately to the population of the fifty states. They serve two-year terms.
  • The District of Colombia has three electors, one non-voting member of the House of Representatives and no senators.

Postal voting

  • Some 80 million Americans are expected to vote by mail this year, twice as many as in 2016.
  • Nine states — Colorado, California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington — as well as the District of Columbia mail registered voters a ballot ahead of the election.
  • Nine more — Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Ohio and Wisconsin — sent all registered voters an application for an absentee ballot.
  • In 34 states, voters can vote by mail citing either the coronavirus or no reason at all.
  • In only seven states — Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — do voters need a reason in addition to COVID-19 to vote by mail.

Trump has claimed that postal voting is more prone to fraud than absentee voting — although they are the same.

He has claimed that sending voters ballots in the mail, as opposed to requiring voters to apply for one, is more prone to fraud — for which there is no evidence, any anyway eight of the nine states that do this are safe for Democrats, so it is unlikely to make a difference in the outcome.

Democrats are twice as likely to vote by mail as Republicans, but counties and states that have transitioned entirely to postal voting have seen virtually no evidence of partisan advantage.

Swing states

The outcome of the presidential election will probably be decided in a handful of “swing states”, where Biden and Trump are neck and neck in the polls:

  • Arizona: Once safe for Republicans, now a swing state owing to a growing Hispanic population and an increasingly moderate white middle class. Trump won by 3.5 percentage points in 2016. Biden has been ahead by around 4 points in the polls.
  • Florida: The perennial swing state. The Florida Panhandle is deeply conservative. The eastern half of the state has several large cities that lean Democratic and a Cuban American minority that is more Republican-friendly than Latinos nationwide. Trump won by 1.2 points in 2016. Biden has been ahead by 2-4 points in the polls.
  • Georgia: Once safe for Republicans. Increasingly competitive due to the growth of Atlanta and its surburbs. Trump won by 5.1 points in 2016 but is neck and neck with Biden in the polls.
  • Iowa: Republicans dominate the countryside and small towns. Democrats have pockets of support in Des Moines and Iowa City. Trump won by 9.4 points in 2016 but is neck and neck with Biden in the polls.
  • North Carolina: Increasingly competitive due to cities and suburbs trending Democratic. Trump won by 3.7 points in 2016. Biden has been ahead by 1-3 points in the polls.
  • Ohio: Another perennial swing state. Trump won by 8.1 points in 2016, on the back of white working-class support, but is neck and neck with Biden in the polls.
  • Pennsylvania: Trump won narrowly in 2016, but strong Democratic support in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and their suburbs trending Democratic, gives Biden an edge. He has been ahead by 5-7 points in the polls.
  • Texas: Increasingly competitive due to growing communities of color and white suburbs trending Democratic. Trump won by 9 points in 2016 but has only been 1-2 points ahead in the polls. Texas — a bastion of conservatism — turning blue is hard to fathom, but it’s becoming more likely with every election.
  • Wisconsin: Trump won narrowly in 2016, when mostly white suburbs sided with the conservative rural north and west of the state. They are more likely to vote with Madison and Milwaukee this year, giving Biden a clear victory. He has been ahead by 6-7 points in the polls.

Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire were closely contested in 2016, but polls put Biden clearly in the lead there.

Will we know the result on election night?

Maybe not. Only seventeen states allow vote-counting before election day. Most are safe for Biden or Trump.

An exception is Florida, where counting starts three weeks early. It is highly unlikely Trump could lose Florida and win the election.

Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin — which Trump won in 2016 but are now leaning toward Biden — are unlikely to declare their results for days, possibly weeks. They will count ballots that arrive as late as November 12 provided they were postmarked on election day.

Parties and candidates

  • Democrats are the party of the left. Called “liberal” in the United States, they are more accurately described as “social democratic” in a European context. The party has few social conservatives, but is home to neoliberals as well as socialists.
  • Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president from 2009 to 2017. Before that, he represented Delaware in the United States Senate for 36 years, chairing its Foreign Relations Committee twice between 2001 and 2009. He grew up in a working-class family, has strong support from black and union voters, and is considered a moderate.
  • Republicans have moved so far to the right in recent years that they now have more in common with the European far right than mainstream Christian democratic and conservative parties. Largely socially conservative, the party’s nationalist wing has been on the ascendency at the expense of its pro-business wing.
  • Donald Trump was a middlingly successful casino owner, hotelier and real-state tycoon, who inherited his business from his father, before he gained fame as the host of the reality TV series The Apprentice. He unexpectedly won the 2016 election on an America First platform. He is considered a populist and a nativist. His supporters are mostly older, religious and white.

Key issues

  • Child care: Biden has proposed tax credits for parents, to pay up to half the cost of child care, and for employers, to build on-site child care centers. He also calls for twelve weeks of paid family leave. Trump proposed federal subsidies for child care, but couldn’t convince the Republican Congress to enact them.
  • Climate and energy: Trump has cut environmental regulations and supports fossil fuels. Biden has called for $2 trillion in investments in the green economy over four years, including in infrastructure, subsidies for electric vehicles, universal broadband and zero-emissions public transportation.
  • Coronavirus: Trump, before contracting coronavirus himself, downplayed the pandemic, publicly contradicted his scientists and ridiculed mask-wearing. He has appealed to states to reopen businesses and schools. Biden has urged governors to mandate the wearing of masks, and argues for free nationwide testing and hazard pay for health-care and other essential workers.
  • Drugs: Trump promised not to cut Medicaid. He promised to “work with” addicts and “make them better.” He has done the opposite. He has cut funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. He is trying to overturn Obamacare, which has given 1.2 million Americans with substance abuse disorders health care for the first time. Physicians have stopped prescribing painkillers or stopped treating chronic pain altogether for fear of losing their license under Trump’s regulations. Biden promises more than $1 billion in annual funding to improve access to treatment and recovery as well as grants to states and localities for prevention.
  • Economy and labor: Biden calls for $700 billion in investments in manufacturing and technology, a $15 minimum wage, defining “gig economy” workers as employees instead of contractors, making it easier for workers to unionize and bargain with employers, and banning noncompete clauses, no-poaching agreements and mandatory arbitration clauses. Trump hasn’t published an economic plan.
  • Education: Biden wants to triple primary education spending and make public university free for families with incomes under $125,000. Trump supports vouchers to help low-income parents afford private schools, but he hasn’t introduced any in the last four years.
  • Foreign policy: Biden would return the United States to the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organization, from which Trump has withdrawn.
  • Guns: Trump supports gun rights and opposes universal background checks. Biden supports such checks and wants to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
  • Health care: Trump claims he would protect Americans from being denied health insurance on the basis of preexisting conditions, yet his administration is arguing in the courts to overturn Obamacare, which does just that. Republicans campaigned on repealing and replacing Obamacare for six years, but when they had unified control of the government for the first two years of Trump’s presidency they did nothing. Biden wants to introduce a Medicare-like public health insurance option for low-income Americans, expand tax credits for private insurance, stop insurers from overcharging patients for out-of-network care, ban above-inflation price increases for pharmaceuticals and allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from other countries.
  • Housing: Biden wants to expand housing vouchers, prohibit landlords from discriminating against renters who receive housing benefits and condition federal funding on the repeal of discriminatory local housing regulations. Trump has no housing plan.
  • Immigration: Trump has brought legal immigration down by cutting visas and denying entry to foreign entrepreneurs and students, curtailing family reunification and admitting almost no refugees. He banned travelers from Muslim countries and separated migrant children from their parents at the southern border. Biden would reverse those policies, increase refugee admissions as well as work visas, and allow immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children (so-called Dreamers) to remain in the country.
  • Justice: Trump claims to be “tough on crime”, yet he has disparaged the FBI, fired its director when he refused to profess his “loyalty” to the president, undermined prosecutors and pardoned political allies who were convicted of breaking campaign finance laws, obstructing justice and witness tampering. Trump has given judges discretion in applying mandatory minimum sentences. Biden wants to revoke mandatory minimums altogether. Biden also calls for ending all incarcerations for drug offenses, ending cash bail, ending private prisons and investing in community-oriented policing.
  • Taxes: Trump cut taxes for corporations and high incomes, and has vaguely promised more tax cuts in a second term. Biden wants to raise corporate tax from 21 to 28 percent, raise the Social Security payroll tax for high incomes and tax capital gains as ordinary income.
  • Trade: Trump levied tariffs on goods from China and Europe, pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, renamed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, with modest gains for American exporters. Biden proposes to end what he calls the “artificial trade war” with Europe and renegotiate the Trans Pacific Partnership, which has continued without America.

Polls

  • Presidential polls have consistency put Biden ahead with an average of 52 percent support against 42 percent for Trump.
  • Biden needs to win by at least 3 points nationally to have a better than fifty-fifty chance of prevailing in the Electoral College.
  • Europeans far prefer Biden, ranging from 58 percent of Italians to 80 percent of Danes.
  • Democrats are expected to defend their majority in the House of Representatives and are favored to win a majority in the Senate.

2 comments

  1. 1. Re: Iowa:
    You have mixed up Madison, Wisconsin with Iowa City, Iowa. The most liberal places in Iowa are Des Moines and (even more so) Iowa City, which is the location of the University of Iowa as Madison is the location of the University of Wisconsin. (Iowa City was at one time the state capitol, as Madison is still Wisconsin’s state capitol, so that’s another thing they [sort of] have in common.)
    2. As a social democrat and historian myself, I fear you are grossly exaggerating the social democratic element within the Democratic Party. Present-day American “liberalism” is not nearly skeptical enough about capitalism and its flaws to qualify as social democracy, although it’s better now than when I first got into politics in 1970. Too often, the “leadership” in our Democratic Party make Blairites look like reds by comparison.

  2. Thanks for your comment! You’re definitely right on #1, and I’ve corrected that in the story. I was thinking of university cities and got them mixed up in my head. I’m glad you spotted that.

    I don’t agree on #2. I think Joe Biden’s program is not that different from center-left parties in Europe. International comparisons suggest Democrats are, on the whole, a bit more centrist than the social democratic parties of Europe, but to the left of Canada’s Liberals.

    I would be interested in an historical analysis, though. Democrats were, of course, more centrist in the 1990s and early 2000s — but so was Labour under Blair or Germany’s Social Democrats under Schröder

    The problem is the Republican Party, which has veered so far to the right that it now has more in common with the European far right than it does with mainstream center-right parties, like Britain’s Conservatives and Germany’s CDU.

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