In the last of three pieces before Tuesday’s momentous presidential election, Foreign Editor David Pratt runs the rule over the battleground states and those factors that will likely determine who will become the next US leader

It’s less than two days now until America decides who will be its next president. On the face of it, Donald Trump and Democrat rival Joe Biden have absolutely nothing in common. Nothing, of course, except the fact, as The New York Times reminded readers the other day, that both men are teetotallers.

By their own accounts it seems neither man has ever had a tipple in the course of their lives. Whether joy or despair at the outcome of Tuesday’s presidential contest might yet result in that lifelong abstinence being broken remains to be seen.

More of a certainty is that many Americans, and those of us tuning in from far-flung time zones in the early hours of Wednesday, might be in need of a stiff one or two to get us through such an anxious ordeal.

As the hours count down the polls would appear to tell a story most Democrats and Biden supporters long to hear, one that ends with him becoming the next resident of the White House.

Should that prove to be the case then many in both the US and beyond will breathe a sigh of relief, hoping that at long last America has found its way out from the shadow cast by the Trump presidency and into the light of a Biden one.

But polls, as we all know, can be misleading and an electorate fickle, which explains why many pundits caution that this is a contest still too close to definitively call.

In Democrat minds dark memories also linger over what happened to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid to become US leader, when despite winning the national popular vote, Trump was still able to win the White House because of how the Electoral College system works.

It is the 538 members of the Electoral College who ultimately call the shots over who sits in the presidential chair in the Oval Office. The winner needs 270 votes in the college to become president.

This weekend, with that chair up for grabs and everything still to play for, the campaigns of both candidates were barnstorming their way across the crucial swing states that are likely to decide the race. While Trump was in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin on Friday, Biden was training his campaign guns on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

“I am not over-confident about anything,” Biden insisted earlier last week. “I just want to make sure we can earn every vote possible.”

Despite such a cautionary tone, the challenger earlier had asserted that he would win Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, three battleground states many observers say could hold the keys to his victory.

In all there are eight so-called “battleground” or “swing states”, where this Tuesday’s election could be won or lost. These are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

This year, North Carolina, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona could all be decisive in the election’s outcome. These are all states that Trump won narrowly against Hillary Clinton in 2016, helping him secure his electoral college victory. Retaining them is crucial to his re-election hopes.

If the polls are accurate, Biden holds a competitive edge over Trump in all of these. Already, more than 81 million Americans have voted, 52 million of them by post, setting the US on course for its highest electoral turnout in more than a century. Texas has the highest level of turnout in comparison to its 2016 vote count, having already surpassed the total number of ballots cast in the last presidential election.

But California narrowly edges out Texas in terms of raw vote totals so far. As of Friday, 9,167,959 Californians have already cast their ballots, in comparison to 9,009,850 Texans.

Currently, the 10-poll average indicates that just over half of Americans intend to back Biden while Trump’s support trails this by around five or six points.

Polling analysts, however, say it’s important to bear certain caveats in mind with respect to these latest polls.

To begin with some swing state polls severely undercounted Trump supporters in 2016 and questions remain as to whether this anomaly has been rectified. Additionally, experts warn that they may be over-counting Democrat support, whereby more people may say they will vote for Biden than actually turn out.

While polls show Biden with a significant edge nationally, it’s his tighter lead in the battleground states that most eyes are focused on now. Last Thursday, it was the “Sunshine State” of Florida, a place that could determine this election, that both candidates rolled into with their campaign teams.

Around that same time it was BBC North America reporter Anthony Zurcher who quipped that this was the state the mere mention of which when talking politics in the US “brings smiles to Republican faces and sends shivers down Democratic spines”.

At a drive-in rally, Biden, too, was quick to remind his supporters of the state’s political significance and capacity for political dreams or nightmares to be realised.

“You hold the key,” Biden told a rally in Broward County. “If Florida goes blue, it’s over. It’s over!” he told crowds of supporters seriously concerned about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Florida’s economy.

Heavily dependent on services such as leisure, tourism and hospitality, which were hit by the coronavirus lockdown, Florida’s crucial winter season is now also at risk as the pandemic endures.

The fact that both Biden and Trump converged on Tampa on the same day last week was a sharp indicator that both candidates were far from confident of victory in Florida. With its 29 electoral votes, the state is a major prize both would dearly like to win.

According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released just before the arrival of both men in Florida last week, Trump had essentially moved into a tie with Biden, with 49 per cent saying they would vote for the democrat challenger and 47% for the president.

