Saturday, October 22, 2016

Election Update: There Are 4 Ways This Election Can End — And 3 Involve Clinton Winning

It’s tempting to say that voters have made up their minds and that the presidential vote is set. Hillary Clinton has a 6.6-percentage-point lead in the popular vote and an 87 percent chance of winning the Electoral College, according to our polls-only forecast. A week ago, those numbers were about the same: a 6.4-point lead and an 85 percent chance. In our polls-plus forecast, Clinton’s chances are 84 percent, up only slightly from 82 percent a week ago.

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Furthermore, although we have only a handful of polls that postdate the third presidential debate, they don’t show much change so far. The only national poll conducted fully after the debate — from Morning Consult for Politico — shows Clinton up 6 percentage points, the same margin Morning Consult had in their previous poll. A couple of the national tracking polls have moved a bit — but the movement has been in different directions.

But it’s premature to assume that Clinton is locked into a 6- or 7-point win. It’s narrowly premature because there’s been only one full day of polling since the final debate, and that isn’t necessarily enough time to show any further shifts in the race. And it’s broadly premature because there’s still a lot of uncertainty in the outcome.

Wait — I hear you saying — didn’t you just tell me that there’s an 87 percent chance Clinton will win? That doesn’t sound like all that much uncertainty. 

Well, it depends on your tolerance for risk, I suppose. Donald Trump’s chances in our model are about 1 in 7, and you’d expect a candidate with a 1-in-7 chance to win about one presidential election every 28 years.1 So while it would be a rare occurrence, we’re not quite in once-in-a-lifetime territory.

But mostly I mean that, while Clinton’s in a reasonably safe position, there’s quite a bit of doubt about her potential margin of victory, both in the popular vote and the Electoral College.

The charts below — which are based on 20,000 simulations from our model as of Friday afternoon2 — attempt to explain this by laying out four broad scenarios:

  • A Trump win, including cases where he loses the popular vote but wins the Electoral College.
  • A narrow Clinton win, wherein she wins the Electoral College, but wins the popular vote by 3 percentage points or less. (Or wins the Electoral College and loses the popular vote.)
  • A Clinton win in the “Obama zone,” wherein she wins the popular vote by 4 to 7 percentage points — the margins by which President Obama won the elections in 2012 and 2008, respectively. Clinton is all but certain to win the Electoral College if she wins the popular vote by this amount.
  • Finally, a Clinton blowout, wherein she wins the popular vote by 8 points or more, which would almost certainly also yield a dominant performance in the Electoral College.

The polls-only forecast currently shows Clinton in the “Obama zone,” but it also has her with only about a 1-in-3 chance of ending up there. If Clinton gains any further ground on Trump, then we’re really into blowout territory, with Arizonapotentially turning blue, perhaps along with more exotic options.

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