Clinton adds to her Electoral College edge

Debate probably only reinforces the new status quo


In the broad sweep of U.S. history, very occasionally one of the major parties simply disqualifies itself from the contest to win the White House by nominating an unelectable, non-mainstream candidate. We suspect that there will never be a better example than Donald Trump. The Republican Party chose a deeply divisive figure — one not supported by many senior figures in the GOP even before the release of Trump’s raunchy 2005 discussion with Access Hollywood’s (and now The Today Show’s) superficial, celebrity-worshipping Billy Bush. (Yes, he is of the Bush family, so a Bush finally speared Trump, however unintentionally.) Their X-rated discussion, and Trump’s insistence on discussing Bill Clinton’s sordid past, has caused voters to usher children out of the room when the TV news comes on. Is this the most embarrassing campaign ever? It must be close.

There are some amusing aspects to this, including the parade of top Republicans who are shocked, shocked that Trump is capable of lewd, vulgar, crass talk and behavior. What did they think they were getting? Only now do they consider Trump unworthy of their support? And they find themselves in a tough spot because there has always been more resistance to Trump among the party leadership than the rank and file. The vast majority of self-identified Republicans will vote for Trump, and they may be angered by the party leaders who have retracted their endorsements. One thing that’s clear to us is that the idea of Trump actually dropping out is nearly unimaginable — and, no, the Republican National Committee is not going to remove him from the ticket. The Republicans have been stuck with Trump ever since his victory in the Indiana primary on May 3, and practically speaking before that as well.

As we always say, it’s hard to be very confident about what a debate will do to public opinion. We suspect that Trump will get better reviews for this one than his first debate, if only because it would be hard for the reviews to be any worse. Clinton seemed like she was just trying to run out the clock much of the night, which is a natural but sometimes dangerous position for a politician who is leading. She cited Michelle Obama — “when they go low, we go high” — and said Trump wasn’t telling the truth about some of his accusations but generally decided not to engage. We suspect the Republican base loved Trump’s performance, further driving a wedge between party leaders — many of whom asked Trump to leave the race over the weekend — and GOP voters, who will support the nominee in large numbers. But we also don’t think Clinton did anything to turn off her own base, and in fact she enthused them in some ways.

In other words, this felt like a status quo debate to us. And if that is indeed the case, the outcome is fine for Clinton, because she had reestablished a clear lead in the race going into the weekend.

It will take another round of polls to grasp the full impact of the Trump tape and the debate. While it’s tempting to speculate that Trump will free fall, party loyalty in this era is probably too strong for that to happen. But even before the debate, Hillary Clinton has gotten fairly strong numbers. That’s translating to an improved outlook for her in our Electoral College ratings, which are starting to look very similar to the map we had before Clinton’s September swoon.

Ratings changes: Electoral College and Senate

We’re making several ratings changes this week, all of them in favor of the Democrats.

First of all, Ohio moves all the way from Leans Republican to Leans Democratic in the Electoral College. There has been a lot written about why Donald Trump will perform better in Ohio than nationally — we devoted an entire article to it last week. Both the state’s history of having a slight Republican lean and its current demographics make it friendlier to Trump than the nation as a whole. However, polling in the state is showing that Donald Trump’s lead from a few weeks ago has evaporated, and the most recent surveys actually have had Clinton ahead. We’ve also caught wind of some unreleased polling that mirrors these results. If Clinton has a national lead of around four or five points, there’s good reason to think that Ohio will end up voting for her, even if it has a redder tint than usual.

The Clinton campaign also appears to be redoubling its efforts in this historic bellwether, further putting to bed rumors that the Clinton campaign might not be focusing much on the state (although one never knows what might happen in the final month of this contest). Clinton herself is campaigning on Monday in Columbus, a place where she will likely need to match or probably even exceed Obama’s performance to win the state, and President Obama is campaigning in Cleveland and Columbus later in the week. On Thursday, Trump will be in Cincinnati, the heart of vote-rich southwest Ohio, a conservative region that is vital to any Republican’s statewide chances.

