American voters will vote today for the 45th president of the United States and, if the polling patterns are instructive, there’s a good chance that their choice will be the first woman ever to serve in the Oval Office. But the polls have not always been right in 2016, so the first question to be answered this evening will be the one everyone in the world is entertaining: Did Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump prevail?
Hopefully, we’ll have an answer before the night is done. That’s not guaranteed. Presidential elections frequently remain unsettled on the Wednesday following the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. As the 2000 Bush-versus-Gore race illustrated, the counting and recounting can carry on for weeks, even months.
But let’s begin with the assumption that this isn’t going to be one of those years.
If we get a winner tonight, then come the questions and answers that give meaning to the results.
If Trump wins, the next question will be: “How?” The answer will be that the billionaire Republican reality-TV star under-polled. That’s not an unheard of phenomenon. Voters are not always prepared to tell pollsters that they are willing to support controversial candidates or causes—as the surprise result in Britain’s #Brexit vote illustrated earlier this year. If a Trump upset is in the making, the evidence will come early—in results from New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. If he wins those two states, watch out, the night is going to be a wild ride. And, at the end of it, there will be even more difficult questions to be answered about how sexist, racist, and xenophobic—and scared—America really is.
But let’s assume that Clinton, perhaps boosted by a last-minute reprieve from the FBI, coasts to victory.
- Next come the questions that will define scope and character of the win: Because Donald Trump is prone to talk of “rigged” elections, the size of Clinton’s win will matter. A big win may not silence Trump, but it will reduce attention to his grumbling. A big win is measured by the split in the Electoral College, by the popular vote, and by the division of the states. It is also defined by the diversity of support for the winner.
- The Electoral College actually decides who becomes the president. That’s absurd, of course. But that’s the place to begin making measures of victory. It takes 270 electoral votes to prevail, but narrow splits send the campaigns looking for states where close results might be overturned by challenges or recounts. That’s unlikely to happen if Clinton goes over 300 electoral votes. If she does even better, the bragging will begin. If Democratic nominee gets to a split that is as solid as Barack Obama’s 332-206 win in 2012 (and certainly if she gets anywhere near Obama’s 365-172 split), she can start talking about a mandate. That will be especially true if Clinton wins a good mix of Western states (Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, potentially Arizona and, in the best measure of how bizarre this race has become, perhaps even Utah) and Southern states (such as Florida, North Carolina and potentially Georgia.)
- This year’s national popular vote will matter. It is common for presidents to win with less than 50 percent of the vote (John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996) and sometimes even to lose the popular vote but “win” the Electoral College (George W. Bush in 2000). But don’t imagine for a second that Trump will be as accepting of defeat as was Hubert Humphrey or George H. W. Bush or Al Gore. And don’t kid yourself about the chaos that would occur if he were to win the popular vote while losing the Electoral College. With all of this said, the likely result is a national popular vote win for Clinton. Because a good many votes will go to Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein (and a lesser but potentially significant number to independent conservative Evan McMullin), however, there’s a good chance that this year’s popular-vote winner will have trouble getting over 50 percent. What to look for with the popular vote this year is the margin. Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney by four points in 2012. If Clinton does that well, or better, she’ll have trumped Trump.
Once the presidential race is decided, the question becomes: Can the winner govern? Control of at least one congressional chamber is key and the preferred chamber is the Senate. Republicans have a 54-46 (44 Democrats, 2 independents who caucus with the Democrats) majority now. Democrats are likely to gain seats this year. But how many? Here are the scenarios:
- Democrats are expected to pick up Republican-held seats in Illinois (with Tammy Duckworth) and Wisconsin (with Russ Feingold). But that’s not enough. They must hold the seat of retiring Senate minority leader Harry Reid in Nevada (with Catherine Cortez Masto). Then they need two more seats to control the chamber—with a tiebreaking assist from Vice President Tim Kaine. The best bets for the next two seats at this point are Pennsylvania (Katie McGinty) and New Hampshire (Maggie Hassan).
- What Clinton and the Democrats really need is a clear majority in the Senate, with 51 seats or more. That puts them in a much stronger position to reform how the chamber operates and to address filibuster abuses. To get that, they need wins in Missouri (with Jason Kander) or North Carolina (with Deborah Ross). Winning those two seats would get the Democrats to a 52-48 majority. That’s not a dominant position (as there are several Democrats, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who might break from the party on key issues). But it’s a governing position.
A Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, where the Republicans now have a 247-188 majority advantage, has been a remote prospect throughout the 2016 competition. But a narrowing of the Republican majority would strengthen the hand of a President Clinton while weakening the bargaining position of House Speaker Paul Ryan (who, presumably, although not certainly, will retain his position). There are lots of races that Democrats are watching, including contests for seats in New Hampshire (where former congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter is attempting a comeback) and Minnesota (where newcomer Angie Craig could grab a Republican seat representing the suburbs of the Twin Cities). If Democrats pick up a dozen or more seats, it will get easier (though never easy) to make demands of Ryan. It will also empower the handful of reasonable Republicans who might actually choose to engage in the process of governing.
Beyond the federal races, thousands of contests and referendums will be decided at the state and local levels nationwide. Here are a few that count for a lot:
- California and Washington state will be voting on referendums to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling with a constitutional amendment. These are important calls to action, and they’re likely to win. That strengthens the hand of members of Congress who back an amendment and President Clinton, who says she will advance one during her first month in office.
- California will vote on a vital measure to control prescription-drug prices. If it wins, this will provide a model for other states to tackle the issue. Senator Bernie Sanders and the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United union have been pushing hard on this one.
- A number of states and municipalities will vote on legalizing marijuana (with a big test in Arizona), raising wages (Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Washington) or maintaining wage hikes (South Dakota), protecting public education (Massachusetts) and extending access to health care (Colorado, for instance, will decide whether to establish a single-payer system). These are key tests for progressive policymakers and their allies—and examples of how popular democracy can address inequality.
- Most governorships are up in 2018, but a dozen will be chosen this year—with vital races for organized labor playing out in Missouri, Montana, and New Hampshire, and with a critical contest for civil-rights groups and their allies on the ballot in North Carolina. Thousands of legislative seats will also be decided, with important competition playing out in Illinois, where billionaire Governor Bruce Rauner and his right-wing allies are to cut Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate—a shift that could allow Rauner to advance his anti-union agenda.
There are local contests that matter, such as the race for sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Trump ally Joe Arpaio could finally be defeated.
But the sweetest result of 2016 might just come from Minnesota, where Trump used one of his last campaign stops to stir resentment against the Somali-American community in the Twin Cities. Trump will lose Minnesota. And Minneapolis voters will elect a Somali-America Muslim immigrant woman to the state legislature. Ilhan Omar says: “It matters that I am a woman. It matters that I am a Somali-American woman. It matters that I am a Muslim and immigrant woman. It matters that our campaign [is winning] by creating a multicultural coalition.”
She is so right.