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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tonight could be the start of days of suspense before we know who the next president will be. But it could also be effectively over by the end of the week — and there's a small chance we could even know tonight.

  • Here are the three scenarios for election night and beyond, and how we'll know which one we're seeing tonight.

1) The quick win: This one would only happen if Joe Biden scores a convincing win tonight in Florida — or possibly a surprise win in a big state like Texas or a combination of smaller states. 

  • If that happened, and the margins were clear enough that the states could actually be called for Biden, there would be effectively no path for President Trump to win 270 electoral votes.
  • There's less likely to be any state that Trump could win early, at least under the latest polling trends, that would end Biden's path as effectively.

2) Election Week: This is the scenario if there are enough battleground states that are so close they can't be called tonight — but might be called tomorrow, or possibly at the end of the week.

  • Under this scenario, the historic avalanche of mail ballots could become more important — especially in a state like Pennsylvania, where we might not know the majority of results until at least Friday.
  • But it's also possible that we'll know enough about the trends in big battleground states like Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan that we'd have a general idea where it's headed.
  • Another scenario could be poll-defying election-night results that not only appear to show Trump holding the states he won in 2016, but also picking up one or more other small states.
  • Even if it was too soon to call enough states to declare a win, it could shift the conversation around momentum and expectations.  

3) Deadlock: This is the nightmare scenario — where it's so close in Pennsylvania or other states that lawsuits could bring everything to a halt.

  • In this scenario, Trump campaign lawyers would likely challenge mail ballots arriving after Election Day and argue they shouldn’t be counted, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports. That could go all the way to the Supreme Court, where Trump’s allies like their chances given the court’s added conservative tilt following the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett.
  • They'd also fight any Democratic attempts to keep polls open longer today, and fight for access to review the counting of the ballots.
  • Democratic lawyers are ready to respond to any GOP legal challenges, and they're also ready to sue to keep polls open, Axios' Stef Kight reports
  • Under this scenario, it could be weeks before we know the outcome.

Go deeper:

How the Supreme Court is handling election cases

2020 election strategy: Hire all the lawyers

Go deeper

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Donald and Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.

The front-runners for Biden's Supreme Court pick

Judge Kentaji Brown Jackson (left) and Justice Leondra Kruger (right) Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images and Lonnie Tague, US Department of Justice

Two highly accomplished Black female judges — Ketanji Brown Jackson, a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Leondra Kruger, a justice on the California Supreme Court — are seen as the early front-runners to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

The big picture: Jackson is a powerful federal judge with a record that progressives feel they can trust. Kruger was a highly regarded litigator and has carved out a reputation for working well with conservative judges.

Fed: Rate hikes "will soon be appropriate"

The Federal Reserve's headquarters building. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Federal Reserve officials expect "it will soon be appropriate" to raise the central bank's main target interest rate, setting the stage for a rate hike at its next meeting in mid-March.

Driving the news: In a statement following a two-day meeting published Wednesday afternoon, however, the policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee teed up its next move without taking new action.