Earlier this month, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com published a piece about the current predictive outlook for the upcoming presidential election. He believes, or at least his models are predicting, that Hillary Clinton has a 56% chance of defeating Donald Trump, which shows a very narrow lead. Of course, this is before the debates have started, but with under two months to go, the polls to this point have not been very close. Just two months ago, the major national polls like Pew and Gallup were showing anything from an 8 to 20 percentage point lead for Clinton. Interestingly, the polls that Silver cited in his newest prognostication show Clinton with a fairly comfortable lead as well. However, there is one major reason that Americans should expect a close election November 8th, as Silver is currently predicting.
The reason the election will likely be close is the electoral college. That barely understood gift from America’s fore-fathers, it is meant to protect the people from a populist uprising that seeks to elect a candidate unfit for the office, but that is a story for another time. The misunderstandings with the electoral college normally surround the fact that a candidate can win the electoral college, and therefore the election, but lose the popular vote. That fact itself is partly a problem with the electoral college, but it is more of a secondary effect. Electoral votes are awarded to each state based on population. This is different from the number of senators in each state, which is two, and is not affected by population. The electoral college, like the house of representatives, is meant to change over time as population numbers and percentages change. Normally, the only way the electoral college will return a different result from the popular vote is in an incredibly close election. It happened in 2000, when Gore won the popular vote, but that election came down to a supreme court decision regarding the vote counting in Florida, so that isn’t a clear example of the phenomenon either.
The reason the electoral college will make a race closer than polls may suggest is because the outcome depends on the “battleground states”. If the race is very close in a few key battleground states, like Florida and Ohio, then the election will come down to those states regardless of how much of a lead one candidate may have in polling overall. Even if Clinton, as is the case now, has a lead nationally going into election night, if the vote is very close in a few key states, she will have to sweat it out with the rest of the country as the votes are tallied in those states. The races in Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania are very close right now based on Nate Silver’s latest work. Regardless of how the polls look nationally, Americans should expect a very close race in November if those states remain close.