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Political Horse Race: Electoral College Math

It's never too early to start doing the calculations.

Weighing political polls is a tricky business at best and more often a case of reading tea leaves. And yet, in an election year, it seems to be the national pastime. But far more important than the numbers the pollsters present is how these figures impact the Electoral College math. It is here that elections are won and lost.

Electoral College Primer

A total of 270 Electoral College votes are needed to claim the presidency out of a possible 538 – one elector for each seat in Congress* plus three for the District of Columbia. In 2016, Donald Trump claimed 304 votes from 30 states (including one from Maine, which divides its share). The win was essentially reversed in 2020 when Joe Biden secured a tally of 306.

There are also “faithless” electors who go against their district’s vote and cast their ballot for, well, just about anybody they please. More than half of all states “bind” their electors, but those that don’t leave some room for shenanigans. Notably, rogue electors have never – so far – had an impact on the final election outcome.

The states’ party leanings have not always been set in stone. In 2004, President George W. Bush narrowly beat out John Kerry 286 to 251, but not as closely as his 2000 win against Al Gore in a 271 to 266 nailbiter that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. It all came down to Florida, which was then the quintessential swing state. Along with Ohio and Iowa, these three states were once considered bellwethers but are now – since Trump’s win – fairly safe Republican ground.

At the other end of the spectrum are the major Electoral College wins often characterized as near clean sweeps. Most recently would be President Ronald Reagan in 1984, who got 525 votes against Democrat Walter Mondale’s 13; the unfortunate Mondale earned three votes from DC and ten from his home state of Minnesota (the latter just barely by a 0.18% margin). In the modern era, only FDR came closer to a complete sweep of the Electoral College in 1936, when he won all except eight votes.

But what does the math suggest the 2024 margins will be?

Safe Seats Aside

New Banner Political Power PlaysThere are a number of states regarded as safe for each party – think California and New York for the Democrats and West Virginia and Wyoming for the Republicans. If these are calculated, President Joe Biden can expect to start the Nov. 5 presidential election with 191 votes1 safely in hand and another 352 either likely or leaning Democrat – giving a total of 226 votes, just 44 shy of a second term. The Republican contender – presently polled as Donald Trump – has a steeper hill to climb.

The 19 states considered safe for Republicans add up to 1213 votes, with likely or leaning locales added coming to a further 98,4 for a grand total of 219 – 51 short of a majority. Ultimately, the election will be fought in swing states, otherwise known as battleground states, where the population could swing either red or blue depending on the cycle. And it is here where the numbers get spicy.

Battle to Win

There are seven states crucial to crossing the finish line:

  • Nevada 6 EC votes
  • Arizona 11 EC votes
  • Wisconsin 10 EC votes
  • Michigan 15 EC votes
  • Pennsylvania 19 EC votes
  • North Carolina 16 EC votes
  • Georgia 16 EC votes

For Biden to win, he needs to collect at least three states with EC votes equaling 44 or more. In 2020, he took all of these states except for North Carolina – but that was a different election, and three years of power have not been quite the antidote to chaos that the electorate was promised.

Trump – or the eventual Republican nominee – must take either Pennsylvania, Georgia, and North Carolina (51), or, without PA, a combination of four or more states totaling the requisite number. Certainly, the GOP candidate has a tougher battle ahead, but extensive polling suggests that the obstacle is not entirely insurmountable.

Polling Suggests …

Taking the RealClearPolitics polling averages for each of the key swing states, it would appear that it is Biden who has to do the heavy lifting. As Liberty Nation’s Senior Political Analyst Tim Donner recently noted:

“Trump won one election and lost another by identical margins in the Electoral College. In each case, no more than 50,000 votes in three states determined the winner. And yet, at no time in the entirety of either the 2016 or 2020 presidential campaigns – or in the final tally – did Trump ever hold a lead in the popular vote. But now, he is running away in almost every battleground state.”

So, what do the polls indicate for the battleground arenas?

  • Nevada – Trump +7%
  • Arizona – Trump +4.5%
  • Wisconsin – Trump +0.6%
  • Michigan – Trump +4.8%
  • Pennsylvania – Biden +0.6%
  • North Carolina – Trump +7.5%
  • Georgia – Trump +7.2%

Referring back to our win and loss scenarios, Biden may well take Pennsylvania, but he is outside even the margin of error in Georgia, North Carolina, and Michigan. This means that if he does succeed in the Keystone State, he needs to win at least two more – his most likely targets are Wisconsin and Arizona. The former is on a knife’s edge and the latter is almost five points in favor of Trump. Should Biden happen to lose Pennsylvania altogether, that hill to climb would become much steeper.

As for the GOP candidate – assuming it is Trump – if he takes all the states where he is polling seven or more points ahead, he still only earns 38 Electoral College votes, 13 shy of the brass ring. He would also need to take either Michigan’s 15 votes (he is, after all, almost five points up there), or Pennsylvania’s (not unthinkable as he lost this state in 2020 by just over one point and won it in 2016 by a similarly tight margin), or both Arizona and Wisconsin for 21 votes.

A Long Road Ahead

LN’s Tim Donner astutely pointed out in his analysis that the polls apply only to “today — not yesterday, not tomorrow, and not in six months.” The nation is still more than eight months away from casting its vote, and polling this far out is often flawed. And yet a basic reality remains: Biden is unpopular and needs to turn the ship around if he wants to retain the keys to the White House.

The betting markets currently favor the former president to defeat the sitting one; this is always a useful tool as real people are putting their money where their mouths are. It seems that cash bettors are of the opinion that Biden – beset by high disapproval ratings, questions about his cognitive health and his family’s business empire, a southern border crisis that has leached to northern blue strongholds, and commitments to two wars – will have neither the fortitude or physical strength to fix all these issues, let alone the crumbling economy, by the time America chooses its next president.

~

*435 in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate.

1 – Washington, Hawaii, Oregon, California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Maine, and Washington DC.

2 – New Mexico, Minnesota, Virginia, New Hampshire, Maine, and Nebraska.

3 – Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

4 – Texas, Idaho, Ohio, Nebraska, Florida, Maine, and Alaska.

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