How people elect parliaments
With three weeks to go in the election of the United States presidential Electoral College, the real battle lies in around a dozen contestable states. And Hillary Clinton appears to have a large advantage.
Each President of the United States is chosen not directly by American voters, but by the 538 citizens who are elected to make up the presidential Electoral College.
Each states’ number of College members is broadly proportional to population, being based on the number of federal congressional districts for each state, plus two: a formula which slightly biases the College allocations in favour of the small states.
Each state chapter of the College – ranging in size from 3 members (for several small states) up to 55 members (for California, the largest state) – meets separately to cast votes for the next president and vice-president.
The 120 million US voters do at least elect the Electoral College members. In each state, the electorate’s direct votes for the competing candidates are counted to elect a full ticket of Electoral College candidates nominated by each political party, equal in number to the state’s total allocated number of College votes.
Since all the 50 states and the capital District of Columbia elect their tickets by the plurality method, many of the states are ‘safe’ for either the Democratic or the Republican candidate.
(Two states – Maine and Nebraska – elect one College member in each congressional district, and award their final two members using the total state-wide vote, but in each case the counting method is still the plurality rule.)
The current national political situation gives the Democrats a notable advantage in an ordinary contest, as the total number of Electoral College members in their safe states significantly exceeds the Republican number.
The ‘Blue Wall’ of safe Democratic states; very safe states (dark blue) and states which appear to lean clearly to the Democratic candidate (lighter blue)
American analysts speak of the ‘Blue Wall’ – a number of safe, large and medium-sized states including California, New York and Illinois.
Needing 270 votes to win the presidency in the Electoral College vote, the Democrats enjoy 200 safe Blue Wall votes.
Taking into account 2016 polling, another 72 College votes are considered by most analysis to be reliably leaning the Democrats’ way. They therefore enter the last month of the election race holding 272 of the 270 votes they need.
By comparison the Republicans are well behind, because most of their safe states have smaller populations. The Republicans count 147 safe College votes, and another 39 votes are regarded as reliably likely to be won by them, giving Donald Trump an estimated starting total of 186 votes.
The Red heartland: the Republican safe states (red) and likely states (light red) add up to significantly fewer College votes than the Democratic map
The remaining 80 votes are considered by most analysis to be the ones hanging in the balance.
The battleground states in 2016. The five most marginal states (purple) are worth a total of 80 votes. Utah (orange) is a special case where a third-party candidate has a chance.
Obviously on the numbers above, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is already clearing – just – the 270 votes she needs to win.
Republican Donald Trump therefore not only needs to win all the close contests, but must actually find a way to cut into one or more states which are currently regarded as reliably leaning to the Democrats.
This map explains why Trump’s campaign laid out a demography-based strategy to focus heavily on winning white working-class votes in the band of states starting in the northern mid-west: Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, through to Virginia and North Carolina.
But Trump’s main strategy seems to be failing him, with almost none of these target states trending towards him.
On current polling, not one of Hillary Clinton’s ‘light blue’ states are within his reach, with virtually all polls showing Clinton with leads of 5% to 10%, or even greater. Without breaking at least one of these current leads, Trump cannot win the presidency.
Worse still, most of the closely-balanced ‘purple’ states – Nevada, North Carolina, Florida and recently Ohio – are also starting to show measurable Clinton leads. Of the close contests, only in Iowa is Trump polling ahead.
State polls began notably moving away from Trump when his campaign lurched in the face of sexual harassment allegations in late September.
Recent polling is actually showing Trump’s support in the Republican-leaning states of Arizona and Georgia falling to surprisingly narrow margins. In response the Clinton campaign is shifting tactics and advertising spending to try to turn these states contestable.
Finally, Trump is in surprising difficulty in Utah, normally one of the safest of all Republican states. In the heavily Mormon state a conservative independent (Evan McMullin) is polling over 20%, putting him within 5% of both Trump and Clinton. If Trump loses Utah’s 6 Electoral College votes, they too would need to be made up elsewhere.
(Image: from CNN’s broadcast of the 2nd presidential debate, redistributed through other media)