THE BLOG
05/24/2016 07:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Clinton vs. Trump: Predicting The Electoral College

Jim Tanner / Reuters

President Donald J. Trump?

In this feverish year, the most recent symptom of distemper is media blather that -- based on polling nearly 6 months out -- America is on the cusp of electing Donald Trump. Before this conjures the megalomaniacal horror of Trump's inaugural address, let me offer a consoling reality -- that political fun house mirror known as the Electoral College.

We may not love it but, like shingles and pneumonia, this particular college will forever be with us. And so, a spoiler alert. At the end of this piece, I'm revealing who won the presidency in November, right down to the last electoral vote. Faced with a national nervous collapse, it seems unkind to wait.

I'm not alone in trying to be helpful. One day after the Indiana primary, the New York Times predicted the electoral vote count for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. A day earlier, I went through a similar exercise, and got an identical count.

My conclusion? Either the folks at the Times and I are idiotic to precisely the same degree, or this really isn't all that hard. Since then, a brace of experts -- Larry Sabato , the Cook Political Report, and the Rothenberg & Gonzáles Political Report -- have landed on or near this same number. The fun for me, and I hope for you, is in examining why.

The special sauce for this recipe is, of course, the inimitable Donald Trump. Among his other distinctive features he is, as of now, the least popular presidential candidate in modern American history.

Despite this, a spate of recent polls matching him against Clinton have caused the ever-febrile commentariat, ravenous for plot twists, to announce that Trump could become our president. This chorus of lemmings ignores a couple of factors which, unsurprisingly, have closed the polling margin: the Pavlovian tendency of Republican loyalists to come home after the party's nomination has been settled, and the fact that Hillary Clinton and her party are still being battered by Bernie Sanders.

More important, it undervalues the fundamentals working against Trump's candidacy. Unlike poll numbers, these factors are not transient -- they are baked in the ossified cake of the electoral college.

Trump faces a problem as insoluble as himself -- demographics.

Aside from his assiduous efforts to alienate key demographic groups, Trump's unfavorables among the electorate at large have hit an arresting 60 percent. That Hillary Clinton also has real problems is evinced by her own unfavorable rating. But this is after a quarter-century of pummeling -- everyone inclined to dislike Clinton already does.

By comparison, Trump's capacity to appall suggests truly impressive growth potential. Indeed, he may do double duty, driving up his own negatives while reducing Clinton's at the margin.

In three weeks as the GOP's presumptive nominee, Trumps behavior suggests a man who is driven, not by strategy or consistent beliefs, but by a profound personality disorder which limits his day-to-day ability to be tactical or "presidential." And it is a mortal lock that, when it comes to exposing Trump as an imbecile, the Democrats will be as merciless as Republicans were spineless.

Armed with money and ferocity, from June to November the Clinton campaign will assault persuadable voters with evidence of Trump's narcissism, vulgarity, ignorance and instability -- not to mention his callousness and failures as a businessman. Their biggest challenge is winnowing print, video and tweets for the most repellent moments in an infinity of repulsiveness. This requires a constant state of readiness -- when it comes to providing fresh examples of odiousness and vapidity Trump, like rust, never sleeps.

Indeed, this is a kind of compulsion. On the eve of his wipe-out of Ted Cruz in Indiana, when a lesser man might think to imitate a president, Trump linked Cruz's father to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. One can but marvel at his authenticity: Donald Trump is a boor to his core.

But Trump faces a problem as insoluble as himself -- demographics. He carried the Republican primaries -- where there is a market for this sort of thing -- by trashing Hispanics, Muslims and, with the zeal of a dedicated misogynist, women. But among the larger electorate this is a very bad idea.

After losing in 2012, the Republican party put out a report calling for an outreach to women, Hispanics and the young. Trump obviously read the memo backwards. While his triumph in the primaries proves that the brain-dead GOP establishment did not know its own base, the party did grasp one basic demographic truth -- there aren't enough old or angry white folks left alive to elect a president by themselves.

This gives rise to a fatal conundrum. Trump may expand his party's share of shrinking demographic groups, but he will shrink its share of those which are expanding.

