Clinton Vs Trump - Of Landslides, Mandates and 2000 Redux

08/11/2016 12:18

It appeared to be done and dusted two weeks before the election. Hillary had a secure national lead and all the discussions were about expanding the Electoral College map and whether or not recently Republican states like Arizona, Georgia and even Texas might be flipped into her column.

It looked like the October Surprise was limited to Trump's 'locker room talk' but the FBI changed all that. As Harold Wilson once said, "a week is a long time in politics."

With just 24 hours to go it is worth reviewing what the results could actually mean.

Even with Hillary's significant slide, she is still ahead in the majority of polls favoured by the poll-aggregators such as New York Times,, and Washington Post. However, the numbers are now a lot closer than they were and that means that the results in individual states could make a significant difference to how the Electoral College plays out.

It is worth remembering again, that winning the popular vote doesn't always translate into winning the Presidency, as 2000 proved. One nightmare scenario for Hillary is that she wins the popular vote but in such a way that doesn't translate into an Electoral College win. In 48 states and Washington DC, you only have to win a state by one vote to get all its Electoral College votes (Maine and Nebraska have a different system which actually could matter if it's close this year).

There are essentially three categories of states for the purpose of winning the Presidency for Hillary and she might be doing too well in two and not well enough in the one that matters. If she piles up a huge majority in Democrat strongholds like California or New York, the extra votes don't matter, she gets nothing extra from them. If she does well in traditionally Republican states but not well enough to win them, then those extra votes are also "wasted." Both of these things seem to be happening and essentially they don't help her. However, what is far more uncertain is how she is doing in the ten or so "swing states" where the election is won or lost. Hillary seems to be doing poorly in Ohio and Iowa, which the Democrats won under Obama. Whilst not as bad, Florida is also a big worry for her. In the last week, states like Pennsylvania and Colorado have started to look somewhat wobbly too. Hillary now has to hope that she has stopped the slide and can reverse the damage of the past 10 days.

Trump has a more difficult challenge because he has fewer guaranteed Republican states based on the previous two elections. He has to win all the states that Romney won and then add a significant group of ones that Obama won to get to the magic number of 270 Electoral College votes to win. Two weeks ago even some of the "Romney States" looked vulnerable, but he can be more optimistic now. Trump knows that whilst having come back in the polls, his path to winning the Electoral College relies on almost everything going right for him in the swing states, whereas he also knows that Hillary has more room to manoeuver.

One of the quirks of the Electoral College is that as a clear majority develops in the popular vote for one candidate, the system tends to exaggerate the result and the win appears more substantial. In 2012, Obama won the popular vote by only 3.9%, 51.1% to 47.2%, but won the Electoral College emphatically 332 to 206.

Looking at the potential outcomes it seems highly unlikely that Trump will have a large win, but it is possible that he'll win by a slim margin in the Electoral College and he may or may not win the popular vote. If he is elected, given the low expectations of him and his campaign, this will be seen as a major achievement and he will no doubt declare that he has been given a mandate on which to base his Presidency. A win for Trump will almost certainly mean the Republicans holding both the House of Representatives and the Senate with slightly smaller majorities. With all three parts aligned under the Republicans Trump will, in theory, be able to deliver everything he has stated in his campaign. If we look back to 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote; had a hugely contested win in the Electoral College; the Republicans had lost four seats in the Senate and only retained control by the casting vote of Vice President Cheney. However, that didn't prevent Bush from leading on an overtly Republican agenda.

Hillary faces a very different set of scenarios. If she has a slim win, then that will cause her significant problems in terms of enacting her agenda. Even with a substantial win she could still be seen as not having a strong mandate. Let's be honest, both candidates are deeply unpopular with the electorate so even if Hillary does win it can be argued that she won simply because the other guy was marginally less popular than she was. At this point, all talk of the Democrats winning the House seems to have ceased. In the Senate, whilst there is likelihood of some Democrat gains, it is uncertain whether they will be able to get from present 46 seats to the all important 50 with the new Vice President Tim Kaine having the casting vote. Even if Hillary gets a slim majority in the Senate, it is almost certain not to last, as the 2018 mid-term elections are likely to be very problematic for her. The party of the President almost always does badly in the mid-terms and the field is unusually skewed against the Democrats in 2018 who will have 25 of their seats up for re-election compared to only 8 Republican seats. Hillary's ability to get legislation through and, equally importantly, nominations for her Cabinet and the Supreme Court, could be very difficult to achieve.

So as we can see, all votes aren't equal and neither are all wins. As much as who wins on Tuesday, how they win will be crucial to how they govern for the next four years.