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2016 United States Presidential Election Night - November 8th/9th  

When it comes to our foreign policy having a good relationship with whoever sits in the White House is one of the most important. 

Dr Ed GougeRightly or wrongly the policies of the next American President will shape UK diplomatic and military actions around the world and particularly in the Middle East. 

Also termed the 'special relationship' Dr Ed Gouge examines what will happen on election night, how the elector college works and how it differs from the way we do elections here in the UK.

How election night works

Interpreting US election results as they come in is rather different from following UK General Election night. Results in the US are declared by precinct, which are the equivalent of our polling stations, and with electronic voting, they are available once polls have closed and checks have been made. This means that definite information on how people have voted is available very quickly on a small area basis but the overall picture for each state or congressional district only gradually emerges. 

Donald TrumpIn the UK, of course, we get the whole result for a constituency in one go but may not hear anything from some constituencies for several hours. 

We don’t get information on how each polling station in Britain has voted because when the Liberal Government extended the vote to agricultural labourers in 1885, they were worried that Tory landlords would know how each village voted and take out reprisals against those mainly voting Liberal, so the legislation required that all the votes for a constituency be mixed before they are counted.

Another important difference in the US is that polls close at different times in different places. This is partly because each state decides the opening hours of polling stations and partly because a country which is so large has different time zones from the east coast to the west coast.  

Voters are still voting in California for some hours after results are already declared in east coast states. Therefore we get a good idea of the results in east coast states long before we hear from the west coast. If the Presidential election is close it may not be known until Nevada and Colorado results come in well into Wednesday morning. In New Hampshire state laws allow precincts with less than 100 voters to open and close early. At Dixville Notch in the north of the state the polling station opens at midnight on election day and all the 10 voters traditionally go together so that their precinct can be declared 22 hours before other polls in the east begin to close. It doesn’t tell us anything about the final result. In 2012 they went 5 for Obama and 5 for Romney. The voters are outnumbered in the polling station by the journalists and camera crew.

Hillary ClintonIt is best to watch election night on CNN News, which you can get on Sky or online, as its coverage is much better and has more knowledgeable experts than the UK networks.  (If you are a Trump supporter it will be better to watch Fox News instead).  

The US TV networks look at precinct results and exit poll information for precincts and, when they think they have enough information, ‘call’ a state for one of the candidates at some stage after polls close in that state. If a state is rock solid for one of the candidates they can generally declare the state a few minutes after polls close. They may not be able to declare a marginal ‘swing’ state for some hours after polls close and occasionally get it wrong if voting is close in the state.  

When a state is ‘called’ that does not give the final voting figures in contrast to when a constituency result is announced in the UK so it is not possible to calculate a swing between the parties as, after allowing for regional variations, we can in the UK.

Predicting the Results - three types of States

Predicting the presidential result on election night depends on knowing the political complexion of each state and watching for when it gets called.  It helps to divide the states into three types – SAFE, INDICATORS and SWING

Safe States

SAFE states – these are likely to be called by the networks pretty much as soon as polls close in that state. This won’t tell us anything about the overall result as these states will go heavily for Clinton or Trump pretty much whatever happens, though their votes do, of course, start to add up to the 270 a candidate needs to win the Presidency.



Indicator States

These can be expected to go for one of the candidates but are likely to have a significant vote for the other candidate so that the final result will be closer than in the safe states.  If they are called for the expected candidate pretty much as soon as polls close then that candidate is doing well. If it starts to take much longer to declare then the candidate is in trouble and if they start to turn into swing states on the night with a very close result then that candidate has probably lost. The networks are likely to give running totals in these states across the bottom of the screen but these don’t mean anything, unless almost all the precincts are in, as it may be that the precincts that have come in are the more Republican or Democrat ones and these totals can easily change later. It is best to look at these indicator states one by one starting from the East Coast:-

MAINE is a Democrat state often by large margins but it seems from polls to be closer this time with a Democrat average lead at only 4%. If it is not called fairly early for the Democrats Clinton could be in trouble.

