US Elections: The Look Ahead

Published on September 30, 2016

39 Days to Election

For all the general election polls hitting the tape day in and day out, the US presidential elections are, and are likely to remain, a virtual dead heat right up to the November 8 election.

Winning the White House hinges on winning at least 270 electoral votes, and by our count, the Clinton/Kaine Democratic ticket can probably tally up 237 electoral votes as either solidly or leaning Democratic, while the Trump/Pence ticket is trailing with 181 electoral votes solidly or leaning Republican.

So it would seem the election is Hillary Clinton’s to lose, but the polling and passions suggest otherwise, that the election could still go either way.

Still Within the Margin of Error

There are still 120 electoral votes up for grabs in some 15 or so competitive “battleground” states, and for all the built-in advantages in this “Blue Wall” of the electoral votes favoring the Democrats, it is all the more telling that Clinton is not ahead by a far larger margin.

And while Trump did himself no favors in his performance in last Monday’s first presidential debate (he bombed), the second presidential debate on October 9 in St. Louis will have a town hall setting, which is probably more suited to Trump’s style. TV viewers will be able to send questions in advance, and vote on which ones are ultimately put to the candidates. And the most passionate (Trump supporters) are the most likely to vote, again favoring the Republican nominee.

That it is only a two-point race according to the two most recent four way general polls — meaning Trump’s setback in the first debate failed to propel Clinton above the margin of error — may reveal the disparity in passion between Trump and Clinton voters. That, in turn, could greatly impact turnout, and put even more of a premium on the highly touted “Get Out the Vote” operations of the Clinton campaign to close the “intensity gap.”

We expect the presidential race to continue tightening, with the outcome riding high on the most closely competitive “battleground states.”

Three Key Battleground States

Those 270 electoral college votes need to win the White House are apportioned state-by-state, based upon the number of Senators and House members in each state. We will be following all of the battleground states, but for now, a few points on the three crucial battleground states, all on the East Coast, and in which the leads by one candidate over the other in the aggregate polling data in every instance is within the margin of error, meaning all three states are still true toss-ups.

*** Florida (29)

There is no electoral path to 270 for Trump without Florida’s 29 electoral votes, so the state is a must win state for Trump while it is a good to win for Hillary. The high population southern Florida Dade and Broward counties lean heavily Democratic but the election outcome may depend heavily on the “I-4 Corridor” in the middle of the state, which is drawing the most intense media advertising and campaign appearances. Ultimately, the outcome will depend on the Democratic “Get out the Vote” operations, especially with Hispanic and African-American voters. Libertarian Gary Johnson is attracting seven percent of Florida voters in the highly-rated Public Policy Polling survey released just yesterday, complicating the contest in this state for the two leading candidates.

*** North Carolina (15)

North Carolina is third among the states with active and reserve military members, which normally favors Republicans, while the state’s high growth, higher income Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill “triangle” and Charlotte tends to favor Democrats. In particular, the state’s recent HB2 “bathroom law” has boosted Democrats in galvanizing wider, well-organized protests (sometimes called “Moral Mondays”) against Republican Governor Pat McCrory and Republican Senator Richard Burr. If those sympathetic to the protests vote in significant numbers, it could tip the state to Hillary, especially with low expectations for “ticket splitting,” meaning a vote against McCrory and Burr is likely to translate into a vote against Trump.

*** Pennsylvania (20)

The key to Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and its suburbs. In 2012 Romney won 50 of 67 counties but still lost the state by more than 5% with Philadelphia (and Pittsburgh) going for President Obama by substantial margins and swamping Romney’s success in the “middle T” of the state. The Philadelphia African-American vote is especially critical. In 2012, in 59 Philadelphia voting districts, Romney received zero votes. Recent national polls have shown Trump receiving anywhere from 7% to as much as an improbable 19% of the African-American vote. If Trump carries 10% of the African-American vote, he will win the state, especially if the Democratic GOTV operations fail to deliver anywhere near Obama’s vast support base.

And Two Points of Note

Among all the twists and turns of what is inevitably going to be a very ugly and hard fought presidential election in the remaining weeks of the campaigns, there are two factors we will be watching with particular attention.

* The Third Party Factor

This isn’t a two-person race. It is a four-person race. The influence of the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson may prove significant. Johnson is on all 50 ballots; Stein is on 45 (a Green Party record) and qualified for write-ins in three more.

While the polling data points the other way, the Trump campaign estimates that three in four votes going to Green and Johnson would have gone to Clinton, while Trump appears to be losing only one in four to third parties. This could loom large in the outcome in Florida, as it did in 2000, when third party candidate Ralph Nader took just enough votes from Al Gore to push the state to George Bush, albeit after lengthy legal wrangles.

* “Intensity” and GOTV operations

The Trump campaign assumes a 15% “intensity gap” in favor of Trump — his voters will claw through barbed wire to get to the voting booth — meaning low turnout is likely a strong positive for his chances. That, they hope, will offset that the Trump campaign never built state-level “Get out the Vote” operations, while the Clinton campaign’s GOTV operations are extremely well organized and funded, especially in the battleground states. Trump farmed out this function to the Republican National Committee and there are disagreements on where to focus.

The Clinton campaign must woo nearly all the major blocs of young voters, Hispanics, and African American voters who delivered big time for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Trump is still struggling to win over undecided independents, and suburban women in particular, and to garner at least a good chunk of the “Reagan Democrats” among union rank and file voters.

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