Trump's base is voters who make less than $30,000; or have high school degrees or less; or are driven by racial antagonism; or detest the broader social tolerance among the populace as a whole. Or all the above -- it begs stating that these characteristics overlap.

In contrast, Trump puts off voters within a vital demographic: single women; the better educated of both sexes; minorities; and the young. And while the candidates may tussle for the allegiance of those battered by the global economy, that segment of the populace, in relative terms, is not large enough to swing an election.

Another problem is that, with Trump's considerable help, the GOP is not simply dividing -- it is fracturing. Its various constituencies -- working people; conservative ideologues; rich donors; Chamber of Commerce types; foreign-policy hawks; diehard evangelicals; and more moderate suburbanites -- resemble a bad marriage among polygamists. No one can figure out who to divorce first.

This unrest may not drive mass desertions, but it will be damaging nonetheless. Both Clinton and Trump galvanize opposition from hard-core voters in the other party. But Clinton has the potential to attract more centrist Republicans who consider Trump unfit or worry about foreign policy experience, but for whom a "democratic socialist" like Bernie Sanders would be several bridges too far.

Similarly, a number of "true conservatives" will find Trump too ideologically erratic. From the perspective of both groups, these are rational objections. Thus while many of their peers will cozy up to Trump, the deserters are potentially significant, drawn from GOP professionals as well as groups within the party which, while often opposed to each other, are as one in their disdain for the political parvenu who has seized the Republican nomination.

Among the Republican populace at large, these groups represent segments who will vote for Clinton, support a third party, or leave their presidential ballot blank. Some GOP loyalists and donors will focus their money and energies on holding the Senate and House as a bulwark against the electoral defeat summoned by Donald Trump. And in the highly unlikely event of a meaningful third-party challenge from the right, Trump's self-inflicted problems will compound.

In contrast, Clinton's biggest worry is that a significant chunk of Sanders voters will take a walk. This is serious -- the attenuated race is breeding bitterness against both Clinton and the party. But here, again, Trump is helpful: for Bernie's legions to assist Trump, tacitly or otherwise, is irrational once one considers the issues and the stakes -- as another progressive icon, Elizabeth Warren, is already pointing out.

However absurd it may be as an institution, the electoral college neatly captures our political polarization.

Here Clinton can help herself by emphasizing campaign finance reform and the ravages of globalization, pushing programs to aid its victims. The question is whether she and Sanders can achieve a rapprochement genuine enough that he will say clearly, and often, that his supporters should choose her over Trump. Assuming that he does, this will be an important boost for Clinton -- not all his followers will heed him but, in the end, most will.

So what does all this add up to in November?

A look at the electoral college map pretty much tells us all we need to know. However absurd it may be as an institution, the electoral college neatly captures our political polarization. A few pertinent facts from recent elections:

19 states and the District of Columbia have voted for a Democrat in the last six presidential contests. These alone account for 242 electoral votes -- a mere 28 short of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

By comparison, the 13 states which voted Republican in the last six elections contain 102 electoral votes. You can take it to the bank that the GOP would carry these states were its nominee Charles Manson or Benito Mussolini -- or even Donald Trump. But even were the GOP to draft Jesus Christ himself, upon resurrection he would have to round up another 168 electoral votes.

This effort did not work out terribly well for another man of faith, Willard Romney. In 2012, Romney received an additional 104 electoral votes. That left him at 206 compared to Barack Obama's 332. In electoral college terms, a landslide.

So why is the GOP at risk of becoming a college dropout? Save for Texas, its most loyal redoubts tend to be light on population: mountain and border states; the rural Midwest; and the deep South. The Democrats' electoral college base is centered on the West Coast; the Northeast; and the mid-Atlantic region. Many have a high electoral vote count, particularly California and New York, and most would vote for any Democrat capable of speech. Such are the dubious fruits of polarization.

Thus recent elections have turned on the electoral votes of seven swing states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia. Indubitably, the electoral college distorts our campaigns -- protecting bad candidates from complete disaster, while rendering all but a few states political orphans. Other than to serve as an ATM for candidates, California never sees them; Ohioans must feel that the contestants have settled in their living room.

