The Electoral Math

If you watch the various political pundits on television, you will often hear the phrase “The Electoral Math”, as in “The Electoral Math benefits the Democrats” or “The Republicans have challenging Electoral Math to contend with”, or some other statement to that effect. News articles have focused on the subject for months. What do they mean by “The Electoral Math”? Why would it benefit the Democrats or be challenging to the Republicans? Hopefully this will help explain the general idea:

The “Electoral College” System – The Fundamentals

(Note: If you already have a good understanding of the Electoral College system, skip this section and begin reading again at the heading “How will this apply to this year’s election?”)


First things first – contrary to popular belief, Presidents are not elected by the American people, at least not directly. The Founding Fathers saw fit to write the concept that has come to be known as “The Electoral College” (although they did not call it that) directly into the Constitution. In a nutshell, Presidents are actually elected by people simply called “electors”. These are people appointed within each state, “in such manner as the legislature thereof may direct” (Article II, Section 1), with the only real restriction being that they cannot be elected officials of the federal government. These electors each cast two ballots, at least one of which must be for a candidate who is not from their home state (this is why Presidents never choose running mates from their own state – this would make it impossible for both the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates to win their home state’s electoral votes).

Each state is allocated a number of electors equal to their total representation in Congress; Representatives (the numbers of which are based on the state’s population) + Senators (of which each state has two), so the minimum number of electoral votes for any given state would be three – correlating to that state’s two Senators plus the minimum of one Representative*. At the other end of the spectrum is California, which has such a large population (over 38 million – if it was its own country, California would be the 30th most populous nation on earth) that it is allotted a whopping 53 Congressional seats in the House of Representatives. Adding the two Senate seats, California is worth 55 electoral votes, or more than 20% of the 270 needed to win the Presidency.

Why 270? With 435 Members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators, together with 3 electors from the District of Columbia, there are a total of 538 electoral votes possible for President, and 270 – the barest majority – is therefore the minimum number of electoral votes that can yield a Presidential victory.

Notice how each state’s legislature gets to determine how the electors are appointed? In 48 states (and the District of Columbia), the “legislatures thereof” have decided that ALL of that state’s electors will be awarded to whichever candidate wins the most votes statewide. The only exceptions are Maine and Nebraska, which both grant two electoral votes to the statewide winner, and the remainder to the winner in each Congressional District (for example, Barack Obama won a single electoral vote in Nebraska in 2008, because he won a Congressional District in the Omaha area. This was the first time since at least the election of 1884 that any state split its electoral votes among more than one candidate. While this sort of split is extremely rare, it can obviously happen).

The bottom line here is that we elect Presidents on a state-by-state basis, with all of that state’s electoral votes going to the winner in each state (ignoring the possibility of a split in Maine and/or Nebraska). Candidates need to win enough states so that their electoral vote total reaches at least 270.

Under the original Constitutional system, whoever earned a majority of the total number of electors would become President; whichever candidate had the next highest electoral vote total would become Vice President (in other words, the Vice President would be the President’s strongest political rival). The “Electoral College” system has seen just two major changes over the last 227 years since 1789, when George Washington first became President. The most significant came with the ratification of the 12th Amendment, which was proposed in response to the debacle of the election of 1800. That Amendment changed the system so that the electors now each cast distinct ballots for President and Vice President. The other came with the ratification of the 23rd Amendment, which granted electoral votes to the District of Columbia as if it were a state (the Amendment stipulated that under no circumstances would the District have more electoral votes than the number allocated to the least populous state, so it also has the minimum of three electoral votes).

How will this apply to this year’s election?

Take a look at the following four Electoral College maps:

2000 Electoral College Map

2004 Electoral College Map



2008 Electoral College Map


2012 Electoral College Map


What we have in these four maps is the most consistent set of four consecutive electoral college maps in decades.  40 out of 50 states – plus the District of Columbia –  voted the same way for President all four times, whether the winner was the conservative Bush/Cheney ticket or the progressive Obama/Biden ticket. The different electoral results have come about due to the flipping of just 10 states.

The following 22 states, totaling 180 electoral votes, voted Republican in all four of the most recent elections (each state’s electoral votes are included for reference):

Alabama (9); Alaska (3); Arizona (11); Arkansas (6); Georgia (16); Idaho (4); Kansas (6); Kentucky (8); Louisiana (8); Mississippi (6); Missouri (10); Montana (3); Nebraska (5 – although President Obama won a single electoral vote here in 2008); North Dakota (3); Oklahoma (7); South Carolina (9); South Dakota (3); Tennessee (11); Texas (38); Utah (6); West Virginia (5); and Wyoming (3).

This is, in fact, the entire list of states won by John McCain in 2008. Although this group of states was only worth 174 electoral votes back in 2008 (McCain won 173 of them; one Congressional District in Nebraska went to Barack Obama), these same 22 states are now worth a total of 180 electoral votes, due to the reapportionment based on the results of the 2010 census. These 22 states are now regarded as a “hard floor” for the GOP – the absolute minimum result that can reasonably be expected for the Republican candidate.

The following 18 states , plus the District of Columbia, totaling 242 electoral votes, voted Democratic in all four of the most recent elections (each state’s electoral votes are included for reference):

California (55); Connecticut (7); Delaware (3); The District of Columbia (3); Hawaii (4); Illinois (20); Maine (4); Maryland (10); Massachusetts (11); Michigan (16); Minnesota (10); New Jersey (14); New York (29); Oregon (7); Pennsylvania (20); Rhode Island (4); Vermont (3); Washington (12); and Wisconsin (10).

