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How Clinton and Trump can win in the Electoral College

Republican Donald Trump is set to focus on

Republican Donald Trump is set to focus on Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, along with turning rural areas of blue states red. Credit: AP / Matt Rourke

With the political conventions done, the race for the White House moves to the stage at which candidates take a hard look at the electoral map to decipher where they can deploy resources to score victories in pivotal states.

Based on current polls and recent election trends, a generous interpretation would show up to 15 states playing key roles in November. But, like most national elections, fewer states are more important than Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Some analysts believe Donald Trump must win two of those — if not all three — to claim victory. A business-based political action committee that’s supporting Trump just announced it will concentrate its political spending in those locales.

But in a race far from ordinary, don’t discount the role of Virginia, North Carolina, Michigan and Nevada. Even New Hampshire’s four electoral votes are being courted by Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“Clinton has a wider path to an Electoral College victory,” David Caputo, a Pace University political scientist, said about the state-by-state targeting that will mark the final three months of this campaign. “Trump is taking a narrower approach, which he has to. He’s going to have fewer states ‘in play’ than Clinton has . . . But this campaign is still in the very early stages.”

The U.S. election is unlike other nations’

Unlike those of other nations, U.S. presidential contests aren’t decided by a national vote total, but by 50 winner-take-all state elections. Each state has a number of Electoral College votes that correspond to its number of representatives in Washington.

To win the presidency, a candidate must get at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes at stake in each election. In 2012, President Barack Obama garnered 332 Electoral College votes to Republican Mitt Romney’s 206.

Over the next three months, candidates will try to plot out which states their party lost in 2012 that can be retaken and which will have to be defended. States that have been reliably Democratic (California, Massachusetts) or Republican (Texas, Louisiana) won’t be visited by the campaigns down the homestretch. Swing states probably will be swamped.

Florida, Ohio loom large, as does Pennsylvania

Not only are Florida and Ohio heavy in electoral votes (29 and 18, respectively), but these two have also proved crucial to the winner in most recent elections. Obama carried both in 2012 and 2008; Republican George W. Bush carried both in 2004 and 2000.

The most recent polling shows Ohio and Florida leaning toward Clinton. Real Clear Politics, which aggregates polls, says Clinton leads Trump in Florida by an average of 2.7 percentage points. The FiveThirtyEight blog puts it at 4.5 percentage points.

In Ohio, Real Clear Politics says Clinton has a 0.8 percentage point lead; FiveThirtyEight says 3.9 percentage points.

Pollsters looking to puzzle out a Trump victory have said the Republican probably needs those states as well as Pennsylvania (20 votes), maybe even more so than Clinton. Those three states have the biggest chance to “tip” the election, according to FiveThirtyEight.

“The conventional wisdom is that Trump needs Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida to win,” said Tim Byrnes, a Colgate University political scientist. Clinton could lose two of those and still get to 270 electoral votes, he said.

For Trump, that would be much harder — he needs to net 64 more votes than Romney did in 2012 and he needs wins in big states to do that, Byrnes said.

“Pennsylvania is not normally a swing state,” added Caputo, noting that a Republican hasn’t won the state since 1988. “Trump is trying to put it in play. But Pennsylvania has been notorious for having a big lead for the Democrat early, [the Republican] closing the gap a bit, then the Democrat winning by 3-5 points.”

Pennsylvania, he said, “may be the hardest state that” Clinton has to depend on. “She’s on the wrong side of a lot of issues there: coal, fracking,” he said, saying she’ll depend on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to pull her through.

Trump needs other swing states as well

Besides the big three, keep an eye on these states, too: Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin. All are considered in play.

Obama won each of those states twice — except for North Carolina, which backed Romney in 2012. Clinton will be looking to defend Democratic victories.

Trump is “clearly trying” to put Michigan, Colorado, Nevada and “to some extent, Wisconsin” in play, Caputo said. He’s going to have to poach some Obama states to win this fall.

“Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada are probably absolutely critical for him,” Caputo said. Polls show each of those states favoring Clinton, for now.

Even New Hampshire has seen its share of campaigning already. It only has four electoral votes, but its switch from Bush to Obama was seen by some as a bellwether for the past two Democratic victories.

Clinton casts a wider net

Arizona, Georgia and Missouri have been solid Republican states in the presidential election. But some forecasters currently are saying these could be up for grabs.

Clinton might have a chance to pick off one of these, which could give her more cushion for losing one of the swing states. Real Clear Politics classifies all three as “toss up” states for the moment.

The exceptions

Why is Trump campaigning in Maine, which has been solidly Democratic? Why is Clinton touring Nebraska, which has been bedrock Republican?

Because these are the only two states that allot electoral votes by congressional district rather than a statewide winner-takes-all system.

In Nebraska, Democrats see a chance for Clinton to win the congressional district based around Omaha, the state’s lone urban area. In Maine, Trump is eyeing the district that covers most of the rural, forested lands north and east of Portland.

But will they turn out to vote?

Trump and Clinton have the highest negative ratings of any two candidates to ever run for president. One possible implication: Rather than the election hinging on voters who haven’t decided yet, it might depend on whether voters decide to stay home or support a minor-party candidate such as Libertarian Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor, some said.

“Polarization in this hyperpartisan era means that practically nine of 10 voters are committed, and the unknown is whether they can be motivated to cast a ballot,” Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, wrote on his “Crystal Ball” blog.

“Presidential job approval, the state of the economy, war and peace, and a few other items reinforce partisanship and turnout, and influence the few truly swingable votes among hard independents. This is especially true when the choices are as well-known as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.”

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