It’s possible to keep two ideas in your head at once: That Hillary Clinton is leading in the polls, and that Donald Trump could still win the election.
Based on public opinion surveys, both candidates have paths to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the electoral college, where each state receives a number equal to their Congressional delegation, and claim a White House victory. Hillary Clinton has the most plausible paths to that number, but Trump has a few ways to get there as well.
The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein has outlined a useful taxonomy: There’s a “blue wall” of states that have reliably voted Democratic for the last 24 years, and a set of states—New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, and New Hampshire—where changing demographics turned their voters into reliable contributors to president Barack Obama’s two elections. Winning all of those states would give Clinton a 273-vote electoral college majority, regardless of what happens in other contested states.
What has Democrats worried are cracks in their core. Trump’s campaign has chewed away at the polls in key Democratic states where white voters make up a disproportionate share of the electorate, particularly in New Hampshire, but also in Michigan and Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
In those states, Clinton still has a winning margin in public opinion polls, but some are within the statistical margin of error. A huge break in undecided voters toward Trump, an unusual number of white voters turning out, or dampened enthusiasm among Clinton voters could leave Clinton without one of these key states.
Can we assess the likelihood of any of these events? If early voting is any clue, we haven’t seen an unusual rise in the number of white voters, while we have seen decreases in African-American voting and an increase in Latino voting compared to 2012.
Swing states to Clinton?
Clinton has some electoral insurance: the swing states of Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida, where she is either leading or within the margin of error. Many Clinton backers are taking solace in reports from the dean of Nevada’s political reporters, Jon Ralston, that the campaign’s early voting effort there is locking in an insurmountable lead, while data analysis from the New York Times suggests a similar play may be at hand in North Carolina.
Florida is still tight—early voting is running nearly even, though Democrats point to unusually high Latino voting—and that state is key to Trump’s path to victory. If he can win it, he has a number of different ways to get to 270. But a Clinton victory there would signal a high likelihood of election night not going his way, as it would diminish his margin of error significantly.
How Trump could do it
What would a Trump win look like? It starts with the holding on to the Republican party’s “red wall” and taking advantage in two states that went for Obama in 2012 but where Trump has leads now: Ohio and Iowa.
But that only brings him to 214 electoral votes, which leaves him in need of victories in at least five of six potential swing states among New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. A Hillary Clinton victory would be assured if she denied him any two of those states; currently she’s leading in all of them, but by a thin enough margin for a hypothetical Trump wave to overcome the odds.
Indeed, Clinton’s two long-shots are on offense, not defense, in Arizona and Georgia. Her campaign has devoted a surprisingly large amount of resources to those two states, which have long favored Republicans but also contain sizable minority populations. In both states she is an underdog but polling within the margin of error to win; robbing Trump of states in his own core would be extra insurance for her.
In other words, Trump needs to run the table, while Clinton just needs to make a few key shots. To quantify this, the New York Times’ poll modelers found that Clinton has 693 ways to win and Trump has 316 ways to win, while there are 16 scenarios that include a tie, which, given the Republican control of Congress, would most likely result in some flavor of Republican presidency. (In a tie, the current congress votes by state delegation to choose the president.)
That may be too close of a chance of a Trump victory for your comfort, but that’s where the last 18 months of campaigning and polling have left us. You can keep track of the results Tuesday night with these handy tables: