When trying to handicap the presidential race, it is tempting to rely on national polling. But ultimately the next president is not determined by the popular vote — he or she will be determined state-by-state via the electoral college.
We report on national polling at The Pulse 2016 all the time, so I don’t mean to suggest there isn’t use for it. Analytics outfits like FiveThirtyEight have found heavy correlations between national polling and election results at the state level.
Because of this correlation, it’s almost a mathematical certainty that, if Clinton wins the popular vote by ten points on Election Day, she would also win the electoral college. But what if she wins the popular vote by just one or two points? As we learned in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush, the results of the popular vote and the electoral college don’t always agree with each other.
And we shouldn’t expect a landslide. As we reported earlier this week, the race has tightened dramatically. Clinton and Trump are virtually tied as we head into Labor Day weekend.
So what can we expect from the electoral college? Let’s first look at the states we can predict with near certainty. These states serve as each candidate’s electoral vote floor.
SAFE RED: Alaska (3), Idaho (4), Montana (3), Wyoming (3), North Dakota (3), South Dakota (3), Nebraska (5), Kansas (6), Oklahoma (7), Texas (38), Arkansas (6), Louisiana (8), Kentucky (8), West Virginia (5), Tennessee (11), Mississippi (6), Alabama (9), South Carolina (9)
SAFE BLUE: Washington (12), Oregon (7), California (55), New Mexico (5), Minnesota (10), Illinois (20), New York (29), Vermont (3), Maine (4), Massachusetts (11), Rhode Island (4), Connecticut (7), New Jersey (14), Delaware (3), Maryland (10), District of Columbia (3)
These results are basically preordained. It would take a historic landslide to peel California from Hillary Clinton or Texas from Donald Trump. We call a state “safe” if one candidate leads the other by at least double digits, which is true in all of these states.
The Democrats start off with an incredible built-in advantage here. They only need to get to 270 in order to win the presidency, and they win 201 electoral votes just by showing up.
Next we add “likely red” and “likely blue” states.
LIKELY RED: Utah (6), Indiana (11)
LIKELY BLUE: Colorado (9), New Hampshire (4)
These four states are still worth watching on Election Night. If any of these states surprise and go the other way, prepare for a quick and decisive result, similar to President Obama’s sound defeat of John McCain in 2008, where he managed to win traditionally Republican Indiana.
That leaves Arizona (11), Nevada (6), Iowa (6), Missouri (10), Wisconsin (10), Michigan (16), Ohio (18), Pennsylvania (20), Virginia (13), North Carolina (15), Georgia (16), and Florida (29). These are the 12 battleground states of the 2016 election cycle.
Remember, it takes 270 electoral votes to win. Hillary Clinton is already at 214 votes. That means she needs just 56 votes to win the presidency. Conversely, Trump needs to deny her 55 votes in order to win.
So because of her built-in advantage, let’s focus on Clinton’s path to victory. We somewhat arbitrarily ranked the 12 battleground states from most likely (C1) to less likely (C12) to vote for Clinton.
- Michigan (16)
- Wisconsin (10)
- Virginia (13)
- Pennsylvania (20)
- Florida (29)
- Ohio (18)
- North Carolina (15)
- Nevada (6)
- Iowa (6)
- Arizona (11)
- Georgia (16)
- Missouri (10)
There are hundreds of combinations for Hillary Clinton to win the 56 electoral votes she needs to become America’s 45th president. These rankings help us come up with paths that make logical sense — it seems unlikely that Clinton could win red-leaning states like Missouri, Georgia, and Arizona while simultaneously losing blue-leaning states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia, for example.
Hillary’s “Easy” Strategy
- Hold the Rust Belt.
- Win Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
- Win one of Virginia, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, or Missouri.
How Trump stops her:
- Win Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes.
All Hillary Clinton has to do to become president is hold on to the rust belt and win one more state, the easiest of which is probably Virginia, a former red state that voted for Obama twice and has been trending more liberal the last several election cycles.
The relative ease in which Clinton could accomplish this strategy is why she’s the predominant favorite to win right now. It has little to do with national polling and everything to do with some ugly electoral math. The only realistic way for Trump to stop her is to break up her rust belt coalition and win Pennsylvania.
Hillary’s “Fallback” Strategy
- Win Florida.
- Win Ohio.
- Win one of Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, or Missouri.
How Trump stops her:
- Win Florida and its 29 electoral votes.
Trump winning Pennsylvania would be a major blow to the Clinton campaign, as that would force them to rely on Florida and Ohio. If Clinton wins both, it’s hard to imagine her not winning one of the remaining battleground states. Florida is a must-win for Donald Trump.
Hillary’s “4th and 1” Strategy
- Win Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin.
- Win one of Virginia, North Carolina, or Georgia.
How Trump stops her:
- Win Ohio.
This seems easy enough for Clinton. But if Trump manages to win the “battleground triumvirate” of Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, Clinton will be in deep trouble. She’ll be forced to embrace her nuclear option.
Hillary’s “Nuclear Option” Strategy
- Win Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia.
- Win North Carolina and one of Iowa, Nevada, Missouri, or Arizona, or win Georgia.
How Trump stops her:
- Steal Michigan, Wisconsin, or Virginia.
The conventional wisdom keeps pointing to Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, but every Clinton campaign strategy seems reliant on Michigan, Wisconsin, and Virginia as well, which helps explain why Trump has put a lot of emphasis on campaigning in these states. Steal one of those three non-conventional battleground states, and it absolutely destroys her chances. Trump would become the prohibitive favorite to win the whole thing. Let’s recap:
How Trump Gets From 154 to 270
- Win Pennsylvania (+20 = 174)
- Win Florida (+29 = 203)
- Win Ohio (+18 = 223)
- Win the reddest battleground states:
- Missouri (+10 = 233)
- Georgia (+16 = 249)
- Arizona (+11 = 260)
- OPTION A: Win one of Hillary’s must-win states: Virginia (+13 = 273), Wisconsin (+10 = 270), or Michigan (+16 = 276)
- OPTION B: Win North Carolina (+15 = 275)
- OPTION C: Win both Nevada (+6 = 266) and Iowa (+6 = 272)
A lot of dominos would have to fall in place to seal a Trump victory, but it could absolutely happen, especially if things continue to trend in his direction as we head toward Election Day.
*EDIT* In an earlier version of this post, we gave the people of Iowa undue preference by granting them 10 electoral votes. While we love Iowa at The Pulse 2016, this was indeed a factual error. Iowa has only 6 electoral votes.
Jon Schweppe is the Communications Director for American Principles Project. Follow him on Twitter @JonSchweppe.