Polls seem to show a tightening national popular-vote race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — a dynamic that predates the media freak-out over the FBI’s disclosure Friday that it is looking at some new emails from ClintonWorld. Amid all the inevitable shock polls, it is instructive to look at the two candidates’ paths to actual victory in the Electoral College. And there, as has been the case for much of the general-election campaign, Clinton has the strategic advantage of many routes to 270 electoral votes, while Trump’s path is, well, problematic.
The most plausible scenario for a Trump win would be to begin with the 206 electoral votes won by Mitt Romney in 2012 and then add four states carried twice by Barack Obama, where Trump’s been leading or behind by less than four points: Iowa (6 electoral votes), Nevada (6 EVs), Ohio (19 EVs), and Florida (29 EVs). That adds up to 266 electoral votes, leaving him just four short. Add in the one electoral vote from the Republican-leaning second congressional district of Maine (Maine and Nebraska award separate EVs for each congressional-district winner), and he’s still three short. That means he needs a breakthrough somewhere else, where the polls have not been so friendly. And that’s assuming he wins North Carolina, where he’s been trailing for most of the cycle, and doesn’t suffer an upset in one of the other Romney states where he’s in some trouble, notably Arizona and Georgia, where Clinton has come close in recent polling; or Utah, where independent conservative candidate Evan McMullin is giving him a run for his money.
In a similar Electoral College “box” four years ago, Mitt Romney devoted a lot of resources to Pennsylvania based on some internal polling that showed him with a shot there (he ultimately lost the Keystone State by just over five points). Trump has suddenly begun to spend time in Colorado, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and apparently still has an eye on Pennsylvania. Clinton has at least a five-point lead in all these states according to the Real Clear Politics polling averages. That’s also the case in New Hampshire and Virginia, “battleground states” that seem to have become noncompetitive this year.
The same map that shows Trump stuck just short of 270 votes even if he wins all the states where he’s ahead or close gives Clinton an awful lot of targets for her better-financed and -organized get-out-the-vote and paid-media operations. A Clinton win in Florida would make it virtually impossible for Trump to prevail nationally. North Carolina is not quite that crucial, but a 15-EV hole in the Romney coalition would have to be made up elsewhere — say, by winning Nevada and either Colorado or Wisconsin. A Clinton win in Ohio would also be devastating to Trump. And if she were to pick off Arizona or Georgia, it would probably be a sign she is romping to victory nationally, but Republicans have no choice but to defend that turf.
The thing to look for in the final state polls is whether Trump is making any kind of real move in the “blue states” he has recently targeted, especially Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. If that does not happen, it’s hard to see how he wins even if he pulls out victories in all the very close states we have all been watching.
Among these states that could get Trump to 270, Colorado is the only one that has gone Republican more recently than 1988 (in 2004, to be exact). But it is also a universal vote-by-mail state (which means a lot of the vote has already been cast) with a relatively well-educated electorate and a sizable Latino population that seems to be turning out strongly for Clinton. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania have somewhat more Trump-friendly demographic features, with Wisconsin (which was a very close state as recently as 2004) perhaps the best bet, given that only 11 percent of the 2012 electorate there was nonwhite (according to exit polls). Trump does have a problem there with somewhat underwhelming support from local Republicans, but he will nonetheless benefit from the uphill GOP fight to save Senator Ron Johnson. Wisconsin is definitely worth keeping an eye on, though Trump could, like Romney, decide to go for broke in Pennsylvania, where the nominee has a fervent base of support in the southwestern part of the state.
Despite his electoral-vote-map problems, Trump is still the candidate with the greatest potential to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, according to Nate Silver. That’s mainly because in a very close race Clinton will be “wasting” votes in doing significantly better than Obama in states she may not win, notably Texas as well as Arizona and Georgia.
Clinton’s ace in the hole across the battleground states remains her superior field operation. It is unclear whether its efforts are already reflected in the polls, or whether she could get a final boost above and beyond today’s numbers. Veterans of the Obama campaigns like to say a good field operation is like a field-goal unit in football: It’s only crucial in close games. At the moment, Clinton is probably winning by a touchdown, but if Trump can make a final surge in one of those just-beyond-his-reach blue states, that could all change.