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If it's not an Electoral College legal fight, it's a blow-out — here are the counties to watch

If it's not an Electoral College legal fight, it's a blow-out — here are the counties to watch
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Election night will be a protracted political marathon… quite possibly stretching for days and weeks — unless it’s not.

There are multiple reasons why the presidential race likely won't be settled Tuesday night: close contests in battleground states, delays in counting mail-in ballots, and the near inevitability of legal actions, principally by President TrumpDonald TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress MORE's supporters, challenging any adverse results.

However, three important states — North Carolina, Florida and Ohio — report early election night, with their mail and in-person tallies. Trump carried all these states in 2016; if he clearly loses any one of them, his path to victory is pretty much blocked. Still, given legal challenges, Biden would have to clearly carry any of those states — by at least three or four points — for it to be declarative Tuesday night.

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Even many Republicans acknowledge the president won't likely win the popular vote.

In the battleground states, whose Electoral College votes can decide the victor, he faces an even more daunting challenge than last time.

There are six states he carried in 2016 — Iowa, Arizona and Georgia, in addition to Florida, North Carolina and Ohio — where polls show the race competitive. Trump has to run the table there.

Even if he does, he’s still trailing — beyond any margin of error — in the "blue wall" states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. To reach 270 electoral votes, he has to win at least one of them.

In those states — and others — the election day votes, which will tilt for Trump, will be tallied in before the mail-in ballots, which tilt for Biden.

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The Trump forces will bring pressure for news organizations to declare the president the victor in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, based on the election day vote — but the Associated Press, the most significant arbiter, will be careful and cautious.

The certain GOP fallback will be a plethora of lawsuits, principally challenging mail-in ballots. Charges of fraud are almost totally phony, but the Republicans are counting on friendly court rulings.

If it ends up in the Supreme Court, with the ascension of Trump appointee Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettThe Jan. 6 case for ending the Senate filibuster Laurence Tribe: Justice Thomas is out of order on 2020 election McConnell backs Garland for attorney general MORE, Republicans have cause for optimism. Their spear carrier will be Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a GOP activist before he went on the bench, who in ruling against the Democrats in a Wisconsin voting issue last week, echoed Trump in saying it's important to “definitively announce the results of the election on election night or as soon as possible thereafter.”

That's code for give short shrift to contested mail-in ballots.

All of this is moot if there's a decisive outcome.

That probably depends on whether or not — in these final days — the small group of undecided or “soft” votes move to the challenger.

One key indicator will be what happens in the 206 counties across America that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but then flipped to Trump in 2016. These include:

The Keystone collection of Pennsylvania counties: Luzerne and Northampton in the northeastern part of the state, near Biden's birthplace of Scranton, and Erie all the way in the upper Northwest. If Biden wins Erie and Northampton and cuts sharply into Trump's Luzerne margin, he wins.

Pinellas County, Fla., in the St. Petersburg area, has one of the largest senior citizens population in the country. Trump narrowly carried Pinellas after Obama won by a little larger margin. This will be a good test whether senior citizens are flipping to Biden.

Macomb County, Mich., home of the “Reagan Democrats,” working class voters who soured on their parents’ Democratic party, further analyzed by pollster/scholar Stan Greenberg. Although the county has become more diverse, it went decisively for Trump in 2016. Democratic Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen Whitmer'SNL' envisions Fauci as game show host, giving winners vaccines Two men charged with making threatening calls to Michigan officials Biden sparks Twitter debate over pronunciation of Midwest supermarket chain MORE, however, sees Biden as more appealing for these voters than was Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMedia circles wagons for conspiracy theorist Neera Tanden The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Senate ref axes minimum wage, House votes today on relief bill Democratic strategists start women-run media consulting firm MORE, and more likely to carry Macomb. It merits close attention.

Sauk County, Wis.: Trump won the state by running up margins in the less populous southwestern counties. Sauk has mirrored state polls, which — with a raging COVID-19 crisis — are leaning blue.

Penobscot County, Maine. Why Maine? It's the one state that split its electoral votes, as Trump — while losing the state — carried the more rural, working class second district, including Penobscot. There is an improbable, though not completely far-fetched, scenario where one candidate has 269 electoral votes with all eyes on Maine. It'd make a good movie script.

Clinton County, Iowa. This is Middle America in a state with 34  counties switching to Trump, enabling him to win by more than 9 points in 2016. These included Clinton County, which went heavily for Obama… then Trump. To have any chance in the state, the Democrats have to carry this Mississippi River county.

Stark County, Ohio. Stark is a quadrennial favorite, as it has closely mirrored the state and national outcomes in nine of the last ten presidential contests. Trump garnered over 56 percent of the vote in 2016 — a lot to make up, though Democrats are encouraged by heavy early voting.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.