Government and governance | The World

8 November 2016

Daniel Fazio looks at the key factors likely to decide the next President of the United States, and predicts a narrow Clinton victory.

All indications are that the 2016 US presidential election will be close. National and state polls of varying reliability paint conflicting scenarios, but ultimately two factors will determine the election: Electoral College demographics, and voter turnout.

To win an election a candidate must win a majority (270) of the 538 Electoral College votes. The 50 US states are each allocated a number of Electoral College votes based on population. The more people, the more Electoral College votes a state has.

States are divided into districts that elect one member to the US House of Representatives. The number of districts is apportioned according to population. Each state, regardless of population, is also represented by two senators. The US Congress consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Each state’s Electoral College vote equals its number of representatives plus its two senators. For example, California has the largest number. Its 53 representatives plus two senators gives it 55 Electoral College votes.

The presidential candidate with the highest popular vote in each state wins all of that state’s Electoral College votes. It is a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system. Although US presidential elections are seen as a national election, they are actually fifty elections because each state conducts its own poll.

This is why a candidate can win an Electoral College majority but lose the popular vote. In 2000, George W Bush won the Electoral College 271-267 but lost the popular vote to Al Gore by approximately half a million votes. Bush won the presidency because he gained an Electoral College majority. This was a rare event, and one unlikely to be repeated in 2016. In past elections, the popular vote winner has almost always also won the Electoral College too.

Presidential elections are determined by the results in the “swing” or “battleground” states – so called because their demographics mean both the Democrat and Republican candidates can win them. Four “swing” states to watch over the next 24 hours are Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. Trump likely needs to win all four to win the election, whereas Clinton will probably make it if she wins just one of these.

More on this: Donald Trump: The Paranoid-Jacksonian

“Swing” states will determine the election because they contain sizable percentages of the five demographic groups whose support Clinton and Trump need to win. These are non-college educated whites who strongly support Trump, college-educated whites who back Clinton, African-Americans, and Hispanic/Latino and Asian Americans, who are traditionally seen as strong Democrat supporters. These demographics, combined with a greater number of Electoral College votes in Democrat than Republican leaning states, suggest Clinton has an advantage because she has more options. She does not need to win all the swing states to get 270 Electoral College votes, whereas Trump does.

As in all US elections, because voting is voluntary, voter turnout will determine the winner. The candidate who wins the ground campaign, registering and mobilising their supporters to turn out to vote, will win the election. Ground campaigns are enormous logistical, resource and labour-intensive efforts.

Each state has its own ground campaign with the greatest effort going into the states each candidate thinks they can and/or must win. With the focus understandably on the presidential candidates, these ground campaigns attract only passing attention in the international coverage of US elections. Yet this is where elections are won and lost.

In 2008 and 2012, the Democrats clearly won the ground campaign, bringing a clear victory for Obama. Circumstantial evidence based on voter registration and early voter turnout indicates the Democrats are again winning the ground campaign this year. So here too, Clinton seems to have the advantage.

The volatile 2016 presidential election has challenged many political precedents and delivered a contest between the two most unpopular candidates in American history. Clinton has endured an unexpectedly difficult campaign. Trump defied and confounded everyone to win the Republican Party nomination and he can and, indeed, may, win the election.

The fact that Clinton and Trump are both flawed candidates perhaps explains the closeness of the race. Neither candidate has been able to attract the widespread support that would give them a clear advantage over the other.

Electoral College demographics favour Clinton, and the ground campaign will determine the winner. It will likely be a close election, but I predict Clinton will eke out a narrow win with approximately 300-310 Electoral College votes.

It is an historic election: either Clinton will become the first woman elected president or Trump will achieve an unprecedented triumph.

And while US voters may breathe a sigh of relief that this campaign will be over in a matter of hours, the rest of the world must start preparing now for 21 January 2017, when leaders will begin four years of having to deal with a President Clinton – or a President Trump.

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Fazio, Daniel. 2017. "Demographics As Destiny - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.