How Trump Could Win the Presidency (If Things Get Really Weird)

A new poll by the Washington Post and Survey Monkey shows the 2016 presidential election has scrambled the electoral map in ways few experts would have predicted just a year ago. While polling shows the popular vote tightening up—a virtual tie in the latest CNN poll (since challenged by NBC)—the Washington Post map reveals that Clinton continues to have a distinct advantage in the electoral college, although a number of states remain toss-ups.

In order to win the election, Trump would have to triumph in virtually every state now showing itself to pollsters to be red or leaning red, and additionally win every state the pollsters deem a toss-up. It’s an unlikely scenario, but in an election cycle defined by its defiance of expectations, you might hesitate to say it’s impossible.

What’s kind of crazy about the map the Post has put together is the character of some of the states deemed toss-ups. Texas, for example. Texas! Since when has Texas voted anything other than Republican in a presidential election? 1976! Then there’s the typically Democratic stronghold of Michigan, also a toss-up on the Post map. Last Republican to win the state’s electoral college votes? George H.W. Bush in 1988. 

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Graphic credit: The Washington Post. Check out the Post's interactive map.

But the trick to the accuracy of any poll is to know who’s in the electorate, and then to get the people surveyed about their voting plans to tell you the truth about who they plan to vote for. This year in particular, those assumptions are less certain than ever.

The Trump people will tell you they’ve brought hordes of people out of the shadows who had given up on voting in previous elections, but who are now registered, ready and hot to vote for Trump. Assessments by political science types note a lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton among traditional Democratic constituencies—especially young people of color. Then there’s the impact of the third-party candidacies of Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. When those candidates are factored into polls, they generally draw votes away from Clinton. Could support for Johnson or Stein grow to the point where it could tip the popular vote in a state in Trump’s favor? 

Then there are the whispers of a “Trump effect”: suspicion that some voters—perhaps out of embarrassment—aren’t telling live survey-takers that they plan to vote for Trump. This possibility is drawn from a study by opinion researcher Jonathan Robinson, which found that Trump polled more strongly in scientifically designed surveys taken online than among the members of a sample group who were questioned by a live person over the phone.

So all this is to say: Yes, Trump could win. He wouldn’t have an easy or typical path to victory, yet it could happen—but only if things get really weird.


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