As I write, the 2016 election is well underway, with 12.6 million votes already cast as of yesterday and with the prospect of perhaps 40 million being cast before November 8. For these millions of voters, the election is over. But even for those who still could be influenced by events yet to unfold, we have reached the point where attitudes have settled and the remaining uncertainty surrounds who will show up to vote.
The electorate is now like a molten chocolate cake, hardened on the outside with a soft center of undecided voters and weak supporters. The final margins of the contest will depend on what these voters decide to do, but so much is baked into the electorate that it is hard to see how their decisions overwhelm the constants I wrote about earlier. Some of these undecided voters will no doubt decide that staying home makes more sense or is less stressful than making a choice between two unacceptable options. Others will vote for the candidate they have been leaning towards all along. Unless something happens to upset the underlying parameters of the election, few will change their mind at this point.
Here are three possible scenarios for how things will play out:
Landslide. Before the Comey email revelation, this is where things were heading. Clinton was expanding the map into Arizona, Georgia, Utah and even Texas, a luxury she could afford because she had essentially locked up enough electoral votes to win. Riding a median national lead in the 6-8 point range, she could afford to allocate resources to traditionally red states where Trump is underperforming. With Trump being written off by national Republicans and in media narratives, he faced the prospect of losing support on Election Day if his campaign came to be viewed as a lost cause. And talking about the election being rigged didn’t help matters. This scenario, which is still reflected in our State of the Race electoral map, would give Democrats an excellent chance to take back the Senate. If the spiral became self-fulfilling then you could begin to envision scenarios where Democrats get close to reclaiming the House. For the moment, this possibility has been derailed by news events. It may yet re-emerge if another Trump scandal surfaces in the campaign’s final days, or if public reaction to Clinton’s emails is, as the candidate asserts, already factored into the outcome.
Regression to the mean. Throughout this long summer and autumn, the gap between Clinton and Trump has fluctuated in a range from roughly two to ten points, always to reset somewhere in between. If the electorate reacts to the latest email story the way it did when Comey first addressed the matter last summer or like it did during the pneumonia episode, we could expect Clinton to lose a couple of points off her lead, which would bring it down to the 4-6 point range, enough for a comfortable Electoral College victory and a narrow Democratic margin in the Senate. The complicating factor is that each time Clinton lost support it moved to undecided or Gary Johnson, only to return later. But undecided is not on the ballot, and we are seeing the expected collapse of third party support for Johnson as the election approaches and the futility of voting for a losing candidate you don’t know anything about sets in. So the big question is what happens to these voters. If they return to Hillary despite being primed by the email narrative to think about her worst characteristics, then Clinton could finish in the high end of the range. If they stay home, then she probably finishes in the low end. The map for this scenario would look like 2012, plus or minus a few states, as demography asserts itself in the final week and for the third straight cycle determines the outcome.
Narrow Clinton win. We get this outcome if there is regression to the mean and the polls are missing a hidden Trump vote. If the polling averages are off by two or three points in Trump’s direction (roughly the amount of divergence between the final 2012 polling averages and Obama’s actual margin), then we’re looking at a narrow 1-2 point Clinton win and something that looks like the firewall map you’ve seen on this site before. Without a wave, senate races would turn on local factors and candidate strengths, with the final result up for grabs. Of course, there is no reason to believe that the polls are under-representing Trump’s vote any more than there is reason to believe they are under-representing Clinton’s, but should the race regress to the mean you would have to consider this possibility. The post-election consequences of this scenario are disconcerting, but unless and until there is evidence that it is happening we should put those concerns aside.
Bottom line: Clinton is on track to win, but the contours of that victory remain unknown.