Here’s the Electoral College map we’re going to end up with, assuming that every uncalled state goes to the candidate leading in the vote count there as of 4 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday. There’s a sea of red for President-elect Donald Trump. He earned 306 electoral votes and became the first Republican since 1988 to win Michigan, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania.
Just think about all the implications of this:
- The Democrats’ supposed “blue wall” — always a dubious proposition — has crumbled. Indeed, with Hillary Clinton’s defeat, Democrats may have to rebuild their party from the ground up.
- But the Republican Party is also forever changed. The GOP has learned that there’s a bigger market for populism, and a far smaller one for movement conservatism, than many of us imagined. The Party of Reagan has been supplanted by the Party of Trump.
- The divide between cultural “elites” in urban coastal cities and the rest of the country is greater than ever. Clinton improved on President Obama’s performance in portions of the country, such as California, Atlanta and the island of Manhattan. But whereas Obama won Iowa by 10 percentage points in 2008, Clinton lost it by 10 points.
- America hasn’t put its demons — including racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny — behind it. White people still make up the vast majority of the electorate, particularly when considering their share of the Electoral College, and their votes usually determine the winner.
One fact that doesn’t fit very well into this narrative is that Clinton leads in the popular vote count. She should eventually win the popular vote by 1 to 2 percentage points, and perhaps somewhere on the order of 1.5 million to 2 million votes, once remaining mail-in ballots from California and Washington are counted, along with provisional ballots in other states.
But ignore that for now — elections, after all, are contested in the Electoral College. (Hence the name of this website.) So here’s another question. What would have happened if just 1 out of every 100 voters shifted from Trump to Clinton? That would have produced a net shift of 2 percentage points in Clinton’s direction. And instead of the map you see above, we’d have wound up with this result in the Electoral College instead:
Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida flip back to Clinton, giving her a total of 307 electoral votes. And she’d have won the popular vote by 3 to 4 percentage points, right where the final national polls had the race and in line with Obama’s margin of victory in 2012. If this had happened, the interpretation of the outcome would have been very different — something like this, I’d imagine:
- Republicans simply can’t appeal to enough voters to have a credible chance at the Electoral College. While states like Ohio and Iowa might be slipping away from Democrats, they’ll be more than made up for by the shift of Arizona, North Carolina and Florida into the blue column as demographic changes take hold. Democrats are the coalition of the ascendant.
- The United States was more than ready for the first woman president. And they elected her immediately after the first African-American president. With further victories for liberals over the past several years on issues ranging from gay rights to the minimum wage, the arc of progress is unmistakable.
- American political institutions are fairly robust. When a candidate like Trump undermines political norms and violates standards of decency, he’s punished by the voters.
In light of Trump’s narrow victory, these arguments sound extremely unconvincing. But they’re exactly what we would have been hearing if just 1 out of 100 voters had switched from Trump to Clinton. So consider that there might be at least partial truth in some of these points.
Likewise, if Clinton had just that small, additional fraction of the vote, people would be smugly dismissing the arguments in the first set of bullet points — even though they, too, would have been just 2 percentage points away from seeming incredibly prescient.
Interpretation of the polling would also have been very different. If Clinton had done just 2 points better, pollsters would have called the popular-vote margin almost on the nose and correctly identified the winner in all states but North Carolina.
We’ll have more to say about the polling in the coming days. But to a first approximation, people are probably giving the polls a little bit too much blame. National polls will eventually miss the popular vote by about 2 percentage points, which is right in line with the historical average (and, actually, a bit better than national polls did in 2012). State polls had considerably more problems, underestimating Clinton’s complete collapse of support among white voters without college degrees but also underestimating her support in states that have large Hispanic populations, such as New Mexico.
Given how challenging it is to conduct polls nowadays, however, people shouldn’t have been expecting pinpoint accuracy. The question is how robust Clinton’s lead was to even a small polling error. Our finding, consistently, was that it was not very robust because of the challenges Clinton faced in the Electoral College, especially in the Midwest, and therefore our model gave a much better chance to Trump than other forecasts did.
But that’s not very important. What’s important is that Trump was elected president. Just remember that the same country that elected Donald J. Trump is the one that elected Barack Hussein Obama four years ago. In a winner-take-all system, 2 percentage points can make all the difference in the world.
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