INDICATIONS are the 2016 U.S. presidential election will be close.
National and state polls of varying reliability have been painting conflicting scenarios. With the results still a toss-up between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, banks, brokers and traders the world over are bracing for a Brexit-style tumult on the financial markets.
But ultimately, two factors will determine the election outcome: Electoral College demographics and voter turnout.
To win an election, a candidate must win a majority (270) of the 538 Electoral College votes. The fifty U.S. states are allocated a number of Electoral College votes based on population. The more people, the more Electoral College votes a state has.
States are divided into districts that elect one member to the U.S. House of Representatives. The number of districts is apportioned according to population. Each state, regardless of population, is also represented by two senators. The U.S. Congress consists of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Each state’s Electoral College vote equals its number of representatives plus its two senators. For example, California has the largest number. Its 53 representatives plus two senators gives it 55 Electoral College votes.
The presidential candidate with the highest popular vote in each state wins all of that state’s Electoral College votes. It is a first past the post, winner take all system. Although U.S. presidential elections are seen as a national election, they are actually fifty elections because each state conducts its own poll.
This is why a candidate can win an Electoral College majority but lose the popular vote. In 2000, George W. Bush won the Electoral College 271-267 but lost the popular vote to Al Gore by approximately half a million votes. Bush won the presidency because he gained an Electoral College majority. This was a rare event unlikely to be repeated in 2016. In past elections, the popular vote winner has almost always also won the Electoral College too.
Presidential elections are determined by the results in the “swing” or “battleground” states so called because their demographics mean both the Democrat and Republican candidates can win them. Four “swing” states to watch in 2016 are Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Florida. Trump likely needs to win all four to win the election whereas Clinton will probably make it if she wins just one of these.
“Swing” states will determine the election because they contain sizable percentages of the five demographic groups whose support Clinton and Trump need to win. These are non college educated whites who strongly support Trump, college educated whites who back Clinton, African-Americans, Hispanic/Latino and Asian Americans, who are strong Democrat supporters. These demographics combined with a greater number of Electoral College votes in Democrat than in Republican leaning states, suggest Clinton has an advantage because she has more options. She does not need to win all the crucial states to get 270 Electoral College votes whereas Trump does.
As in all U.S. elections, because voting is voluntary, voter turnout will determine the winner. The candidate who wins the ground campaign, registering and mobilising their supporters to turn out to vote, will win the election. Ground campaigns are enormous logistical, resource and labour intensive efforts.
Each state has its own ground campaign with the greatest effort going into the states each candidate thinks they can and/or must win. With the focus understandably on the presidential candidates, these ground campaigns attract only passing attention in the international coverage of U.S. elections. Yet this is where elections are won and lost.
In 2008 and 2012, the Democrats clearly won the ground campaign, which resulted in clear victories for Barack Obama. Circumstantial evidence based on voter registration and early voter turnout, indicate the Democrats are again winning the ground campaign in 2016. Clinton seems to have the advantage here too.
The volatile 2016 presidential election has challenged many political precedents and delivered a contest between the two most unpopular candidates in American history.
Clinton has endured an unexpectedly difficult campaign. Trump defied and confounded everyone to win the Republican Party nomination and he can and may, indeed, win the election.
Clinton and Trump are flawed candidates. This perhaps explains the closeness of the race. Neither candidate has been able to attract the widespread support that would give them a clear advantage over the other.
Electoral College demographics favour Clinton. The ground campaign will determine the winner. It will likely be a close election. Clinton will probably eke out a narrow win with approximately 300-310 Electoral College votes.
But whatever the result, the 2016 contest is undoubtedly a historic one.
On Nov 8, Clinton will become the first woman elected president… or Trump will achieve an unprecedented triumph. Either one will then go on to be inaugurated on Jan 20, 2017.
And the Asia-Pacific, along with the rest of the world, will be dealing with one of them for at least the next four years.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent