Electoral Votes Matter: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders Versus Donald Trump

Hillary Clinton supporters have been quick to point out that delegates matter whenever a raft of polls shows Bernie Sanders tied or winning against her nationally. They’re meaningless to the actual race, as are polls showing Sanders does better against Trump nationally. Now that Clinton is the presumptive nominee, it’s time to breathlessly note that Clinton has been up in 50 straight national polls. 50!

But electoral votes matter most, right?

And we now have a critical mass of state level polling that may give some people pause at a contested Democratic convention. Electoral maps of the United States using standard methods for judging what is possible show Sanders beating Trump without question while Trump remains competitive with Clinton.

Most importantly, for seventeen possible swing or purple states, Sanders is polling better than Clinton in fifteen of them. The other two, Nevada and Arkansas, do not yet have polling.

A standard way to evaluate the race is to consider as too close to call states with less than a five point polling margin. States where a candidate is winning by 5 points to 9.9 points are considered to lean in that candidate’s favor. Only states with a 10 point or greater margin are considered safe states for that candidate, though of course there are no guarantees.

The non-safe states in this map, courtesy 270.com, are brown and represent races where Clinton is leading (or losing) in RealClearPolitics (RCP) average for the state by less than ten points. I’ve included Idaho as a swing state as it generally tracks well with Utah. Clinton will likely make Arkansas competitive. For the few states like Nevada and New Mexico which also do not have polling yet, I’ve used Obama’s numbers from 2012 as a barometer.


Clinton versus Trump, without “Leaning” States http://www.270towin.com/maps/aNogL

Clinton is winning somewhat handily, but far short of the 270 needed for a guaranteed win. Now, using the exact same methodology, but assuming Sanders cannot make Arkansas competitive, here’s what a Sanders versus Trump contest looks like.


Sanders versus Trump, without “Leaning” States http://www.270towin.com/maps/qKo3e

It’s a blowout. Sanders beats Trump and has twenty-four electoral votes to spare while Clinton would be sixty-two delegates short. This is possible because in seven key states (plus Idaho if it matches Utah), Sanders leads in the RCP average by more than ten points, while Clinton leads by less. For five of these eight states (Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Idaho), Sanders strikingly leads by more than ten points while Clinton leads by less than five, making them too close to call.

Clinton and Trump have three leaner states apiece. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan for Clinton by five or more but less than ten. Indiana, Missouri, and Georgia go for Trump by this calculation and in the next map that includes leaners.

Clinton versus Trump, including leaning states http://www.270towin.com/maps/qywkx

Clinton versus Trump, with “Leaning” States http://www.270towin.com/maps/qywkx

Clinton is closer; Trump would have to win the remaining electoral votes 9:1 just to get a tie, but she still isn’t over the hump, even if we were to turn Arkansas blue. Once again, the same methodology for Bernie Sanders with leaning states added to his total and to Trump’s:

Sanders versus Trump, with leaners http://www.270towin.com/maps/51wdD

Sanders versus Trump, with “Leaning” States http://www.270towin.com/maps/51wdD

Sanders looks like he could nestle somewhere between Obama’s 331 electoral votes in 2012 and 365 in 2008.

Now, it could be that polling will change between now and July. It could also well be that the vast majority of superdelegates will stand by Clinton at a contested convention in late July even if it isn’t clear that she will beat Trump in the Electoral College. It would not likely be the worst decision ever made at a contested Democratic convention.

And, besides, the will of Democratic voters as construed by electronic voting and tabulation machines matters most of all.



  1. Larry Kachimba · May 3, 2016

    Yes only electoral votes matter. This is an excellent analysis because the do. But it is not as certain that only polls matter. An alternative way of constructing an electoral votes map and rating blue plurple and red states is from the actual historical experience. The map can be modified as you have for the “favorite son/daughter” as you have done, and any other special factors that the polls might reveal – like major documented demographic changes.
    Check this article — http://www.opednews.com/articles/The-Ides-of-March-Primarie-by-Rob-Hager-Democratic_Nomination_Primaries-160323-855.html

    I would like to see your map reconstructed on the basis of modified historical experience.


    • Doug Johnson Hatlem · May 3, 2016

      Thank you, Larry. An astute comment. I did consult historical voting patterns for this, as evidenced by how I evaluated states without polling. I looked at this information beyond what is evidenced in the article too, but it seems to match the polls. Take for instance this Washington Post article from yesterday that used an Electoral Map, drawn from 270.com too by the way, but far far more favorable to Clinton. It’s almost entirely based on historical data plus one suspect poll. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/05/02/republicans-have-a-massive-electoral-map-problem-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-donald-trump/

      When you drill down a bit, though, you can see that our analyses are not all that different. WaPo took a single poll from Florida (one that isn’t considered strong enough to use by RealClearPolitics) and suggested a Clinton win based on A) Clinton winning Florida + B) Clinton winning all states the Dems have won for six Presidential elections in a row. This would put her over the top, but barely. The major difference with my analysis, besides Florida (which RCP has an average 1.2 advantage for Clinton in btw), is that they note that Trump may be competitive in Minnesota and Wisconsin based on historical trends, but they don’t impact that. If you take the map WaPo has, move FL, WI, and MN to the purple column you end up with Clinton down to 250 Electoral Votes, a bit less, actually, then my Clinton 260 (with Leaners counted). WaPo’s analysis would be 222, very similar to my first map with Clinton at 208.

      There is no evidence, however, that Bernie is vulnerable to losing Minnesota or Wisconsin as he won very big in both places, and he is competitive or winning in so many other states Clinton isn’t that it’s just boggling that Dems as a whole think she’s more electable.

      Historical data matters and it moves the pieces around a bit, but doesn’t change the overall picture. Clinton is vulnerable to losing to Trump because A) she doesn’t score well with Independents like Obama 2008 and Sanders 2016 B) she isn’t drawing in new voters of any stripe and C) she has higher unfavorable scores than any major party candidate in the last 40 years. Except Trump. She may squeak this one out (or even go over 300 Electoral Votes by a bit, higher if she’s as good as it seems at, uhhh, maximizing her actual vote versus exit poll projections), but that would be primarily based on Trump’s weaknesses, not her strengths.


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