In early August 2016, Hillary Clinton led Donald Trump by just over 7 points in the national polls. The “inevitable” Democratic candidate’s lead would nearly evaporate by mid-September but by Oct. 18, just three weeks out from the election, she was back up by 7.1 — a lead that almost all political analysts agreed was insurmountable at that point in the contest. Until Nov. 8 proved them all wrong.
Once again, Trump is looking at a 7-point polling deficit against a previously failed presidential candidate, this time Joe Biden, and experts are saying he can’t win. So, the question that’s been haunting Democrats’ every waking moment since: Can Trump do it again? The short answer: Yes. The slightly less short answer: Yes, but, again, it’s another long shot. Below are five potential scenarios, from the most straightforward to the most difficult, that give Trump yet another Electoral College victory.
THE 2016 RESULTS
When the dust settled after the 2016 presidential election, Trump defeated Clinton by 74 electoral votes, 306-232, gaining 36 more votes than the 270 needed to win the presidency, which requires a simple majority of the 538 total. (Due to some “faithless electors,” the official count would go down in the history books as 304-227.)
Trump managed to gain those 306 electoral votes by winning a total of 30 states, 20 of which he won by double-digit margins (Ala., Alaska, Ark., Idaho, Ind., Kansas, Ky., La., Miss., Mo., Mont., Neb., ND, Okla., SC, SD, Tenn., Utah, WV, and Wyoming). Only 10 of the states he won were at all close, and only 7 were within 5 points: Arizona (+3), Florida (+1.2), Georgia (+5), Michigan (+0.3), North Carolina (+4), Pennsylvania (+0.7) and Wisconsin (+0.7). Below are the final results for the 10 states Trump won that were within 10 points, in order of closest to widest margin (results via NYT’s finals):
- MICHIGAN (16) — margin +0.3
- PENNSYLVANIA (20) — margin +0.7
- WISCONSIN (10) — margin +0.7
- FLORIDA (29) — margin +1.2
- ARIZONA (11) — margin +3
- GEORGIA (16) — margin +5
- NORTH CAROLINA (15) — margin +4
- OHIO (18) — margin +8
- IOWA (6) — margin +9
- TEXAS (38) — margin +9
THE 12 BATTLEGROUND STATES
Trump has maintained his significant advantage in all 20 states he won by double digits (Missouri is the closest, but Trump still holds a solid lead of 8 points), so he can confidently rely on a base of the 125 or 126 votes they total (Nebraska splits electors and it’s possible 1 of its 5 will go to Biden). That means Trump needs an additional 144 or 145 votes to win.
So what about the tighter contests? Out of the 10 states Trump won in 2016 by less than 10 points, he only leads currently in three of them. Of the states Clinton won that were at all close, only two of them (Nevada and Minnesota) are reasonably in reach now, and Trump leads in neither. To secure enough votes to win the election, Trump has to win at least 7 of the 12 battleground states. Here’s the breakdown of those states in order of best margin for Trump to worst (via RCP’s averages):
- TEXAS (38) — Trump +3.5
- IOWA (6) — Trump +1.7
- GEORGIA (16) —Trump +1.3
- FLORIDA (29) — Biden +1.2
- NORTH CAROLINA (15) — Biden +1.5
- OHIO (18) — Biden +2.4
- NEVADA (6) — Biden +4 (*polling is very limited) — Trump lost by 2.4 in 2016
- MICHIGAN (16) — Biden +4.2
- PENNSYLVANIA (20) — Biden +4.3
- MINNESOTA (10) — Biden +5 — Trump lost by 1.5 in 2016
- ARIZONA (11) — Biden +5.7
- WISCONSIN (10) — Biden +6.4
FIVE WAYS TRUMP GETS THE WIN
Obviously, Trump’s got his work cut out for him if he’s going to get to the 144+ additional votes he needs to win. Of the 12 battleground states, the absolute must-win for Trump is Texas (38), which he won by 9 points in 2016 and is favored to win again. Trump also desperately needs to win Florida (29), which he won by just 1.2 in 2016 and trails by a similarly thin margin now (though things are trending Trump’s way). He could possibly pull off a win without the latter, but it’s highly improbable (see below). Trump leads in both Georgia (16) and Iowa (6), both of which he won by healthy margins in 2016. Those four states would give Trump another 89 votes, which would bring his base total to 214 or 215. So how does he get the remaining 55+ votes? Below are five scenarios, from the most “comfortable” to the most complicated.
SCENARIO 1 — Trump wins North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan & Pennsylvania, wins comfortably
If Trump secures Texas, Iowa, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina (which he won in 2016 and trails by just 1.5), and if he manages to win Ohio (won by 8, trails by 2.4), Michigan (won by 0.3, trails by 4.2), and Pennsylvania (won by 0.7, trails by 4.3), he would defeat Biden with a count of 283+.
- TEXAS (38) — leads +3.5, won +9
- IOWA (6) — leads +1.7, won +9
- GEORGIA (16) — leads +1.3, won +5
- FLORIDA (29) — trails in polls -1.2, won +1.2 in 2016
- NORTH CAROLINA (15) — trails -1.5, won +4
- OHIO (18) — trails -2.4, won +8
- MICHIGAN (16) — trails -4.2, won +0.3
- PENNSYLVANIA (20) — trails -4.3, won +0.7
SCENARIO 2 — Trump loses either Michigan or Pennsylvania, flips Nevada, wins 270+
If Trump were to hold all the states listed in Scenario 1 but lose either Michigan or Pennsylvania (both of which he trails by about 4), he’d need to find more votes. One of the most likely scenarios: Trump could flip Nevada, a battleground state he barely lost in 2016 (by just 2.4) and which recent information suggests is shifting toward Trump. If Trump gets all 5 of Nebraska’s votes, as he did in 2016, he could end up with either a 270 or 274 total with Nevada in the count.
- MICHIGAN (16) OR PENNSYLVANIA (20)
- NEVADA (6) — trails -4, lost by 2.4
SCENARIO 3 — Trump loses either Michigan or Pennsylvania, wins either Arizona or Wisconsin, wins 273+
A similar scenario that polls suggest is slightly less likely substitutes Nevada (6) with either Arizona (11) or Wisconsin (10), both of which Trump won in 2016 and in which he currently trails by around 6. This would see Trump losing either Michigan (16) or Pennsylvania (20), but making up for it by holding another of the 10 battleground states he won in 2016. This scenario would give Trump totals ranging from 273 to 279.
- MICHIGAN (16) OR PENNSYLVANIA (20)
- ARIZONA (11) OR WISCONSIN (10)
SCENARIO 4 — Trump loses both Michigan & Pennsylvania, but still pulls out improbable win
But what if Trump can’t maintain control of both Michigan (16) and Pennsylvania (20)? In that situation, he’d have to make up for their significant vote counts by winning at least 9 of the 12 battleground states. The polls suggest the most likely scenarios would be Trump flipping Nevada (6) and holding both Arizona (11) and Wisconsin (10), giving him a final vote count of 274+.
- NEVADA (6)
- ARIZONA (11)
- WISCONSIN (10)
SCENARIO 5 — Trump loses Ohio or North Carolina
If Trump loses either Ohio (currently trails by 2.4) or North Carolina (trails by 1.5), he would have to either win 9 of the 12 battleground states or hold almost all of the significant states he won in 2016, including Michigan (16) and Pennsylvania (20). According to current polling data, this scenario is far less likely than the previous four provided. Here’s an example of a scenario in which Trump loses Ohio that would still give him 271+.
- TEXAS (38)
- IOWA (6)
- GEORGIA (16)
- FLORIDA (29)
- NORTH CAROLINA (15)
- MICHIGAN (16)
- PENNSYLVANIA (20)
- NEVADA (6)
What if Trump loses Florida? Speaking of unlikely scenarios, one in which Trump loses Florida but goes on to win would have to include a near sweep of the rest of the 12 battleground states, including at least one of the three states with the least favorable polling data (Minn. Ariz., Wis.). This is why all of the above scenarios include Florida as a must-win.