Barack Obama carried all seven swing states twice. If Hillary Clinton takes a mere two or three -- or Florida alone -- it's over.

barack obama grant park

Here we return to demographics. Four years ago Obama got 51 percent of the popular vote; Romney a bit over 47 perent. And the demographics are only getting better for Democrats. This, combined with Trump's potential for throwing away votes with both hands, should put him closer to 45 percent. As the margin widens, states like North Carolina -- which Obama lost in 2012 but carried in 2008 -- as well as Missouri, Arizona and even Indiana have the potential to go for Clinton.

The last three states are a stretch; North Carolina less so, as Romney carried it by only 90,000 votes. But in all these states, Trump faces a compound of high unfavorables and changing demographics.

In 2012, Romney carried white women by 56 percent; Trump will shave votes from this advantage. In 2004, George W. Bush carried 44 percent of Hispanics; by 2012 Romney was down to 27 percent, helping sink his candidacy. Recent polls show Trump with an 80 percent unfavorable rating among Hispanics.

Still, let's be generous, and give the boy 17 percent of the Hispanic vote -- 10 points below Romney, 27 points below Bush. In at least some states, this helps spell doom in infrared letters.

The counter-conceit of Trump's campaign is that he can expand the Republican electorate in a way that transforms the map. Suggestible as always, cable news is parroting this with excitement and alarm. A particular target is alienated white and blue collar workers in industrial states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, whose devotion to their favorite billionaire, it is proposed, will stem the tide of demography.

Good luck with that. To start, this scenario rests on an unlikely but essential assumption: that these states contain large numbers of nominal Democrats and independents who have not already been voting Republican, but will be drawn by Trump alone -- in essence, a whole new wave of Reagan Democrats.

There simply is not enough of them. In 2012 our first black president carried Ohio by nearly 170,000 votes, Pennsylvania -- a particular locus of this pipe dream -- by about 310,000, and Michigan by around 450,000. All have significant minority populations; none are immune to demographic change. In these states, as in others, Trump is likely to repel as many persuadable voters as he charms. He's just that kind of guy.

To quote The Donald himself, he's a potential "disaster "in the making. What protects him from an historic shellacking is that polarization creates a red state firewall which prevents the 49 state blowout suffered by McGovern and Mondale, or the dire drubbing inflicted on Barry Goldwater.

True, a gaggle of newly chastened commentators are saying that, having won the Republican nomination, Trump cannot be underestimated. But the GOP has become that special place where sanity goes to die. Flipping the failed conventional wisdom in the primaries for the general election does not make it any wiser. It's just an opportunity to screw up twice.

Hillary Clinton will be a far tougher opponent for Trump than the irresolute crew he faced in the primaries. Whatever her weaknesses, Trump more than matches them. She is thoroughly prepared to deal with this race, and its issues -- Trump is not. He will be no match for her in debate, and nothing he throws at her -- however personal -- will knock her off balance. In the grind of this campaign, no matter his gift for insult, Clinton will wear him down.

Some unexpected event -- terrorism, perhaps -- may redound to Trump's advantage. No doubt his Republican spear carriers imagine some definitive misfortune befalling Hillary Clinton. But the fundamentals are unlikely to change that much. Resisting change, it seems, is what the electoral college is for.

So here's your last chance to keep the suspense -- such as it is -- going until November. Close your eyes, or else.

Okay. Like the Times and Larry Sabato, I give Clinton every swing state and throw in North Carolina. The result? Clinton 347; Trump 191.

In general, voters tend to revert to their party loyalties, which could bandage Trump against further electoral bleeding. But if you like to imagine The Donald suffering a bit more, add Arizona and Missouri. Now Clinton more than doubles Trump, 368 to 170. Should you put up your feet, have a drink, and envision Trump plummeting toward 40 percent, the unique sclerosis of the electoral college will, at last, be tested.

A word of warning. The one way to mess this up is by not voting in November. The electoral college may be a cumbersome beast, but it still needs feeding.

So cheer up. Do your part, and after November we won't have Donald Trump to kick around anymore. Except, perhaps, in reruns.

Also on HuffPost: