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Election Update: The Campaign Is Almost Over, And Here’s Where We Stand

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We’ll take this opportunity to pause for breath — there have been surprisingly few polls released so far today — and regain perspective on the presidential campaign. So grab a seat on the couch and call Bobby and Mabel in from the yard: It’s time for 10 questions about where where the race stands. We published previous editions of this feature on July 15, Aug. 15, Sept. 6, Sept. 25 and Oct. 16, in case you want to see how smart or stupid our thinking was at various points of the campaign.

1. Who’s ahead in the polls right now?

Hillary Clinton is ahead in most national polls, as you can find every number from a 1-percentage-point Clinton lead to a 6-point lead in recent national surveys. There are also a couple of polls that still show a tied race or — in one case — Trump ahead. Overall, the range of national polls has narrowed a bit, although it remains wider than what we saw over the past few campaigns, with Clinton ahead by about 3 points on average.

One could argue about whether Clinton’s still ahead in the Electoral College, however. New Hampshire, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and the 2nd Congressional District of Maine are all extremely competitive in recent polls. (Our forecast still has Clinton ahead in New Hampshire — by about 2 points — but there’s plenty of polling to support the notion of a small Trump lead there instead.) That means Clinton has 268 electoral votes in states where she’s clearly ahead in the polls — two short of the 270 she needs.

Thus, while Clinton’s a 76 percent favorite to win the popular vote according to our polls-only forecast, her odds are more tenuous — 64 percent — to win the Electoral College. (Her chances in the polls-plus forecast are identical.) It would not necessarily require a major polling error for Trump to be elected, though he would have to do so with an extremely narrow majority in the Electoral College.

2. What’s the degree of uncertainty?

In some ways, our fundamental hypothesis about this campaign is that uncertainty is high, with both a narrow Trump win and a more robust Clinton win — in the mid-to-high single digits — remaining entirely plausible outcomes. The polls-plus model, which gives Trump a 36 percent chance, is basically the same one that gave Mitt Romney just a 9 percent chance on the eve of the 2012 election, so it isn’t inherently so cautious. But the still-high number of voters not committed to either Trump or Clinton — about 13 percent of the electorate says it’s undecided or will vote for a third-party candidate, as compared with just 3 percent in the final 2012 polling average — contributes substantially to uncertainty.

So does the unusually broad swing-state map, with the outcome in at least a dozen states still in some doubt. And it’s important to remember that the outcomes in each state are correlated with one another, so that if Clinton underperforms her polls in Wisconsin (for instance), she’ll probably also do so in Minnesota. Forecasts that don’t account for these correlations are liable to be overconfident about the outcome. It isn’t hard to find examples of candidates who systematically beat their polls in almost every competitive state, as President Obama did in 2012 and as Republican candidates for governor and senator did in 2014.

And that’s before accounting for some of the factors that the model doesn’t consider: the disagreement in the polls, the unusual nature of Trump’s candidacy and the demographic changes it is producing, Clinton’s superior turnout operation, the possibility of “shy Trump” voters, the fact that the news cycle is still somewhat fluid headed into the final weekend, the declining response rates to polls, and the substantial number of high-profile polling misses around the world over the past few years. We think this is a good year for a forecast that calls for more caution and prudence.

3. What’s the medium-term trend in the polls?

Clinton’s popular-vote lead peaked at about 7 percentage points at around the time of the third presidential debate, but Trump has closed the deficit to 3 points now.1 Most of the change has come from Trump gaining ground rather than Clinton losing ground, so one should give Trump some credit for managing to stay out of his own way over the past couple of weeks and adopting a more disciplined message (relatively speaking), making it easier for Republican voters to come home to his campaign.

4. What’s the short-term trend in the polls?

If you look at the polls over the past few days as opposed to the past few weeks, however, it isn’t as clear who’s gaining ground. In that sense, things have become slightly less scary for Clinton. We can debate until we’re blue in the face how safe a 3-point lead is, but a steady 3-point lead is a lot safer than 3-points-and-falling.

5. Which states shape up as most important?

The map is much broader than it was in 2012. Clinton’s “firewall” has crumbled to some extent with the tighter polls in New Hampshire, although Nevada — where early-voting data portends a much more favorable outcome for Clinton than polls do — could potentially replace it. Thus, Trump would need to flip another blue state, with Pennsylvania, Michigan and perhaps Colorado being the best candidates. Clinton could hedge against any potential incursion by winning either Florida or North Carolina, however. Florida, especially, would make a Trump win almost impossible because of its 29 electoral votes, which is why it remains the top state in our tipping- point index. To the extent our forecast assumes there to be high uncertainty, however, states more on the periphery of the discussion — such as Ohio, Virginia and perhaps even Arizona — shouldn’t be totally forgotten about, either. Sometimes the tipping-point state is a surprise: It was very nearly Pennsylvania in 2012, for example, despite a lot of smart takes that excoriated Romney for campaigning there.

6. Does one candidate appear to be doing better in the Electoral College than in the popular vote?

Yes, Trump. Our model has thought so all year, and it’s because Clinton’s gains relative to Obama are concentrated among demographic groups — Hispanics, college-educated whites, Mormons — that are under-represented in swing states relative to their overall share of the population. Now that has become more apparent in the polling, and roughly a third of Trump’s 35 percent chance of victory reflects cases where he just barely gets over the hump in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote.

Could the reverse happen instead — Clinton winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote? Our model considers it to be a remote possibility — an 0.5 percent chance — but it doesn’t account for the prospect that Clinton’s ground game or her late advertising blitz could improve her margins in swing states relative to the country overall. So a split either way is plausible, but it’s a lot more likely to be in Trump’s favor.

7. How do the “fundamentals” look?

Curiously enough, a narrow Clinton win — or a narrow Trump win — would be consistent with literature from political science that suggests2 that economic conditions have a heavy influence on voting behavior and that candidates matter less in an extremely partisan environment. Our economic index has fallen slightly over the course of the campaign and now suggests that a “generic” Republican would beat a generic Democrat by about 1 percentage point, given economic conditions. On the brighter side for Clinton, Obama’s approval ratings are pretty good and could sway some undecideds into her column.

8. How do FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts compare against prediction markets?

In general, FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts — especially our polls-plus model — have moved in tandem with betting odds while other models have diverged from them. There’s been an uptick in Clinton’s odds at betting markets over the past 48 hours, however, perhaps based on what seem to be favorable signs for Democrats in early voting. Thus, betting markets — which give Clinton a 77 percent chance as of this writing — are somewhere in between the FiveThirtyEight model and other polling-based models, which have her chances as high as 99 percent.

9. What would keep me up late at night if I were Clinton?

She’s probably thinking: I’m certainly not thrilled about how the last week or two have gone, and particularly about my campaign’s inability to redirect the focus back to Trump’s many vulnerabilities after the FBI news broke. But that’s water under the bridge now. I can imagine a few ways that I might lose: If African-Americans don’t turn out in large numbers, if there’s a large turnout for Trump among white non-college voters, or if some whites with college degrees — traditionally a Republican-leaning group — come home to Trump. If one of those three things happens, I should be fine. If all three of them do, I’m probably toast. If it’s two out of three, that’s where we could be headed for a very long night and a possible popular vote-Electoral College split.

10. What would keep me up late at night if I were Trump?

We get a lot of questions about why our model doesn’t account for early-voting data. One answer is that it does, to the extent that early voting is reflected in the polls. Another is that the whole point of building a model is to take a more disciplined approach toward evaluating evidence instead of just throwing a hodgepodge of indicators together. Our model does a great job of reflecting what the polls say and translating that into probabilities. So you can take it at face value or use it as a departure point if there are some other factors you might want to consider.

That’s a long preamble to the following point: In every one of these updates, we’ve pointed out that Trump’s lack of a turnout operation could be a problem for him in the event of a close election. We still don’t have a good way to estimate how big the effect might be. Furthermore, there are lots of ways to read too much into early-voting data. But there are the makings of a coherent story here about how turnout either salvages the election for Clinton, or allows her to turn a narrow win into a more emphatic one and beat her polls. It’s not just that Clinton is turning out her voters early, but also that some of them are so-called low-propensity voters who weren’t necessarily making it through likely voter screens. Furthermore, Clinton’s coalition is broader than Trump’s to begin with, so if she gets a good turnout she’ll probably win, even if Trump does also. So if I’m Trump, I’m not happy about the early-voting numbers, and I can imagine myself losing despite picking off a state like Michigan because of problems in Nevada, North Carolina or Florida, where early voting plays a large role.

The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast is doing daily shows right up until Election Day.

Footnotes

  1. By the way, the 4 points that Trump made up in just two or three weeks? That’s another reason to be careful about assuming the polls will predict the outcome all that precisely.

  2. With a decidedly mixed track record of predictive success.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

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