The Republicans have talked about winning PENNSYLVANIA in recent elections but then don’t. However the Democrat lead has never been above 10% in the last five elections and the polling average gives them a lead of 5%. If Trump has appealed to a white working class then this will show here.  Clinton will have trouble getting to the 270 votes if she doesn’t win here and so it is worth watching.  It is one of the states where it is worth watching the county results as they come in (see below).

VIRGINIA was always normally a Republican state but Obama won it both times, though by only 3% in 2012 and 6% in 2008, but it seems to have been trending to the Democrats with an increase it educated white collar workers and new industries and expanding suburbs around Washington DC.  Polls are showing a comfortable lead for Clinton and an average 8% lead. If this state is called for Clinton soon after polls close she should be heading for a victory overall.

SOUTH CAROLINA is the sort of Southern state that has been Republican since Nixon won over the South in the 1960s. Trump would expect to see it called early for him. However Obama reduced the Republican lead to under 10%, mobilising the large black vote, and, though there have been few polls here, two of them showed the Republicans only 4% ahead.

GEORGIA is another Republican state where their lead has not been so large in recent elections and, like Virginia and North Carolina is trending to the Democrats, with economic change, though not so quickly. A couple of polls actually showed a Clinton lead and the average Trump lead here is only 3%. He will want to see this state called quickly for him.

INDIANA is a Republican state and may actually be called soon after polls close for Trump so it may behave more like a safe seat this time.  It is included here as there is a significant Democrat vote in the cities in the northern part of the state and Obama actually won Indiana in 2008 on the back of its economic problems during the Bush period, though lost easily in 2012. The limited number of polls show Trump comfortably, if not massively, in the lead here.

MICHIGAN is an industrial Democrat state but one where Trump may have had an appeal and George W. Bush came within 3% of the Democrats in 2004 and 5% in 2000. Although Clinton’s lead has slipped down to 5% at times, it has been back up to 6% in October and she will want to see this state called early for her.

MINNESOTA is, like Pennsylvania, a state that the Republicans have talked about winning but has been one of the most reliable states for the Democrats for over 40 years. Their lead has not been large though and only 2% in 2000. It looks to stay Democrat with the average lead in the polls here 6% but it may not be called early.

MISSOURI used to be seen as a ‘bellweather’ state going to the winning candidate but it has trended to the Republicans and Obama did not win it in either of his elections. Trump looks comfortably ahead but it is not likely to be called that early unless Trump has won easily nationally.

TEXAS should be solidly Republican and George W Bush as a Texan had leads of over 20% but Trump is only getting poll leads of 5%. He will be relieved if it is called for him soon after polls close.

NEW MEXICO has, for a long time, had a bigger Democrat vote than nearby western states but was virtually a dead heat between the two parties in 2000 and 2004. It seems to be trending towards the Democrats with an expanding Latino vote. Clinton’s poll leads are solid and he state could almost be moved into the safe category with an expectation that it is called early for Clinton.

MONTANA is another non-Pacific coast state where there is a potential Democrat vote and the Republicans only won by 2% in 2008 and 1996. We only have one poll and it gave Trump a lead of 10% and he should win there and it may, this time be more like a safe state for him.

ARIZONA is one of the most interesting states in this election. It is normally Republican, though Bill Clinton won by 2% in 1996 and the increased Latino vote is not favourable to Trump given his remarks on Mexicans. Polling has shown the state to be very close with as many Clinton as Trump leads so it may actually have turned into a swing state, at least for this election.

WASHINGTON and OREGON on the Pacific coast could almost be seen as safe Democrat and like California have gradually become more Democrat. They will be among the last states for results to come in and the election may well be decided by then.

ALASKA, like Texas, should really be seen as a safe Republican state but the two polls here show Republican leads of less than 10%. They could be rogue polls and it is likely to be Republican comfortably and its result will, in any case, come in very late.

Swing States

The remaining states are SWING states.  These are NEW HAMPSHIRE, NORTH CAROLINA, FLORIDA, OHIO, WISCONSIN, IOWA, COLORADO and NEVADA. If all the states in the safe and indicator categories go the way that we have indicated, Clinton needs to win New Hampshire, Colorado and Wisconsin of these swing states to get the 270 votes she needs. Polling suggest she is doing well in New Hampshire and ahead in all the others except Iowa, though Trump has had leads in these before the video was made public. Trump really needs to win them all and no Republican has won the Presidency without winning Ohio. These historical parallels are always a bit dangerous. In UK elections, Gravesend was, for decades, the constituency that always voted for the winning party and then, in 2001, it didn’t.

The swing states will not be called early, except maybe New Hampshire if Clinton is doing well overall. The only way to find out what is happening is to follow the county results as they come in. Precinct results are aggregated into counties by the County Election Board and declared once all precincts in the county are available.  You need to print out the 2012 county results for the state which are easy to get from the internet – percentage figures for Obama as against Romney will be easiest to use. You can then follow the 2016 county results for the same state on your PC or laptop – the POLITICOS website will update these as they come in but make sure that you are looking at voting for the President and not the Senator or Governor for the state as the pattern of results may be quite different. Comparing 2012 and 2016 results will start to give you an idea as to whether Clinton is doing better or worse than Obama. Unless there is a team of you it may be difficult to follow too many swing states and, in any case, it will be some time before Colorado and Nevada come in.

Probably the best states to follow are PENNSLYVANIA and NORTH CAROLINA. Although PENNSYLVANIA is probably an indicator rather than a swing state, it is the sort of state Trump would win if he is to cause an upset.  If he is doing significantly better than Romney here then he should also win Ohio and Wisconsin and a path to the Presidency.  NORTH CAROLINA is a state that Clinton doesn’t have to win to get the Presidency so if she is doing significantly better than Obama did in 2012 then she should have a comfortable win across the country. One thing to be careful of, though, in comparing county results is that Trump may be appealing more to white working class Democrats than Romney did and, conversely, Clinton may be appealing more to educated middle class Republicans. Turnout may also be different among different groups of the population compared to last time.  It is possible that different counties may be trending in different directions because of this so it is important to have enough results in to get a pattern for the whole state.  If you can, Ohio and Florida will also be good states to watch. If Clinton is doing as well as Obama she will also be winning easily overall.

The one state not mentioned above is UTAH. This is normally a very safe Republican state but this time polls are showing a third candidate, Evan McMullen ,doing as well as the two main candidates. He is a Mormon in a state with a majority Mormon population who are not keen on Trump and a conservative in a right-wing state. If he won its 6 electoral votes and Clinton and Trump had almost the same number of electoral college votes but not the 270 then the presidency would be determined by the House of Representatives which can consider the three candidates with the most electoral votes. There is even a fanciful notion, if that did happen, that the Republican majority in the House would choose McMullen as President in preference to Trump or Clinton.

The Electoral College

Many people will already be familiar with the Electoral College but here are the basics. When the Founding fathers devised the Constitution they were worried that already a large proportion of adult white males could vote under colonial rules, in contrast to the very restricted voting qualifications in the UK. 

They devised an indirect method of electing the President so that voters chose members of an electoral college by state rather than a simple national majority for the winning candidate as in other presidential elections across the world. 

Each state is allocated a number of electoral college votes. Even the smallest states, such as Delaware or Vermont, get two votes for its two Senators and one vote for its member of the House to make three. Other states get extra votes according to the number of Congressional districts, which are strictly apportioned according to population at the last census. Thus California is the largest state and the winner takes all 55 electoral votes while for small states, such as Montana or Delaware, the winner just takes three votes. Two states, Nebraska and Maine allocate 2 votes to the candidate that wins the state but then one vote for the winner in each Congressional district.  Two districts in Nebraska are safe for the Republican and one in Maine for the Democrats but the other district in each state could swing either way. Very very occasionally a member of electoral college goes rogue and does not vote for the winning candidate in their state but they are essentially chosen as party people.

Population Changes

A winning candidate, then, needs to have a path to the Presidency by winning enough states to give them 270 electoral college votes which gives them an overall majority. If there is a tie on 269 each then the House decides the President and the Senate the Vice-President.  

The problem for the Republicans is that demographic change has made the path to 270 votes more difficult. The West Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington have become more liberal with an expanding middle class and hi-tech industries and the Republicans have not won any of them since 1988. The same thing has begun to happen in Northern Virginia, where there has also been an expanding black population and more black and white middle class voters, while the rural Republican areas of the state have seen population decline and the state, once Republican, looks safe for the Democrats this year. The beginning of a similar trend is affecting North Carolina, turning a safe Republican state into a swing state and eating into the Republican South. An expanding Latino population has turned New Mexico from a swing state to safe Democrat and making Colorado and even, this year, Arizona, swing states.  The changes in Virginia and New Mexico alone would have wiped out George W Bush’s victory in 2O04. Only West Virginia with 5 votes and Missouri with 10 votes have trended in the opposite direction.

The problem for Donald Trump then is that the states that he can rely on only produce 173 electoral votes. If he wins the western states of Nevada, Arizona and Utah and the mid-west state of Iowa, where he has been polling well that gets him to 202, but none of them are certain. Even if he wins all the four swing states of Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio and the swing district in Nebraska, all currently showing Democrat leads in the polls, this still leaves him short at 264. So to win he has to make inroads into normally Democrat states. He could do this with a win in New Hampshire and 3 of the 4 votes in Maine which just puts him over the top. Alternatively he would have to win either Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. If he won both these two he could afford to lose one, but only one, of Colorado, North Carolina or Ohio, but he would still have to win Florida. These various scenarios are all possible for him but they are also very tricky.

Election Night Timeline

You can use the safe, indicator and swing state details above to work out what is happening as results come in on the Wednesday morning as polls close across the different time zones. Here is the sequence in our time (GMT) and US Eastern Standard Time. Hiccups can occur with the process and decisions may be made to keep polls open a little longer in particular areas so delays in the calling of a state can occur even when it is actually safe as with New Jersey in 2012:-

Midnight - 3:00am UK Time (GMT)

Midnight GMT (6pm EST). Polls close in Indiana, although a small part of the state is in Central Time and will close an hour later, and most of Kentucky, with the rest in Central Time. The networks may wait until polls are closed at 7pm across the whole of both states. Trump will expect Kentucky to be called for him pretty much straight away and Indiana was too for Romney in 2012. If the latter takes longer then Trump is in trouble.

1am GMT (7pm EST) Polls close in Florida (except a small part in Central Time), Georgia, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. Vermont will be called straight away for Clinton. In 2008 and 2012 it took about half an hour for South Carolina to be called and in 2012 an hour for Georgia for Romney so differences from this will indicate how much headway Clinton is making in the South.  Virginia should take longer and Florida is a large state with a complicated voting pattern and take much longer. If you want to look at county results then both Georgia and Virginia will be interesting.

1.30am GMT (7.30pm EST). Polls close in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. West Virginia will be closed straight away for Trump. The other states,  North Carolina and Ohio, are swing states so it will be a long while before they are called and county results will be interesting as they are declared.

2am GMT (8pm EST) Polls close across much of the rest of the Eastern United States and parts of the South and mid-West.  Connecticut, Delaware, Washington DC, Maryland, New Jersey, Illinois and Rhode Island will be declared straight away for Clinton. Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee will be declared for Trump. Maine was called straight away for Obama last time so if it takes longer Clinton may have some worries but its swing 2nd Congressional District may not be called for a while.  Missouri  took some time to call for Romney in 2012 and even longer in 2008 so an early call for Trump will indicate some improvement for the Republican but still not indicate a definite Trump victory. In New Hampshire small counties will have closed an hour earlier but bigger towns will close now.  If it is called straight away for Clinton then Trump needs Wisconsin or Pennsylvania.  Parts of Michigan, Kansas, South Dakota and Texas close now but they are all in two time zones so they are included in the next hour.