While I have only noted the last four elections in order to emphasize the overall continuity of 40 states and the District of Columbia voting the same way over that time, all 18 of these states – and the District of Columbia – have gone Democratic in all six of the last six elections (for seven of these states – Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin – it is actually all seven of the last seven elections). These 18 states and the District of Columbia are now widely considered a “hard floor” for the Democrats, with the caveat that not everyone – especially not the Republicans – agrees that all of these states are out of reach for the GOP (they like to consider at least Pennsylvania and Michigan to be toss-ups). With the current Electoral numbers from the 2010 census, these 18 states and the District of Columbia are worth a total of 242 electoral votes.

And therein lies the rub. Both parties have a supposedly hard floor, which they cannot be expected to fall below, but the Democrats’ hard floor is just 28 electoral votes shy of the 270 needed to win the election; the Republicans’ hard floor is a full 90 electoral votes shy of 270. This puts the Republicans at a distinct disadvantage in Presidential elections.


The remaining 10 states, totaling 116 electoral votes,  are not part of either Party’s hard floor:

Colorado (9), Florida (29), Indiana (11), Iowa (6), Nevada (6), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), and Virginia (13).

These states constitute the battlegrounds that will really determine the results of the election, as they have in each of the last four elections. This presents an additional challenge for the Republicans; Barack Obama won ALL TEN of these states in 2008, and eight of the ten (the exceptions were Indiana and North Carolina) in 2012. If the Republicans can’t turn these trends around, they will never again win the Presidency – they simply won’t have enough electoral votes to win.

Now here’s the really interesting part. These 10 battleground states can be divided between Clinton and Trump in 1,024 (210) possible ways. I have replicated a mathematical study I first saw four years ago during the Obama/Romney campaign, detailing all 1,024 possible ways these 10 states could be distributed between Clinton and Trump (I have no idea who conducted that 2012 study, otherwise I would give them credit. Whoever you were, thanks!). I have replicated the study and provided a link to the results at the end of this article for your reference, but I’ll summarize it here: if we assume that the hard floors will hold for both parties (more on that later), then of these 1,024 possible ways to divide up these 10 states, no fewer than 937 of them yield a Clinton victory, while just 81 of them yield a Trump victory (the remaining 6 possibilities yield an electoral tie**). Each and every one of the 81 possibilities that results in a Trump victory requires him to win Florida.

So what is a Republican Presidential candidate to do (besides making damn sure to win Florida)? The obvious answer is to try to do something about the disparity between the Republican and Democratic hard floors as a means of leveling the playing field somewhat. For Donald Trump, this has taken the form of what has come to be called the “rust belt” strategy, pushing hard in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, worth a total of 56 electoral votes, and he is also pushing hard in certain battleground states – especially Florida (of course), Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, and Ohio. Why? Because with his hard floor at 180 electoral votes, and 56 more from the four “rust belt” states, Trump would have 236 electoral votes, and the battlegrounds he’s pushing for could put him over the top. The problem for Trump is that this strategy is simply not working, at least not at the moment (as of August 18th, 2016). According to Real Clear Politics, whose RCP Average is widely seen as a “gold standard” of accuracy for determining where the race actually stands, Clinton is currently leading Trump by 9.2 points in Pennsylvania, by 7.3 points in Michigan, by 13 points in Minnesota, and by 9.4 points in Wisconsin. In other words, Clinton’s hard floor is clearly holding, despite Trump’s best efforts (at least so far). In the battlegrounds listed here, Clinton leads in Ohio by 2.6 points, in North Carolina by 2 points, and in Iowa by less than a point; Trump has a clear lead in Indiana of 8.2 points. Far more significant, however, is that Clinton is currently leading by 4.5 points in Florida; if she wins here and her hard floor holds, it will be mathematically impossible for Trump to win.

Even worse for Trump is that his own hard floor isn’t looking so “hard” right now. Clinton is within striking distance of Trump in Missouri (5.3 points) and South Carolina (2 points in the latest poll), is extremely close in Arizona (0.3 points) and even has an ever-so-slight lead (0.3 points) over Trump in Georgia. In other words, Trump is doing so badly right now that even his hard floor may not hold up.

This is why the “Electoral Math” is so favorable to the Democrats. Does this mean that Trump can’t win? Of course not – as noted above in reference to the mathematical study, there are 81 possible paths to 270 electoral votes for Donald Trump, assuming his hard floor holds. Also, the Republicans won the Presidential election as recently as 2004, and any number of factors could still turn this thing around this year.

But make no mistake – Trump clearly has his work cut out for him.

Use the following link to check out my replication of the aforementioned mathematical study of the 1,024 possible ways the 10 battleground states can be divided between Trump and Clinton, and how each possibility would affect the overall election:  Clinton v Trump – 10 States

* Currently there are seven states – Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming – that have a state-wide population that is so low they are only granted a single Congressional seat in the House of Representatives and therefore have the minimum of three electoral votes; their lone Representative’s Congressional District, which covers the entire state, is referred to as an “At-Large” district. Nationally, a typical Congressional District covers about 700,000 people.

** Here’s where it can get very interesting: If no one receives an outright majority of the available electoral votes (in a three-way race, for example), then the House of Representatives chooses the new President from among the top three candidates (“top three” meaning the top three ELECTORAL vote recipients; the nation-wide popular vote simply does not enter into it; if only two candidates win electoral votes – say, for instance, in the case of an electoral tie – then the House would be limited to choosing between those two candidates.) and the Senate would choose the new Vice President from among the top two (NOT three!) candidates. And here’s the best part – there is no Constitutional requirement that the two Houses select a President and Vice President from the same political party. In fact, given the likelihood that the Republicans will still hold a majority in the House of Representatives but the Democrats may very well take over the majority in the Senate, it is almost a certainty that – if this situation were to arise – we would have a President and Vice President from different Parties!



© 2016 by David Bleidistel.  All rights reserved.