Election preview: United States

Regular readers will note that I often start an election preview by summarising what happened at the previous election. It’s a convenient expository device, but I think it’s more than that: I’m convinced that most mistakes in picking election results (including some that I’ve made myself) come from ignoring or misunderstanding what happened last time.

So let’s first cast our minds back to 2012. Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney with 52.0% of the two-party vote, a swing to the Republicans of 1.7% since 2008. In the electoral college, which is what really matters, Obama won 26 states plus the District of Columbia for a total of 332 seats, to Romney’s 206. (My 2012 Crikey preview is worth reading for some general features of the system.)

The Republicans therefore need to win an additional 64 electoral college votes for a majority. On a uniform swing, that would require four states – Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania – and a two-party swing of 2.7%.

Donald Trump’s actual position is both better and worse than that. Worse, because not only are Virginia and Pennsylvania generally regarded as out of reach, but also some of Romney’s 2012 states, particularly North Carolina (1.0%, 15 electoral college votes), are insecure.

Better, because the four states listed above provide more electoral college votes than he needs. If he can win Florida (29) and Ohio (18) while holding onto his own marginals, he only needs another 17 electoral college votes, and there is a clump of states around the 3% or 4% mark that provide options – difficult, but not impossible – for getting them.

So with all that in mind, here’s what to watch for today as results come in. I’ve listed below what I think are the potentially interesting states (about half of the total), in the order in which the polls close – all in eastern Australian time, eight hours behind New York. (Or, for pedants, 16 hours ahead.)

Each state (or district) is listed with the party currently holding it, the number of electoral college votes, and the swing required to change hands, with a brief comment on its importance. (The New York Times has a nice set of maps with all the closing times.)

11am: Georgia (Rep., 16, 4.0%), Indiana (Rep., 11, 5.2%), New Hampshire (Dem., 4, 2.8%), South Carolina (Rep., 9, 5.3%), Virginia (Dem., 13, 2.0%). The three Republican states are all potential gains for Hillary Clinton; if she wins any of them, or even gets particularly close, it would mean the election is out of reach for Trump. All three would mean a landslide. On the other side, if Virginia is close it means Trump is in with a chance; New Hampshire, although small, is probably a must-win for him.

11.30am: North Carolina (Rep., 15, 1.0%), Ohio (Dem., 18, 1.5%). It’s impossible to see a path to victory for Trump that doesn’t have him winning Ohio, and you can almost say the same about North Carolina. Certainly if Clinton wins both then it’s all over.

12noon: Florida (Dem., 29, 0.4%), Maine 2nd district (Dem., 1, 4.4%), Missouri (Rep., 10, 4.8%), Pennsylvania (Dem., 20, 2.7%). Florida is another must-win for Trump; Pennsylvania less so, but it would open up more paths to victory for him if he was otherwise doing well at this point. Maine’s second district is a favorite for anyone trying to construct scenarios of a tied vote in the electoral college (in which case the election would be thrown to the House of Representatives). Missouri is another potential Clinton gain; Obama almost won it in 2008.

12.30pm: Arkansas (Rep., 6, 12.2%). Ordinarily a safe state for the Republicans, but since it’s Clinton’s home state it will be one to watch.

1pm: Arizona (Rep., 11, 4.6%), Colorado (Dem., 9, 2.7%), Michigan (Dem., 16, 4.8%), Minnesota (Dem., 10, 3.9%), Nebraska 2nd district (Rep., 1, 3.6%), New Mexico (Dem., 5, 5.3%), South Dakota (Rep., 3, 9.2%), Texas (Rep., 38, 8.0%), Wisconsin (Dem., 10, 3.5%). A bunch of Democrat states that Trump would like to win, although no one of them is critical and New Mexico at least is universally regarded as out of reach. On the other side, Arizona is probably the most likely Clinton gain after South North Carolina, while Texas would be the mark of a Democrat landslide.

2pm: Iowa (Dem., 6, 3.0%), Montana (Rep., 3, 7.0%), Nevada (Dem., 6, 3.4%), Utah (Rep., 6, 24.6%). Iowa looks like the most likely Democrat loss; failure to win Nevada as well would not doom Trump, but would make his task harder (if he hasn’t already lost by this point). Montana is another Clinton prospect if things are going well, while Utah is one of the most interesting states, with conservative independent Evan McMullin making it a three-way contest.

5pm: Alaska (Rep., 3, 7.3%). The election will be well and truly over by then, but if Libertarian Gary Johnson was going to get close in any state, this would probably be it, and a strong vote for him could give it to Clinton.

What do I think? I think Trump has a number of possible paths to victory, but all of them look pretty far-fetched. I disagree with my colleague Guy Rundle, who yesterday said that he was “in a better position to stage an upset than was Mitt Romney in 2012.”

There was a clear, albeit unlikely, scenario for a Romney victory, whereas to imagine Trump doing the same requires rather more heroic assumptions. On the other hand, he’s not as far out of the game as John McCain was in 2008 – a line which seems impossible to believe even as I write it.

My sense is that the late momentum is with Clinton, and that the Democrats are more likely to make gains than losses. Iowa looks the only state they have written off, while North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona all seem more likely than not to go to Clinton. So I suspect that a 368-170 margin in the electoral college won’t be far off.

But caveat: this is clearly a more volatile election than the last two (that’s a low bar: polls were very stable in both 2008 and 2012), so there’s the potential for an upset either way. And the fact that a Trump presidency is still a genuine possibility is a dreadful indictment of the American political class and political system.

One final word: don’t forget Congress. I don’t have time to preview it here, but you can read FiveThirtyEight’s survey of the Senate here and House of Representatives here. There’s little doubt that if Trump wins or even gets close the Republicans will hold both houses, but control of the Senate could be crucial to the success or failure of a Clinton presidency.

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