How Donald Trump Could Make it to the White House

Donald Trump at a campaign rally

Donald Trump | Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Going by the RCP nationwide polling average, this year’s presidential race appears close. Clinton hasn’t held a lead higher than 6 points since late June. Trump got a bump from the Republican National Convention and led Clinton from July 27 to July 29. As of August 3, Clinton is on top once again with a margin of +5.8.

But, as Al Gore could tell you, how popular a candidate is across the nation doesn’t mean much in a US presidential election. The voting booths don’t open for months, but everyone knows that solid blue California and its 55 electoral votes will go to the Democratic candidate, just as solid red Texas and its 38 electoral votes will go to the Republican candidate. In a nation of 50 states, the results of this election will be determined by only a dozen or so “swing” states like Florida and Ohio.

A candidate must receive 270 electoral votes to become president. Using recent polling data and the results of the past few presidential elections, NBC News has created an electoral map for the 2016 race. Clinton is all but guaranteed 200 electoral votes from the solid blue states, and Trump will receive 147 electoral votes from the solid red states.

Trump is clearly at a disadvantage. As of August 4, he has only a 22.3% chance of beating Clinton, according to FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast. Trump will have to win most of the swing states in order to win the race. His path to victory may be narrow, but the Donald does have one ace up his sleeve: his stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The trade deal advantage gives Trump a good chance in Pennsylvania and Ohio

Before the primaries kicked into gear, none of the pundits thought trade deals would be a central issue in either party’s race. A June 2015 NY Times poll found that 48% of Americans knew “nothing at all” about the TPP. It’s not the public’s fault that they didn’t about it — from August 2013 to January 2015, both CNN and Fox News only mentioned the TPP once during their weekday evening programs.

But both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump made opposition to the TPP a key stance in their policy platforms, drawing a lot of attention to the issue of global trade. The TPP, it turns out, is something people actually care about.

Everyone was caught off-guard by Trump’s success as a presidential candidate. Stat wizard Nate Silver infamously gave Trump a 2% ballpark chance of winning the Republican nomination back in August of last year.

Many political analysts point to Trump’s consistent opposition to the TPP as one of the main reasons why he was able to knock off GOP favorites like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio in the primaries. Both the Democratic and Republican establishments generally support the TPP, so Trump’s stance allowed him to stand out from the field and endear himself to the large segment of the older white demographic that blames trade deals for widespread job losses and economic stagnation.

a Donald Trump supporter holds a phone with Trump's face on it at a rally

Donald Trump phone case held by a supporter | Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

There is disagreement among economists about whether it was trade deals like NAFTA or other factors that actually caused the US to lose hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs. That doesn’t really matter in this context, though. Whether trade deals caused these losses or not, the fact is that many people blame them for it anyway.

Clinton has also come out against the TPP, but there is good reason to believe that her opposition is less than genuine.

As First Lady, Clinton championed the NAFTA trade deal that her husband signed into law. Her VP pick, Tim Kaine, supports the TPP. While Secretary of State, Clinton supported the TPP, even going as far as saying the “TPP is the gold standard of trade agreements”.

Pennsylvania and Ohio have a heavier manufacturing presence than most states. They should be especially receptive to Trump’s anti-globalist rhetoric. Pennsylvania is worth 20 electoral votes and Ohio is worth 18, making them the most valuable swing states behind Florida. Without wins here, Trump is done.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump | Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Michigan and Wisconsin are long shots, but possible

According to the aforementioned NBC News electoral map, only 17 states are neither solid blue nor solid red.
Among these 17 states are Georgia, Arizona, Missouri, and Utah, all of which lean red but aren’t quite solid red. North Carolina and Iowa are less sure for Trump, but Clinton isn’t the favorite in those races either. North Carolina voted for Romney in 2012 and Obama in 2008. Iowa voted for Obama twice but went Bush in 2008. This year, it looks to be a toss-up in both states.

Let’s say Trump takes those 6 states, which are worth 64 electoral votes combined. If he wins Pennsylvania, Ohio, and all the solid red states as well, that will give him 249 electoral votes total. This is still short of the 270 he needs to win the presidency.

Florida, Nevada, and Colorado are other toss-up states, but Trump’s abysmal approval rating among Hispanics will make it hard for him to win these contests.

Ruling those states out leaves Michigan and Wisconsin as Trump’s only option to make it to 270. These wins should prove difficult — 1984 was the last time Michigan and Wisconsin both voted Republican in a presidential race. But NBC News has declared Michigan and Wisconsin battleground states, and both of these states are flush with the type of blue-collar voter Trump has shown he can resonate with.

Trump’s path victory runs straight through the Rust Belt. He needs purple state wins in Pennsylvania and Ohio and upsets in blue-leaning Michigan and Wisconsin.

If you happen to live in one of those states, get ready to hear a lot of attack ads featuring Clinton’s “TPP is the gold standard of trade agreements” soundbite in the months to come.

More from The Cheat Sheet: