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Why Clinton’s Electoral Map Isn’t As Good As Obama’s

When Hillary Clinton was leading Donald Trump by 7 or 8 percentage points nationally, her Electoral College map seemed expansive. States like Virginia and Colorado were out of Trump’s reach. South Carolina and Georgia seemed competitive. Even a Clinton win in Texas seemed less like a fever dream and more like just an optimistic projection. The map seemed like Clinton’s friend.

But Trump’s chances have been on an upswing the last couple of weeks and rose again Thursday on strong national and state polling. He now trails by only a couple of percentage points. And the tighter the race gets, the less favorable the map looks for Clinton. Indeed, Clinton does not have a meaningful advantage in the Electoral College, as President Obama did in 2012.

Four years ago, Obama defeated Mitt Romney by 3.9 percentage points. But even if the national popular vote had been closer, Obama had a pretty big cushion in the Electoral College. Let’s say the race had been 3.9 percentage points closer and Obama and Romney had tied in the popular vote. So let’s make every state 3.9 points more Republican-leaning. Obama won Pennsylvania, for example, by 5.4 points. After our adjustment, he wins by only 1.5 points. Georgia would go from a 7.8-point Romney win to an 11.7-point one. And so on. If we do this in every state, we find that Obama would still have carried enough states to win the White House.1 If you were to continue to take points away from Obama in the popular vote margin and adjust the state margins accordingly, you’d find that he would have had to lose nationally by 1.5 percentage points to lose the Electoral College.

This exercise — imagining a tied race nationally and then shifting the states accordingly — is useful for getting a sense of the political leanings of each state independent of the overall political environment. You can see from above that Pennsylvania was only the lightest shade of blue in 2012. Georgia was safely red. And the playing field overall was tilted in Obama’s favor — there were more blue-leaning electoral votes than red.

The reverse may be true in 2016 — Clinton’s support is less optimally distributed than Obama’s, according to current polling.

Clinton leads Trump by 2.2 percentage points in the national popular vote, according to our polls-only forecast. Trump has already shaved several percentage points off Clinton’s advantage; let’s imagine that he shaves off a couple more. If the race in each state moved uniformly — similar to what we did above, we take the current projected vote margin in each state and add a couple of points to Trump’s column — here’s what the race would look like in the battleground states:2

MARGIN IN EVENT OF A TIED NATIONAL RACE
STATE OBAMA (2012) CLINTON CHANGE
Maine +11.4 +4.1 R+7.3
Iowa +2.0 -4.4 R+6.4
Nevada +2.8 -2.0 R+4.8
Michigan +5.6 +1.7 R+3.9
Ohio -0.9 -3.4 R+2.5
New Mexico +6.3 +4.2 R+2.1
Wisconsin +3.1 +1.5 R+1.6
Colorado +1.5 +0.6 R+0.9
New Hampshire +1.7 +0.6 R+0.6
Pennsylvania +1.5 +1.1 R+0.4
Minnesota +3.8 +3.5 R+0.3
Florida -3.0 -2.5 D+0.5
Virginia 0.0 +2.5 D+2.5
North Carolina -5.9 -2.9 D+3.0
Battleground states have moved right relative to the country

Data is rounded.

Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, FiveThirtyEight’s polls-only model

Nationwide, Clinton actually does better than Obama in a bunch of states, but they tend to be the uncompetitive ones, such as Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming. Most battleground states, by contrast, have become redder relative to the nation.

Nevada and Iowa have gone from light-blue states to light-red states. Ohio has become a darker shade of red. In 11 of the 14 states we’re looking at, Clinton is doing worse than Obama did.

It’s Trump who may have an Electoral College advantage. Let’s take that 1.5-point cushion Obama had, for example. If Trump were to lose the national popular vote by 1.5 percentage points and each state margin moved the same amount, he’d win 266 electoral votes. If Clinton were in the same situation, she’d win only 213 electoral votes.

But with nearly two months left until Election Day, things could shift around. For now, Trump can count on more electoral votes in the event that he loses by a small margin than Clinton can if she does. That’s why our polls-only model gives Trump a better shot of winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote (at 6.1 percent) than Clinton (1.5 percent). With Clinton leading nationally by 2 or 3 percentage points, she’s still the favorite. But if the race tightens further, the map won’t save her.


Footnotes

  1. With 272 electoral votes.

  2. I’m including the 14 states that we would expect to have a final margin of 5 percentage points or less if the 2016 race were tied nationally.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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