With only two days to go until the US election, and with Hillary Clinton’s lead in national polls erased by the return of her email server to the front pages, a ghastly question tortures my liberal friends — not to mention those of us on the other side who signed the “Never Trump” letter back in March: could Donald Trump become the 45th president of the United States?
Having just watched the Chicago Cubs win baseball’s World Series for the first time in 108 years, I have to face the fact that this year anything is possible. Trump himself has declared that Tuesday’s result will be “Brexit times 10”. Back in June, like most of the despised experts on British politics, I underestimated the probability of Brexit. Might I be wrong again?
True, Clinton remains the favourite to win on Tuesday because of her lead in key swing states and in early voting, as well as the Democrats’ superior “ground game”. The last-minute tightening of the race may even help to get out Democratic voters who would otherwise not bother.
Given the way the electoral college works, with each state having as many electors as it has members of Congress, Trump needs to win five or six swing states (on top of the reliably Republican states of the “heartland”) if he is to make it to the White House. In the most probable scenario for a Trump victory he has to take Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Iowa, plus Colorado and North Carolina. While he has a reasonable chance of winning the first four — he is ahead in Ohio and Nevada — he looks likely to fall short in Colorado and maybe North Carolina.
In North Carolina voting began two weeks ago, when Clinton was up by 5-10 percentage points in the state. As for Colorado, Trump has trailed her by 2-11 points throughout the campaign. A second, less likely, path to victory would require him to win Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Iowa plus Pennsylvania. But polls put Clinton ahead there by between 2 and 4 points.
The same does not hold for Clinton. Trump needs to take all the states in each scenario to win; Clinton needs to deny him only one of them. Remember that four years ago Mitt Romney won just one of the states named above, North Carolina. Nor can we wholly rule out Trump’s losing Arizona, where his lead is slender.
A second reason for thinking Trump will lose is that “October surprises” such as the re-opened FBI inquiry into Clinton’s email server rarely swing an election, despite the media frenzy. Lyndon Johnson’s bombing halt in Vietnam in 1968 did not save his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, from defeat. Nor did the revelation of George W Bush’s arrest for drink-driving 24 years earlier stop him becoming president-elect in 2000.
For all these reasons the pundits and bookmakers still have Trump as the underdog. On the Daily Kos website, Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency stand at 90%. According to The Upshot in The New York Times, the number is 85%. Betfair says 79%. Nate Silver says 65%.
How could Trump overcome these daunting odds? The answer is: if there is a differential in turnout between his supporters and hers in the battleground states comparable to the age- and ethnicity-based differentials in the UK referendum.
Trump leads by substantial margins among male voters, white voters, over-64 voters and degree-less voters. In short, his support looks a lot like the support for Brexit. If, as happened in the UK, those groups turn out more than the pollsters expect and other groups turn out less, the polls will be wrong. He can win.
Admittedly, US polls are more accurate than British polls, which were off by 6.5 percentage points in the general election last year and almost as much in the Brexit referendum. On the other hand, the past two years have witnessed numerous polling errors around the world, from Israel to Iceland. Why not in America too?
Historical turnout differentials do favour Trump, up to a point. White voters are more likely to vote than Hispanic and (except in 2008 and 2012) African-American ones. Older voters are nearly twice as likely to vote as those aged under 30. On the other hand, the best- educated voters are more than twice as likely to turn out as the least educated, and that differential favours Clinton.
We also need to bear in mind a third scenario, in which neither of the two main candidates obtains the 270 electoral college votes necessary for victory. In that case the House of Representatives would decide the winner. As each state delegation has one vote and the house will almost certainly remain Republican- controlled, that winner would be Trump, even though the Speaker, Paul Ryan, loathes him — to the point that he almost never utters his name in public. (Imagine his agony if he has to announce a Trump victory. Will he call him, Harry Potter-style, “He Who Must Not Be Named”? On second thoughts, “The Dark Lord is hereby elected president” sounds about right.)
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” the French-American cultural historian Jacques Barzun once wrote, “had better learn baseball.” The same is true of American politics.
In his 1935 novel Of Time and the River, Thomas Wolfe notes how every four years the World Series coincides with the “furious apogee” of a presidential election, with its “speeches, accusations, dire predictions and impassioned promises”.
Both events, Wolfe writes, “gave the average American a thrill of pleasurable anticipation: his approach to both was essentially the same. It was the desire of a man to see a good show, to ‘take sides’ vigorously in an exciting contest — to be amused, involved as an interested spectator is involved, but not to be too deeply troubled or concerned by the result.”
That is as true today as it ever was. Conversations last week went back and forth between baseball and politics, just as Wolfe described. On Wednesday, after more than a century of disappointment, the Cubs won the World Series. It was an enthralling contest going all the way to the 10th inning of game 7. At one stage the Cubs were down 3-1 in the series. In the final game they gave up a 5-1 lead and seemed on the brink of collapse when rain temporarily stopped play, allowing them to regroup.
In baseball terms Trump is the underdog. In the RealClearPolitics average of polls for the past year, he has been ahead of Clinton for only two brief periods, in May and July. Trump is the maverick pitcher. To many voters this election has been the most gripping in living memory precisely because he keeps throwing curveballs at the progressive culture of the Obama era: feminism, immigration, intellectual elitism, multiculturalism and political correctness in all its forms.
I get why Clinton is still the favourite. But I also get that this is political baseball and favourites don’t always win the big games.
It’s now the 10th inning of game 7 in this presidential World Series. The teams are tied. The difference is that in politics, unlike baseball, it’s the crowd that decides it, not the players. The question is no longer: could he do it? It is: will they risk it?