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Election 2016: Potential outcomes

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If you only watch TV news and know nothing about electoral politics, you might think there are only two possible outcomes on election night: Clinton wins, or Trump wins. Those of us who study these things and have thus been in a Xanax coma for months know otherwise. Here are a few ways the election could go down, with probabilities included.

Narrow Clinton win

Based on simple state polling averages, Hillary Clinton is likely to have enough votes to be elected the 45th President of the United States on Tuesday night. RealClearPolitics currently expects that to be with 301 electoral votes, well shy of President Obama’s 332-vote majority four years ago, but enough to get the job done.

Probability: 80%

Narrow Trump win

However, if just two key states flip, Trump could actually pull it off. Clinton leads in Florida on average right now, but a couple polls there have Trump leading or tied instead. In New Hampshire most polls show Trump ahead, but one large outlier has pulled Clinton up in the average. If Trump wins just those two states, he could walk away with exactly enough votes to win.

Probability: 20%

Landslide Clinton win

Two weeks ago seems like a century. After a third ghastly debate performance by Trump, following weeks of sexual assault allegations, Clinton was up by double digits in many polls, likely to approach a 400-vote electoral rout. Utah was trending third-party. Even Texas (TEXAS!) had reached a statistical tie in more than one poll.

Then FBI Director Comey said “emails” again, and everyone panicked. Votes on Tuesday will likely not be what they would’ve been had polls closed in October. But there was already lots of early voting going on then. Turnout among minorities and women appears to have surged significantly over that time. It will have to average out with election day votes, but perhaps there was enough of a boost to make a difference.

Note: There is no scenario under which Trump could win in a landslide.*

Probability: 10%

Electoral College tie

There’s some wonk fretting over this every 4 years, but due to the demographics of each candidate’s base and the closeness of a few states, there is a very real possibility that there will be a tie on election night. If you look closely, the only difference between this map and the Narrow Clinton map is Nevada, where Trump has somehow been leading for more than a week.

So what happens in a tie? A few things.

The vote for president doesn’t actually happen on election day. On Tuesday, we’re only voting for who we want our state’s electors to choose. In most states, they are legally required to honor our choice when the official ballots for president are cast on December 19. But more than one elector has already made clear their intention to buck the system and vote their conscience instead.

If there’s a tie on election day, electors could conceivably change their votes and make one candidate president. Even if one candidate wins a slim majority on election day, faithless electors could deny them the office in December. As insane as it sounds, this is all by design in order to prevent the people from making a bad choice. After all, the Constitution set up a republic, not a democracy. The people are supposed to have power, but not absolute power.

Probability: 5%

No Electoral College winner

Back in October it looked like third party candidates might have a shot at winning a state or two. Evan McMullin, a former Republican running as an independent, actually led in one Utah poll. Since then he’s levelled off to about even with Clinton in the state but well behind Trump. Similarly, former Republican governor and current Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson has come within striking distance of his home state of New Mexico and still holds sizable double digit support in several others.

If McMullin and/or Johnson could pull off a win based on early votes or just bad recent polling, and neither Clinton nor Trump win a majority of other states, it would throw the whole election to the House of Representatives. In that case, each state would get one vote, and the representatives would have to work out who that would be for each delegation. Republicans control most state delegations, but if the people deny their nominee an outright victory, they might follow suit.

Probability: 1%

Global mass extinction event

Probability: Not nearly high enough


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