2.30am GMT (8.30pm EST) Polls close in Arkansas which will be called for Trump.

3:00am to the Result UK Time (GMT)

3am GMT (9pm EST) Polls close in New York which will be called for Clinton and in Louisiana which will be called for Trump, though it took slightly longer in 2008. Polls also close across most of the mid-West and into the West. Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota and Kansas should be declared for Trump. New Mexico should be called for Clinton, even though it took another 30 minutes in 2008, because it has trended to the Democrats.  County results will come in for key states in the region. Michigan was called straight away for the Democrats in both 2008 and 2012 so Clinton needs this to happen again. Wisconsin was similar, called straight away in 2012 and after 30 minutes in 2008, but if Trump is making progress here it will take longer. Minnesota is also needed by the Democrats, called straight away in 2008 but only after two hours in 2012. Texas is the equivalent for the Republicans. It was called straight away for them in 2008 and 2012 but Clinton seems to be performing better this time. Colorado and Arizona are swing states that are likely to be too close to call for some time unless Clinton has achieved an overwhelming victory. By now good indications should be available for North Carolina and Florida and the Democrats will have wanted Virginia called for them by now. Parts of North Dakota close but some is in the Mountain time zone.

4am GMT (10pm EST) With not many states left to finish polling Montana  and North Dakota should be called for Trump. Parts of Idaho close and it will be safe for Trump but some areas close an hour later. Iowa and Nevada will be too close to call but if Trump is doing will Iowa may not take too long to be called for him. Utah will be too close to call because of the three way race there.  The winner nationally should be clear unless it is very close. Parts of Oregon also close but the rest is in Pacific time.

5am GMT (11EST)  Polls close along the west coast and in Hawaii. California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii will be declared for Clinton.  IF neither candidate has reached the 270 votes by now it really is on a knife edge and will depend on final results in a few swing states.

7am GMT (1am EST) Alaska, which has two time zones, closes and will be declared for Trump.

Who is going to win?

The changing demographics of the United States and the polls point to Clinton. An expanding educated middle class and Latino population is more likely to vote Democrat. The average of national opinion polls has shown a lead for Clinton, even if it has slipped at the very end of October, and she is also ahead in New Hampshire, Virginia, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Colorado and Nevada. However, the Los Angeles Times polling has stubbornly shown a national lead for Trump.  Many states allow early voting by post or in person and give figures for the proportions of registered Democrats and Republicans voting. In Arizona, Nevada and Florida the figures look good for the Democrats but early voting doesn’t always predict the final state result.

The main dangers for Clinton are:-

  • The polls are wrong. There is concern that, with more people having mobile phones and more reluctant to answer surveys, opinion polling is more difficult and, in the US, Gallup has decided not to make any prediction. In the UK most polls got the general election wrong and they gave no clear steer on the result of the Brexit vote. It is possible that, as with Brexit, many people who do not normally vote will be energised by the Trump campaign. Also reluctant Republicans may want to find a reason to turn out and the new FBI investigation of emails could do that, even though there is no concrete evidence against Clinton.
  • She is not as popular as Obama and many Democrats, especially younger voters, preferred Bernie Sanders in the primaries. Democrats may feel she has won and not bother to turn out. There are also alternative candidates, the libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein, although polling is showing their totals falling.

Even so the odds should be against Trump, especially after his remarks on women and Latino and Afro-American people. Hilary Clinton has the organisation to get out the vote to become the first woman President, while the Republican machine has, in some areas been aimed at Senate and House races instead. One Republican county organiser said that he needed 10,000 billboards and 100,000 car stickers and he hadn’t even had a phone call from the Trump campaign. Still it should be an exciting night though not likely to produce as poignant moment as in 2008. The black presenter on CNN was totally calm add professional throughout, until the moment when Obama went over the 270 votes to become the first black President and then he put his hand to his face to shed a tear.

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