What to watch out for in the US election

7:51 am on 8 November 2016

Opinion - Exhausted? Frightened? Planning to spend Wednesday hiding in the basement? Finally, after an historically dirty election battle that has literally lasted years, we are about to reach the frenzied climax. Here is a pre-game briefing of what to watch for in tomorrow's US Presidential election.

The Basics

What counts in presidential elections is not winning the most votes or the most states, it is the most electoral votes. Usually, if you win a state you win all of its electoral votes (EVs). Each state is worth as many EVs as the number of politicians it sends to Washington. The smallest states are all worth three, the largest (California) is worth 55.

The first candidate to reach 270 EVs wins.

Supporters cheer as US Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally in the Special Events Center of the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Florida on November 5, 2016.

Supporters cheer as Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Florida, a must win state for the US Republican presidential nominee. Photo: AFP

The blue and red walls

For each party there are states that are reasonably safe wins, referred to as the 'blue wall' (Democratic), and 'red wall' (Republican), or firewall. The blue wall (states that have voted Democratic for six straight elections) totals 242 EVs. If Democrat Hillary Clinton wins all of the blue wall states she will need just 28 more EVs to win the election.

There are a number of ways to achieve that, for example Florida (29 EVs) would push her over the line all by itself, or both Virginia and North Carolina (total 28 EVs), and so on. Republican Donald Trump can probably only rely on winning 132 EVs so he has to win a lot of 50/50 calls to get his total past the 270 line.

Battle ground states

The states that could go either way are referred to as 'battle ground states'. Their benighted populations have been battered with advertising and littered with political rallies for months.

There are currently 12 states where polling shows a margin of less than 5 percent. If you need a list of states with current polling averages and a tipping point for each party to get past 270 EVs, I suggest this one.

If you want to play with scenarios try this neat engine at the Washington Post.

Polling

Despite a vicious political knife in the back last week from the FBI ("et tu Comey?"), Mrs Clinton is still slightly ahead in most battleground states. Polling can be wrong of course, Barack Obama outperformed the polls in both of his elections. Mr Trump claims there's a hidden mass of his voters that aren't being counted, but research suggests otherwise.

But polling is an art that involves not just attempting to match a random sample to a state's demography, but also estimating who will actually turn up to vote. This is the miracle that Mr Trump is hoping for - that Democratic-leaning groups will fail to show up and vote. His team have shown enough intent to actively dissuade turnout that a Federal Court has made them promise not to intimidate voters.

Turnout

Turnout is the key to winning elections. Polling means nothing if people tell pollsters they intend to vote, then fail to show up. The historically fickle demographics are all democrat leaning - Hispanics and young people. But there is also the potential for non-Trump Republicans to follow the examples of both Bush presidents and baulk at supporting The Donald. And while white folk (who tend to support Trump) are the most likely voters, uneducated whites (who are his biggest supporters) are only half as likely to vote as educated whites (who tend to support Clinton).

The ground game

Mrs Clinton has a massive turnout advantage, because she has a stronger 'ground game'. She has more than 5000 paid local field workers to Trump's 1400. In Arizona her people outnumber his by a factor of 19. These staff and the legion of volunteers they organise do a lot to make sure people vote.

And helping in this effort is another massive Democratic advantage - a sophisticated data operation inherited from Mr Obama and improved, that will tell Mrs Clinton exactly which individuals have spotty voting records and what issues they really care about.

Not at all creepy, right?

US President Barack Obama holds up a baby after speaking in Kissimmee, Florida, November 6, 2016 as he campaigns for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during a Hillary for America campaign event.

US President Barack Obama kisses a baby after campaigning in Florida for Hillary Clinton. Photo: AFP

They will be phoning and emailing people to remind them to vote. Mr Trump has shown disdain for data and is largely relying on the Republican Party's much smaller and less sophisticated data and field teams.

The data operation also helps know where to concentrate resources. Presumably, President Obama gave speeches last week in Jacksonville and Miami in Florida because in early voting, black turnout there has been down on expectations.

In some states the Republicans have strong local field teams, but these aren't always helpful. The Republican senate contenders in Pennsylvania and Ohio have apparently tasked their teams to boost turnout amongst suburban women and college-educated moderates who, while they may like the Republican senators, are hostile to Mr Trump.

Early voting

By Sunday, 40 million people had already cast a ballot, nearly a third of the expected total vote of about 125 million. TargetSmart have been analysing the early voters and think they break towards Mrs Clinton 47.5 percent to 38.6 percent with 13.9 percent swinging.

If the swing breaks roughly 50/50 that puts Mrs Clinton ahead by 9 percent. That's a huge advantage if you consider that nearly 80 percent of early voters were white (Trump's hot zone), while America is only 63 percent white. To catch up on election day, Mr Trump would need to win an overwhelming percentage of the remaining white voters.

"Mi Famila Vota" (My Family Votes) representative Jose Castellanos (L) and Naloy Zapata (R) register people to vote during a Hispanic Heritage Celebration breakfast at the Kingdom of God Church in Orlando, Florida

"Mi Famila Vota" (My Family Votes) representatives register people to vote during a Hispanic Heritage Celebration breakfast a church in Florida. Photo: AFP

In places like Nevada and Florida, early voting is showing huge turnout from Hispanics (Trump may come to regret his early Mexican bashing), so that in Nevada Clinton is already 45,000 votes ahead from an expected total of about 1,000,000.

The cancelling of Sunday early voting in places has had the intended effect of lowering the early black turnout. However, despite lower enthusiasm, the majority of African Americans think voting this year is more important than it was last time.

And the grand result?

While polls have come and gone a little recently, at no time this year has Mr Trump been closer than 30 points behind in the projected electoral vote, and usually more than 100 behind.

Polling averages suggest a result of 317 to Clinton and 221 to Trump. If the tightened polls stay closer Mrs Clinton may only reach 290, but the odds of her failing to reach the necessary 270 are still small. Mr Trump could feasibly win but he has to win most of the battleground states to do so, Mrs Clinton only has to win some of them.

Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. For the past nine months he has been RNZ's guru and guide on the byzantine minutiae of American politics.

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