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4 takeaways from a cliffhanger election night in Pennsylvania

Biden has a path to victory, but the final count looks likely to be very, very close.

A customer watches early presidential election returns at Fox and Hound in Philadelphia on Election Day, Nov. 3.
A customer watches early presidential election returns at Fox and Hound in Philadelphia on Election Day, Nov. 3.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Tuesday turned to Wednesday with deep uncertainty about the presidential race in Pennsylvania — but with the state also looking every bit as important as we long thought it would be.

President Donald Trump had more of the early votes counted in his favor, but that was based largely on the fact that Republicans cast more votes in person, and those votes were tallied faster.

Democrats were expected to dominate mail voting, and many of the state’s most heavily Democratic counties, including Philadelphia and Allegheny, home to Pittsburgh, still had hundreds of thousands of votes to tabulate as of early Wednesday morning.

Here are four quick takeaways on a night of uncertainty that looked likely to drag on for days.

Pennsylvania is still key

While we long thought Pennsylvania could be the decisive state in the race, there were scenarios in which it might have become ancillary. If Democrat Joe Biden had won Florida, for example, he could have won the presidency with any other number of victories.

Instead, Trump captured Florida again, according to the Associated Press, and Biden’s path to the White House looked increasingly likely to depend on Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest, along with Arizona, which the Associated Press called in his favor early Wednesday.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania is divided about everything but this: Please let this election be over

Very little looked certain and there were still many votes to count. But with Trump winning Florida, Pennsylvania and its 20 Electoral College votes would be the largest battleground left on the map — and the center of national attention for at least a few days more.

Still waiting on big counties

Most of the biggest counties in the state are deeply Democratic, and they had relatively few of their votes counted. A little before 1 a.m. Philadelphia and Allegheny County still had about 467,000 mail ballots uncounted. Montgomery County, the third largest in the state, still had significant counting ahead, too.

All three are Democratic bastions.

Most smaller, rural counties counted faster, and that gave Trump some strong early totals. But much of the outstanding vote is likely to come from Democratic areas.

» READ MORE: 10 Pennsylvania counties to watch closely as election results come in

Biden gains around Scranton

Lackawanna County, home to Biden’s childhood hometown of Scranton, saw one of the state’s biggest swings toward Trump in 2016. Biden clawed back some of those losses. With nearly all of the votes counted there, he was up by 10,000 votes, compared to Hillary Clinton’s narrow 3,600 vote victory four years ago.

It’s just one place, and it’s a place that has reason to be favorable to Biden. But it’s an example of how Biden was hoping to improve in white, working-class areas that sunk Democrats in the last election.

Trump gains more than Biden in some rural areas

Trump’s clear goal was to pull even bigger numbers out of places that he won last election.

In several small rural or exurban counties, there was evidence that it was working, to an extent.

Consider Washington County, in the state’s southwest. With most of the vote counted, Biden actually improved on Clinton’s total by about 7,600 votes. But Trump did even better: he improved on his 2016 number by around 9,400. His margin there grew.

It wasn’t a huge gain, but add up many of those small counties around the state, and it means Trump is likely to increase his overall advantage in the state’s most conservative areas.

The question for Biden is whether he can make up the difference in the big cities and their suburbs.

The hope for Biden? Those places are bigger, growing, and have been trending leftward.

But he had some 700,000 votes to make up as of early Wednesday morning. That’s a lot.

Biden has a chance, but the final count looks likely to be very, very close.