Trump Has Path to 270, But No Vehicle to Get There
Political number-crunchers have observed that Hillary Clinton has more geographic paths to 270 electoral votes than Donald Trump. And that Trump has never overtaken Clinton in RealClearPolitics’ national poll averages, save for a brief blip after his convention, indicating a likely loss in the national popular vote. Yet you can find enough battleground state polls with statistical dead heats to stitch together a plausible path for Trump, even if he doesn’t win the most votes.
Yes, Trump can get to 270.
But a big dark cloud hangs over that path: Trump’s minimal interest in get-out-the-vote operations. Without much campaign infrastructure, can Trump gut out the slew of close state races needed to go against the grain of what will likely be a popular vote loss nationally?
The beginning of Trump’s path has become crystal clear. The RCP average has him ahead in Iowa by 6.3 percentage points, Nevada by 2.3, Ohio by 1.8 and Florida by a scant one-10th of a point. (There’s little difference in the averages when third-party candidates are added.) Trump is also well-positioned to pick off the single electoral vote offered in Maine’s northern 2nd Congressional District, leading by nearly nine points.
Giving him all of those contests adds 60 electoral votes to his base of 206 from the states that Mitt Romney won, for a total of 266. Four short of victory.
Trump would then need one more state, most likely coming from this pool: Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, Virginia, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.
Clinton’s RCP average lead in these states ranges from 1.5 to six points. But for each of these states, you can find individual polls from September in which Trump is within the margin of error. In Colorado, one poll shows a two-way tie and another has a Trump lead. If one of those outliers is actually a harbinger of a momentum shift, Trump could pull off the upset.
So the path for Trump can be visualized. But can it be realized?
First, for that to happen, the most optimistic battleground state polls for Trump can’t be temporary byproducts of Clinton’s bout of pneumonia. National polls released late last week from the Associated Press, McClatchy and NBC/Wall Street gave Clinton a six- or seven-point two-way lead, suggesting that her vigorous return to the trail has pushed aside the image of her being helped into her limo. Once we see polls taken in the aftermath of Monday night’s debate, we’ll know if Trump is seriously contesting these blue-tinted swing states.
Second, Trump has to avoid losing any state that Mitt Romney carried four years ago. That won’t be easy. He has only tenuous holds on North Carolina (1.8-point lead in the two-way), Arizona (2.2) and Georgia (4.5). Clinton is also hoping to snag the electoral vote available in Omaha, Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District (which may come in handy if Trump takes New Hampshire). While no recent polling exists, CNN’s political director just classified the district as a toss-up.
Most importantly, does Trump have enough of a get-out-the-vote operation to win all races that may come down to a few thousand votes?
Last week, the Los Angeles Times deemed the competing ground games a mismatch, with the Clinton campaign running twice as many field offices and utilizing cutting-edge technology that personalizes outreach to unlikely but Democratic-leaning voters. Yale political scientist Eitan Hersh told the newspaper that the discrepancy could amount to as much as three extra points for Clinton in battleground states.
Trump, by contrast, has outsourced his GOTV efforts to the Republican National Committee as part of its support for various down-ballot candidates, many of whom have expressed little solicitude for Trump. In Nevada and Florida, Republican Senate nominees Joe Heck and Marco Rubio, respectively, are pursuing Latino voters far more adroitly than Trump is. Time and money the RNC spends on reaching those voters is time and money that isn’t helping Trump.
Trump is running on his reputation as a master builder, while critics say his present business has become more of a licensing vehicle that slaps his name on other people’s buildings and products. His presidential campaign is more like the latter interpretation. Instead of building his own get-out-the-vote operation, he’s lending his name to the RNC’s voter turnout efforts.
RNC officials nevertheless insist their ground game will help Trump, assuring the conservative Townhall website that the party over the past three years ramped up its voter registration operations and shifted away from phone banking toward door knocking with “digital walk apps.” Another unknown is how much pro-Trump populist enthusiasm translates into an Election Day ground game.
The upshot is that Clinton’s deeper commitment to voter turnout means she is likely to squeeze every possible voter into her column, while Trump risks leaving votes on the table.
With such a narrow path to victory, that’s not a smart risk to take. Trump’s cavalier attitude toward retail politicking didn’t hurt him in the GOP primary season, when he won many states by comfortable margins. But even his big wins were mostly pluralities, not majorities, in relatively low-turnout affairs. A motivated faction of die-hards was sufficient to the task. A general election is a completely different ballgame.
Trailing in the national polls all year, Trump’s path to victory is uphill. But his campaign is not designed to run uphill. Two hundred and seventy electoral votes was always going to be a stretch for Trump, but the master builder hasn’t built much campaign infrastructure to take advantage of what little opportunity he has.