To the dismiss of many Democrats and political pundits, the presidential race is again tightening up. For weeks Clinton enjoyed a near double-digit lead in national polls and solid leads in the critical swing states. Yet recent polls suggest nationally the race is closer, with at least one poll–CNN putting Trump ahead (although with a margin of error that might question that)–and a recent NY Times article suggesting a closer race but one with Clinton still leading. The Washington Post still sees a decisive lead for Clinton in the critical swing states, but again polling suggests even in the swings a tighter race. The point is that for the last three or so weeks partisans and pundits have committed one if not many of the seven deadly sins of punditry that I recently described.
The point is that the presidential race is close and may be so right to the wire. Nate Silver gives Clinton (as of September 9) a 69.5% chance to win, I place it closer to 60-65% chance. Early voting will start soon, more FBI Clinton e-mails will be released, Wikileaks will release some, and then there are the debates. Many variables can still affect the election and there is no guarantee that Clinton can cinch an easy path to 270 electoral votes, especially when her disapprovals are as high as Trump’s and this is an anti-establishment year and she is the face of the status quo.
Over the last few weeks I have given several talks to various groups about the election, with three questions or issues repeatedly surfacing. Let’s consider these issues.
Popular Vote v Electoral Vote
Remember presidents are elected by the electoral vote which is a 51 state race (50 states plus District of Columbia) to reach 270 electoral votes. One can win the popular vote as Al Gore did in 2000 yet lose in the electoral college. I see this split again as a real possibility. One scenario: Clinton racks up large popular vote majorities in Democratic-leaning states but loses in the swing states. Alternatively, Clinton wins the swing states but huge anti-Clinton voters overall give Trump a popular (if we can say popular this year?) vote victory.
Clinton has many self-inflicted wounds and is a flawed candidate but she is also a victim of horrible sexism. I have been doing a quiz this year in my talks asking the audience what percentage of the voting population will not vote for a woman regardless of who it is? I think it is approximately 30%. This means Clinton starts off with nearly one-third of the voters who will not vote for her. What do you think? Is the percentage higher or lower than 30%?
Everyone wants to know what turnout will be this fall. This is hard to predict. I can see a scenario where turnout is depressed because no one likes the two major presidential candidates or a scenario where we see high turnout as voters come out to vote against Trump or Clinton. Both are plausible scenarios. With that I am asked who is advantaged with high or low turnout? Traditionally I would argue Democrats would be favored with high turnout but this election high turnout could favor Trump.
Since nearly 60% of voters say they do not like Trump or Clinton, will third parties benefit this year? I am skeptical. Partisan attitudes have hardened and it seems unlikely that many voters will beak to a third party, especially with a lingering but false belief that Nader cost Gore the 2000 election. Instead I see it more likely that some voters stay home or not vote for the presidential candidates. This non-voting may not make a difference in many states but in some swing states it could tip a race.
How will voters break?
I was in graduate school at Rutgers University during the 1980 race between Carter and Reagan. The race was very close until about 72 hours out. Polling then indicated that the undecided voters were breaking strongly for Reagan, deciding that they did not like the status quo. I see a scenario like that repeating itself. Yes early voting many complicate this but undecided voters will not vote until November 8. I could see a close race until about November 5, and then a major shift in voting as undecideds make up their mind. Whether those numbers will be enough to offset any candidate advantages from early voting is not clear but I could see one candidate winning the early voting and another winning on election day. Right now my guess is that a last minute break by voters favors Trump over Clinton in a year that favors the anti-establishment.
What happens after the election?
Stalemate. See almost no scenario where the next to years produces a real break from the current deadlock we see. No one party will win sufficiently commanding majorities in Congress plus the presidency to break current impasses and since neither Clinton nor Trump really are running with serious or significant narratives (they are arguing they should be elected because the other person is worse) their mandates will be weak.
But assume Clinton is elected, what then? Two predictions. First, Congress will do everything it can (the Republican-controlled House) to shut her agenda down. Second, the House sometime before the 2018 elections will impeach Clinton in a straight party-line vote. This will then give the Republicans the bragging rights to claiming they impeached both Clintons.