If Clinton wins Ohio, Trump has no path to victory. No Republican has ever won the White House without it, and, particularly in this election, Ohio’s demographics should make it relatively low-hanging fruit for the Republicans. So we now have Trump as the underdog in Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio, three electoral vote-rich states that he absolutely needs to have any chance to win.

The same logic we’re using in Ohio we’re also applying to Nevada, a state where polling has been very close all year but which should probably lean to Clinton if she’s leading nationally by an Obama 2012-style margin. The Silver State, which like Ohio almost always votes for the winning candidate, goes from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. So too does the single electoral vote in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, a relatively diverse, well-educated district where Trump doesn’t have the same kind of appeal that Mitt Romney did.

We’re also going from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Clinton now seems to have reasserted herself after some tightening before the first debate. That’s particularly true in the Keystone State, where her lead in polling averages right now is bigger than the 5.5 point margin of victory Obama enjoyed there in 2012. These states ended up being bridges too far for even George W. Bush, and Donald Trump is more Billy than George W.

Looming over all of these states are two key factors: Clinton is almost certainly going to have a major ad-spending advantage in all of the states, and she is very likely to have a better-funded and organized ground game effort.

We also wonder if we’re snapping back to the point in the race where some regularly red states might be moving back within grasp for Clinton. Polls have often shown a close race in Arizona, a state that has consistently voted significantly more Republican than the national average for more than half a century. Trump still seemingly leads in Arizona, but the state’s growing Hispanic population should be energized to vote against Trump, and the state also has a decent-sized number of Mormons, conservative voters who don’t like Trump.

Speaking of, some readers may be startled by our shift of the only Mormon majority state, Utah, from Safe Republican all the way down to Leans Republican. But the recent developments in the Beehive State have been nothing short of jaw-dropping. Trump has been weak there all along, thanks to the strong, continuing opposition of favorite son Mitt Romney, among others. In the state’s GOP caucus, Trump was walloped, receiving a mere 14% of the vote to Ted Cruz’s 69% and John Kasich’s 17%. Early surveys showed Trump ahead in the general election race but running far, far below the massive majorities Utah has regularly delivered to GOP presidential candidates since 1968 (Romney received almost 73% in November 2012). Utah went from having a Republican nominee perfectly designed for the state, Romney, to one who is an almost uniquely poor fit.

And then came the 2005 Access Hollywood tape. In short order, a long list of Republican officials (including Gov. Gary Herbert, Sen. Mike Lee, and Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Mia Love, and Chris Stewart) denounced Trump. The Deseret News, long viewed as close to the leaders of Utah’s dominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), wrote a scathing editorial repudiating Trump.

In a state where character matters a great deal, the Trump sex-talk tape was a deal-breaker. It is unclear what will happen now. The chances that Clinton will win Utah are minimal, but both Libertarian Gary Johnson and independent conservative Evan McMullin (backed by some Romney loyalists as well as national conservative leaders such as Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol) may receive an infusion of support. Will they split the Trump opposition to allow Trump to eke out a victory in Utah? Probably, yet politics is in such turmoil in this usually predictable place that no one can know for sure just now.

Our new ratings are shown in Map 1. This map, which currently has no Toss-ups, shows Clinton mildly improving on Obama’s 332 electoral votes from 2012: In this map, she carries all of the Obama states that year except for Iowa and Maine’s Second Congressional District, but she makes up for that by carrying North Carolina and Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, both of which voted for Obama in 2008 but not 2012.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings

Table 1: Crystal Ball Electoral College ratings changes

Our one other change comes in the Senate, where Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) is fighting for his political life. Both Democrats and Republicans now view this race as a Toss-up, and we’re moving it from Leans Republican to reflect that consensus.

Missouri was once a major presidential bellwether state, voting for the winning candidate all but one time from 1904 to 2004. But over the last decade, the state has drifted away from the national average and become more Republican at the presidential level, to the point where in 2012 it had its biggest Republican lean relative to the nation since the Civil War.

However, the state is still capable of electing Democrats down the ballot. Even while Mitt Romney won the Show Me State by nine points in 2012, Gov. Jay Nixon (D) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) both won reelection by double digits. There are still lots of places in Missouri that are comfortable voting for Democrats down the ballot, including large swathes of the state outside of greater St. Louis and Kansas City (the areas to which Clinton’s presidential strength will largely be confined).

