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Hillary Clinton’s Electoral College problem, explained

Hillary Clinton Holds Get Out The Vote Rally In Houston, Texas Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is up in the polls. Indeed, up by more than Barack Obama was the weekend before Election Day in 2012. That’s why by all accounts she remains the odds-on favorite to win the election on Tuesday.

But the electoral coalition at her back, though broadly similar to Obama’s, is a bit different. Her support with African Americans appears a bit lower, and black turnout is also likely to be lower. Obama lost white voters without college degrees, but Clinton is set to lose them by an even larger margin. She’s making that up with better performances with Hispanics and with white college graduates. Her lead in the polls shows that you can certainly build a winning coalition along these lines.

The problem, however, is that Clinton’s version of the coalition is distributed inefficiently from a geographical point of view. Compared with Obama, she’s weaker in key battleground states that he won, and stronger in red states that he lost. That’s why at moments when she was riding high in the polls, she sometimes seemed to be on the verge of a landslide in which she could carry Arizona and Georgia — even putting Texas into play. But it also means that an election that is tied or nearly tied in the popular vote is likely one in which Trump beats her to 270 electoral votes.

The white working class is big in swing states

There’s historically been a substantial regional difference in white working-class voting patterns, with Democrats getting nearly no votes from whites without a college degree in the South but faring considerably better in the North. Trump’s biggest electoral strength has been adding more white working-class voters who aren’t Southerners or devout evangelical Christians into the GOP field.

These voters, fortunately for him, are quite numerous in Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, and Maine’s Second Congressional District, which allocates its electoral vote independently from the statewide winner. They also mean that Trump is polling better in Pennsylvania and Michigan than Mitt Romney ever did.

If Clinton wins the overall popular vote by 2 or 3 or 4 points, this almost certainly won’t matter. But it means that a very tight race in several states could put Trump over the top in scenarios where Romney would have lost.

Latinos live in the wrong places

On the flip side, Trump is polling even worse than Romney did with Hispanic voters, the Latino population share is growing, and all signs point to Hispanic turnout rising somewhere over where it was in 2012.

The problem for Clinton is that almost half of America’s Latino population lives in California or Texas. And, indeed, Clinton is running well ahead of Obama in America’s two largest-population states — on course to win California by a comically large margin while losing Texas by a smaller margin than we’ve seen from a Democrat in decades. But while this has some interesting implications for a few House races, it does not in any way help Clinton win the election. Her strength with Asian voters, similarly, mostly helps her in places like California, Hawaii, Washington, and New Jersey, where she doesn’t need help.

The other two states with the largest Latino votes are New Mexico, which is blue enough that a Democrat would only lose it in a landslide, and Arizona, which is red enough that a Democrat would only win it in a landslide.

Clinton has tomorrow’s coalition today

Nevada and Florida are swing states and do have big Hispanic populations, but other demographic elements in those states favor Trump, so the demographic switcheroo is a wash there. North Carolina, where Clinton’s greater strength with white college graduates is helping her, is also a wash because reduced turnout by the state’s large black population hurts her.

The only battlegrounds where the demographic switcheroo is unambiguously in her favor are Virginia, where she’s so solid it’s hardly even a battleground, and Colorado, which is close but considerably less close than it was for Obama.

That’s not nothing, but it doesn’t make up for the weakness in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. Broadly speaking, Clinton has traded very valuable votes near the Great Lakes for largely useless votes in states that border Mexico.

Now, if you step back and take the long view, things look pretty good for Democrats. The African-American drop-off is pretty clearly a one-off related to the unique historical circumstances surrounding the first black major party nominee. Future Democrats may not recapture Obama’s highs with black voters, but there’s no reason to think there will be further drop-offs in the future. Meanwhile, the overall white share of the population is slowly but surely shrinking, and the educational attainment of the white population is slowly but surely rising. Asian and Hispanic population shares, meanwhile, are rising in almost every state.

Clinton’s coalition, in short, is arguably the coalition of the future. But she needs to win an election in the next few days. And today the nexus of geography and demographics is against her.

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