A narrow victory in the U.S. is common in presidential elections

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 3, 2016


Among the many reasons that will make the November 8 presidential election a historical moment in the history of the United States, a close finish in the popular vote and the electoral college breakdown will not be one of them. In three out of the last five presidential election, less than five percentage points separated the winning and losing candidate.


In recent days, the race has narrowed and Hillary Clinton’s advantage has dissipated. That should come as no surprise as hotly contested elections have become the norm in an era where candidates have very targeted means to reach out to voters and enormous amounts of money are spent through efforts to get out the vote.


Regardless of who wins — the race is still Clinton’s to lose — a close result will reflect not just a polarized country. It will also exemplify how elections have turned into technology-heavy battles where money is strategically spent in battleground states.


The 2016 election in the US has been nothing like a normal presidential contest. The irruption of Donald J. Trump as the improbable Republican Party nominee has dominated the campaign. Trump’s aggressive language and unprecedented attacks on Mexicans, Muslims, other minority groups and journalists he disagrees with — not to mention his unconstitutional declaration that, if elected, he would have Hillary Clinton prosecuted — have turned the election into a referendum on Trump. Yet, since he has reinvigorated the conservative Republican base, there is uncertainty about who will win, precisely because nobody knows who will turn out to vote on November 8.


Since 1968, turnout in presidential elections has fluctuated between 49 percent and 60.7 percent, with the lowest in 1996 and the highest in 1968. In the last three elections, in 2004, 2008 and 2012, turnout has been at 55.7 perecent, 57.1 percent and 54.9 percent respectively. In the last two elections, around 130 million people cast their votes. Since voting rules vary from state to state, voters have different options if they want to vote early. In the last two elections, 30 percent of all votes cast were submitted before the voting day. For this year, less than two-thirds of the votes will be cast on election day.


Problems with polling

Since predicting turnout is so difficult, polls have a difficult time anticipating who will win. Even if they successfully draw a representative sample of the population, pollsters find it hard to identify likely voters. In an election where many people might cast a ballot for the first time, predicting likely voters is particularly challenging. Pollsters disagree as to whether people who normally do not vote are more likely to do so out of fear or enthusiasm. If it is the former, then Clinton should benefit from a “stop Trump” high turnout. If the latter, then the controversial real estate mogul might end up with the victory.


Pollsters also have to deal with a mobile population that no longer responds to phone calls to respond surveys. Thus, pollsters have designed imperfect but necessary proxies to simulate representative samples of the entire voting population, using online polling and other techniques that statisticians would find non-kosher. Yet, pollsters reckon that they live in the real world and, while statisticians speak as if the world was a perfect laboratory, pollsters need to operate in an environment that looks more like an emergency room and, thus, they must relax some of the rigorous methodologies that should be used when polling.


Regardless of turnout, a close election should not be a surprise. The US has become increasingly polarized among Republicans and Democrats. Since this is an indirect election and most states use the winner-takes-all system for the Electoral College, candidates have focused their efforts on 10 battleground states. Some states have traditionally voted Democratic (for example, California, New York or Illinois), others have consistently voted Republican (Texas and the states in the deep south). As candidates, parties and special interests channel their funds to the battleground states, the race becomes particularly close in those key states. As a result, any last minute event or any surprise in terms of turnout might end up tilting the state in favour of either candidate.


Thus, if Clinton were to win in all the toss-up states, she would get to 374 votes in the Electoral College (far more than the 270 she needs to win). On the other hand, if Trump were to win in all those states, he would reach 279, enough to win. If both candidates split the battleground states (as is expected) the race will end up being very close, not just in terms of electoral college votes but also probably in the popular vote.


One of the most fascinating aspects of democracy is that, despite all the technology available for polling and campaigning, it’s the people who have their say on election day. The world will be watching what happens carefully on November 8 precisely because democracy entails uncertainty. Yet, what should not surprise us is that, whoever wins, it might very well end up being a close race.