Analysts point to the fact that although Biden has gained support among older voters who were once solidly part of Trump’s base, the president is immensely popular with conservative Republicans in Florida and has recently made inroads with Latinos.

Florida is home to large Latino populations, with Cuban Americans in the south of Florida traditionally tending to favour Republicans, while newer communities of Puerto Ricans in central Florida lean towards the Democrats.

This year, for the first time, Latinos are the largest minority group in the US electorate. Some four million Latinos enfranchised since 2016 now represent 13% of potential voters.

While Florida is where their vote might matter most, their ballots could also determine some other swing states – notably Arizona, Wisconsin and Nevada.

On Thursday, Biden’s campaign team was quick to dampen concerns among Democrats that he was not reaching Latino voters nationally as effectively as former president Barack Obama.

“We are 100% on track to match or exceed the Obama Latino vote numbers in 2012,” Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions said on a media conference call organised by the Biden campaign.

Writing recently in the UK-based current affairs magazine Prospect, journalist Daniel Rey put in context the importance of the Latino vote, especially in Florida.

“In 13 of the past 14 presidential elections, the candidate to carry Florida has taken the White House. In Florida, Latinos comprise nearly one in four residents. Cubans may be the historic majority, but there are sizeable diaspora populations from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Colombia,” reminded Rey.

As Florida reveals, what matters most to both candidates in these final days before the election is shoring up their respective support by means of a swing state campaigning sprint.

Away from the physical campaign trail others, too, are gearing up their operations including social media companies concerned at the spread of disinformation as the election draws near.

The companies, which have been criticised by social media researchers and politicians over the enforcement of their content policies, have laid out plans for how they will handle candidates claiming victory before results are certified, or calls for election-related violence.

Earlier this month, Twitter said it would remove tweets calling for people to interfere with the election process or implementation of election results, including through violence.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Facebook said it was making changes to its image-sharing platform for US users to prevent the spread of misinformation around election day. What the impact of this will be on a global social media frenzy on Tuesday as results unfold is anyone’s guess.

So, what then should those of us here in Scotland sitting up into the wee small hours of Wednesday be on the lookout for in terms of trying to discern the election’s outcome?

By far, the surge in early voting both by post and in person is the first thing to keep an eye on. Even before the pandemic, Americans had been shifting away from lining up at the polls on election day.

In 2016, only 54.5% of all ballots nationwide were actually cast in person, according to data from the US election Assistance Commission. The share was roughly the same (55.4% ) in the 2018 midterms.

This is sure to create complications for state authorities that administer the ballot because many are not used to handling large numbers of postal votes and do not have systems in place to complete the counts on election night.

In a half-dozen states, including the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, processing can’t start until election day itself.

Those states that have made a start in counting postal ballots are more likely to have a projected winner but if things are close it could take more time.

While many of us will be tuned into media outlets calling results in favour of Biden or Trump, it’s important also to remember that such results are not official until individual states confirm them. Technically US states have until December 14 to finalise counts, even if that outside date is unlikely.

And much like the famous election of 2000, it is all likely to come down to Florida. That bellwether state, with its well-established system for early voting, is certainly one to watch.

“If the polls are correct, then you should be able to call the winner of the presidency on election night,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.

“If Biden wins Florida, that means that Trump has very limited pathways to a victory in the Electoral College,” was how McDonald explained such a scenario playing out on Al Jazeera recently.

Which reminds those of us again watching on the night how vital it is to factor in the Electoral College votes as we look for clues to the final winner.

Then, of course, there is the doomsday scenario most try not to think about but which remains a serious possibility. One whereby the numbers in the immediate aftermath of the vote show a Trump victory, which then slowly moves towards a Biden victory as more ballots are counted throughout the week.

This, as some analysts have warned, could result in challenges from the Trump campaign and call into question the integrity of the election.

A measure of just how incendiary this could prove was revealed these past days when US unions confirmed that they have begun discussing the idea of a general strike should Trump refuse to accept a result showing a Biden victory.

Calling into question the result and forcing some form of constitutional crisis would throw everything up in the air and only further compound the political bitterness and acrimony so prevalent of late in America.

And so it is that on Tuesday the US heads into the most consequential election in a generation. Academics, pundits and statisticians, even at this late stage, are crunching the numbers and talking through possible outcomes. The only thing certain is that it will be a political roller-coaster ride.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden might both be self-confirmed teetotallers, but for most of us lesser mortals up late watching this real-time US political drama unfold, a small libation might just prove the order of the day in settling nerves and seeing it through.