This year, polls suggest Trump holds a comfortable lead, but state Attorney General Chris Koster (D) has at least a coin flip’s chance of winning the governorship, and Secretary of State Jason Kander (D) now appears to have roughly even odds of beating Blunt. The New York Times reported last week that Kander is running slightly ahead of Blunt in internal polling, something we have also heard.

Kander, a veteran, ran perhaps the best ad of the entire cycle, and Blunt is struggling with being an insider candidate in an outsider kind of year. Blunt’s son, a lobbyist, is running his campaign, a connection that is causing his campaign headaches. Like Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who we also recently downgraded to Toss-up, Blunt has frustrated national Republicans, who believe both incumbents have not run strong enough campaigns in a difficult environment.

Ultimately, this race might be something of a re-run of Arizona’s highly competitive Senate race in 2012. In that open-seat content, ex-Surgeon General Richard Carmona (D) was locked in a very tight race with Rep. Jeff Flake (R) and ran ahead of Obama statewide, but the state’s Republican tinge allowed Flake to get over the finish line. However, it’s an incomplete comparison: for one, Blunt is an incumbent, and Missouri has more of a history of electing Democratic senators than Arizona (Missouri currently has a Democratic senator, while Arizona hasn’t elected one since 1988). In any event, Trump coattails could be helpful to Blunt, but there will be at least some Trump-Kander voters.

The Senate now seems likely to be decided by six Toss-up races: Republican-held seats in Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, as well as a Democratic-held seat in Nevada. The disparity between these half-dozen races and every other Senate race is clear from Map 2, our updated Senate race ratings.

Map 2: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Table 2: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change

Outside of these six seats, every other race on the map has a clear favorite: none of the other contests are rated even as leaning, so we see likely or safe winners in 28 of 34 races. Assuming no late surprises in the other races, both Democrats and Republicans should be able to count on 47 seats in the next Senate. If the toss-ups split 50-50, the new vice president will break ties, meaning that each side needs to win at least four of the six Toss-ups to guarantee a clear majority. These six races should end up being the focus of both parties in the final weeks of the campaign.

Perhaps 2016 won’t actually be much different from 2012

While we don’t know exactly what the combined impact of the Trump video/recording and the debate will be, evidence abounds that a few states could see some fairly different vote shares for the Democratic and Republican tickets than in 2012. Topping that list is Utah, where most GOP leaders have harshly rebuked Trump, as we noted above. Utah currently has far and away the largest difference in its current two-party poll margin compared to the 2012 outcome there; as shown in Table 3, HuffPost Pollster finds that the Beehive State margin is about 24 points more Democratic than four years ago.

Table 3: 2016 two-party margin in polling averages compared to 2012 outcomes by state

Notes: As of the afternoon of Oct. 9, 2016. HPP refers to HuffPost Pollster, RCP refers to RealClearPolitics. “Abs diff” is the absolute value of the difference. Ordered by the difference in HuffPost Pollster’s data.

A few other states stand out for notable differences in the polling average margins and their 2012 two-party popular vote outcomes. To Trump’s benefit, he is in much better shape in Iowa, where the two-party margin is about 10 points more Republican compared to 2012. Maine and Nevada are also notably more GOP-leaning this cycle in terms of margin, as are some uncompetitive northeastern states where Trump could slightly outperform Mitt Romney (including New York, the home state of both candidates). HuffPost Pollster finds Clinton is closer in still-deeply red Arkansas, where she was once the state’s first lady, though RealClearPolitics’ average disagrees. But the latter average also shows much more notable shifts in Clinton’s direction in key battleground states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. And both aggregators find the margin in Arizona to have shifted in the Democratic nominee’s direction versus 2012.

Still, unless there’s an unexpected collapse in Trump’s numbers — base Trump voters will likely stick with him — most states will vote fairly similarly to how they did in 2012. Based on the current polling averages in the states where data are available from HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics, the correlation between the two-party margin in 2012 and the two-party margin in those two aggregators ranges from .94 to .96. This relative stasis is reflected in an Electoral College map that is largely similar to the last two election cycles, with most of the same states falling into the two broad categories of “safe” and “battleground.”