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A Hopeful Essay

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Why the outcome of the 2016 election is already crystal clear

by Paul Waldman

May 4, 2016

The general election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump promises to be one of the weirdest, nastiest, and most fascinating cultural/political events of any of our lifetimes. So bear with me for a little while as I suck all the life out of it and explain why it's actually going to be pretty simple. The likely outcome, while not completely preordained, is already clear to see.

That's because of the strange and rather undemocratic feature of our presidential voting system known as the Electoral College. While an essay in favor of eliminating it will have to wait for another day, the key fact about the college is that it makes the race matter only in those states where both sides have some chance of winning, what we usually call the "battleground" states. There aren't very many of them, and even before the general election begins — i.e., even before Republicans nominate Donald Trump, perhaps the most unpopular major party nominee in history — the Democratic nominee has a serious advantage.

Let's take the last four elections, two won by Barack Obama and two won by George W. Bush, as our starting point. There were 17 states (plus D.C.) that Democrats won in all four of those elections: California, Oregon, and Washington in the West; Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan in the Midwest; and everything in the Northeast from Maryland on up, with the exception of New Hampshire. Just those states give the Democrats 242 of the 270 electoral votes they need to take the White House.

The Republicans, on the other hand, won 22 states in all four of those elections, covering parts of the Deep South, the Midwest, and the Mountain West, plus Alaska. But those states only add up to 180 electoral votes.

While there are a few states in those two groups where things might become competitive — Republicans will contest Wisconsin, and Democrats think they have a chance in Arizona, for instance — the truth is that even in this unusual election year, none of them are likely to flip. Donald Trump could strangle a puppy on live television and he would still win Idaho and Mississippi; Hillary Clinton could make Martin Shkreli her running mate and she'd still win California and Massachusetts. But if any of those states do change, it's likely to be in Clinton's direction, given Trump's unpopularity.

That Democratic advantage, 242-180 at the outset, may be the single most important pair of numbers to understand in determining the ultimate outcome of the race. What it means is that Donald Trump will have to not just do well in swing states, he'll have to sweep almost all of them in order to win.

Here's a revealing comparison. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 2.5 percentage points nationwide — close, but compared to the 2000 election, a relatively easy victory. In doing so, he took the swing states of Florida, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. The only true swing state Kerry won was New Hampshire. Yet Bush won the Electoral College by a margin of only 35 electoral votes, 286-251.

Contrast that with 2012, when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 4 percentage points — a little more comfortable than Bush's 2004 win, but not hugely different. On the state level, Obama bested Bush's 2004 results only by taking New Hampshire. Yet Obama's margin in the Electoral College was enormous: 332-206, or 126 votes.

If Hillary Clinton starts with those 242 electoral votes, she only needs 28 more to win. As it happens, Florida has 29 electoral votes, so she could win there, lose every other swing state, and still win. Or she could take Virginia (13 EVs) and North Carolina (15 EVs) and lose all the others. Or she could take Ohio (18), New Hampshire (4), and Iowa (6) and lose all the others. Or...well, you get the idea. There are a whole variety of ways Clinton could win, while Trump has to run the table.

That isn't to say that the national result doesn't matter; it's only been in the rarest of circumstances (like 2000) that the total vote and the electoral vote pointed in opposite directions. But by now few people are saying that Donald Trump has such fantastic appeal to working class white men that he can steal states in the Midwest, or tap some heretofore unnoticed vein of votes. And you can forget about the momentary disgruntlement from supporters of Bernie Sanders playing a major role; in November, Clinton will retain the votes of nearly all Democrats. Barack Obama got the votes of 92 percent of Democrats in 2012, and she'll be in the same neighborhood.

Will Donald Trump do as well among Republicans? He might, as they realize that the alternative is Clinton, so they might as well go with their party's nominee even if he wasn't their first choice. But Trump only needs to bleed a couple of points in his party for the election to fall well out of his reach.

Looking at the election this way can make the daily back-and-forth of the campaign seem unimportant. But that's true only if you think that the final outcome is all that matters. It isn't; the campaign is an opportunity for us to discuss all kinds of issues and get to know ourselves as a country better, even if we don't always like what we see. This election will by turns be fascinating, outrageous, appalling, disgusting, disheartening, and perhaps even inspiring. But when it's all over, the chances that anyone will be saying the words "President Trump" are pretty low.

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