Handicapping the 2016 Presidential Race: August Edition

The latest state-by-state predictions show Hillary Clinton well-positioned to win in November.
by | August 18, 2016
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The Republican and Democratic conventions are over, and the polls are piling up. So how has the state-by-state presidential race evolved since our last handicapping in March?

The bottom line: Hillary Clinton is still well-positioned to win.

Our predictions -- based on interviews with political analysts and recent polls -- categorize states as safe Republican, likely Republican, lean Republican, tossup, lean Democratic, likely Democratic and safe Democratic. Within each category, the states run from most likely to vote Republican to most likely to vote Democratic.

Even without winning any swing states, which hold 85 electoral votes, it's safe to say Clinton will get at least 272 electoral votes -- more than the 270 she needs to win the presidency. By contrast, Trump has just 181 electoral votes that are considered reasonably secure.

Clinton’s edge exceeds Obama's in our 2008 and 2012 handicappings, where the president's biggest leads were 263 electoral votes against John McCain and 237 against Mitt Romney.

Yet Clinton’s advantage is actually slightly smaller than she had in our March predictions. Back then, she had 280 electoral votes leaning her way, compared to 181 for Trump and 77 considered a tossup.

Why the shrinkage since March? It’s mainly due to unexpectedly low polling numbers for Clinton in two states won twice by Barack Obama -- Iowa and Nevada. That's why we’ve shifted both states from lean Democratic to tossup.

But Clinton also saw some less obvious yet nonetheless significant gains since March. Support for Clinton has strengthened in New Hampshire, Minnesota and New Mexico, while support for Trump has declined in several historically Republican states -- Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina.

All in all, this means that 51 electoral votes have moved in Clinton’s direction since March, compared to only 12 that have moved toward Trump.

Clinton’s gains would have been bigger if we moved some mix of Colorado, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin from lean Democratic to likely Democratic. Switching some or all of these states would have been defensible, since each has seen at least one recent poll with a double-digit lead for Clinton. But it seems premature to switch such longstanding battleground states to a non-competitive status as early as mid-August. We're also keeping Florida and Ohio in the tossup category, even though Clinton has registered narrow single-digit leads in recent polling.

At this point, it would still be difficult for Clinton to win the historically Republican states that moved in her direction, especially Kansas and South Carolina. But they present opportunities for her to expand the battleground states, forcing Trump to spend resources to defend them.

The other historically Republican states that are moving in the Democrats’ direction offer an interesting development for political professionals bored with a battleground map that hasn’t changed much for several election cycles.

In South Carolina, Obama won 44 and 45 percent of the vote in his two elections, without campaigning in the state during the general election. This year, sufficiently depressed Republican support combined with continued high African-American turnout could make the contest unusually close.

In solidly red Utah, Trump’s personality and style has been off-putting to many voters, but third-party candidates such as Gary Johnson and Evan McMullin would have to collectively drain a lot of Republicans away from Trump to allow Clinton to win a bare plurality with 25 percent to 30 percent of the vote.

Still, the race in these states isn't especially important for the outcome of the presidential contest. That's because if Clinton eventually makes a serious run at South Carolina or Utah, she’ll have already assembled a large lead in electoral votes from easier-to-win states.

As for deep red states like Kansas, Mississippi and Texas, the best Clinton can realistically hope for is an unusually close loss. In Texas, for example, experts say even strong Latino turnout for Clinton almost certainly won’t be enough to flip the race away from Trump. And in Mississippi, which has more African-American voters than any other state, nine of 10 white voters backed Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, suggesting that Trump should ultimately be able to pull out a victory.

Here is our handicapping of the states for the 2016 presidential election. States listed in bold have shifted since our March handicapping, and the map is at the bottom.

Safe Republican (121 electoral votes)

Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Montana (3), Nebraska (4 of 5 electoral votes), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), West Virginia (5) and Wyoming (3)

Likely Republican (32 electoral votes) 

Kansas (6), Utah (6), Indiana (11), South Carolina (9)

Lean Republican (28 electoral votes)

Arizona (11), Georgia (16), Nebraska (1 of 5 electoral votes)

Tossup (85 electoral votes) 

Missouri (10), North Carolina (15), Iowa (6), Ohio (18), Florida (29), Nevada (6), Maine (1 of 4 electoral votes)

Lean Democratic (75 electoral votes)

Michigan (16), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20), Maine (3 of 4 electoral votes), New Hampshire (4), Colorado (9), Virginia (13)

Likely Democratic (15 electoral votes)

Minnesota (10), New Mexico (5)

Safe Democratic (182 electoral votes)

California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Oregon (7), Rhode Island (4) Vermont (3), and Washington state (12)