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: