Numerous stories over the past few weeks have shown a surge in the polls for Donald Trump. Trump now leads Clinton in a number of polls and the Real Clear Politics average shows Hillary ahead by a scant one percent, a statistical dead heat. In spite of Trump’s surge, the race remains Hillary’s to lose and if the election were held today, she would almost certainly win. The reason is the Electoral College.
The Clinton advantage is derived from the fact that the presidential election is not a single election but a series of 51 separate elections in the states and the District of Columbia plus a final election in the Electoral College. The entire election hinges on a handful of swing states. To win the Electoral College election, Donald Trump has to win several states that Barack Obama won twice. The states of Florida and Ohio, won both times by Obama, are particularly important due to their large number of electoral votes. Without winning these two states there is almost no chance that Mr. Trump can win the presidency.
The typical list of swing states includes Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. The problem for Trump is that all of these states, with the sole exception of North Carolina in 2012, were won twice by Barack Obama.
The crux of the problem for Trump is that any Democrat starts with a lock on more electoral votes than a Republican does. This is thanks to the Democratic strongholds in the Northeast and on the West Coast, population centers that are rich in electoral votes.
Trump’s first task is not to lose any red states from previous elections. Unfortunately, polling shows that Clinton is threatening Trump’s lead in both Georgia and Arizona. She has also polled strongly in Missouri and Texas.
After securing the red states, Trump’s next chore is to turn swing states red. He is having some success in Florida and Ohio. Florida, which was very close in 2012, is currently in a dead heat. Trump has also surged in Ohio in recent weeks, but the state is still a statistical tie, as is North Carolina. Trump does hold a convincing lead in Iowa, where he holds a six-point advantage in the RCP average.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, holds convincing leads in New Hampshire and Virginia. She also has a two-point advantage in the RCP average for Colorado.
Even if Trump holds the red states and wins all of the swing states where he leads or is in a dead heat today, he would still lose the election. Trump victories in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio would not give him the 270 electoral votes needed to become president. Without losing any red states, Trump would have 264 electoral votes.
Three states would provide a possible pickup of six more electoral votes. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are all considered to be in play. Each of these Rust Belt states has been considered a possible Republican pickup in recent elections, but they have all remained in the Democrat column.
Trump has pinned his hopes on Pennsylvania from the beginning. It still looks like a long shot. Hillary leads in all recent polling by seemingly comfortable margins. The story is similar in Michigan and Wisconsin where Clinton leads, but by slightly smaller margins than Pennsylvania. As it stands, these states will all stay blue.
It will take a near sweep of the swing states by Donald Trump to win an Electoral College victory. With the debates looming and the possibility of more embarrassing email releases for Hillary Clinton, a continuing Trump surge is not impossible.
Considering the number of states that Trump needs to flip, the odds are against Trump running the table to pull off an upset victory. A win by Trump would require victories in states that have trended more and more blue in past elections. Hillary still has a distinct advantage even as Trump surges in the polls.