While the primary season isn't over yet, it's increasingly looking like the 2016 presidential election will come down to a contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. That means it's time for us to update our Electoral College handicapping for the first time since December.
Before we start, we'll make the necessary caveats. First and foremost, the primaries are still ongoing, which means a lot could happen before Election Day. State-by-state polling at this point is scattershot. The identities of the nominees may change. There could even be a third-party candidacy that would scramble the race.
Still, Clinton and Trump are currently the frontrunners, and the fact that they're well-known by voters makes it possible to take a preliminary look at what the map of battleground states may look like come November.
Based on polling data and consultations with nearly three dozen political experts in the battleground states, we've changed the ratings of nine states. Eight are moving in the Democrats' direction, and one state is moving in the Republicans' direction.
The shift toward the Democrats stems from voter antagonism toward Trump in certain states, particularly those with large minority populations. A reverse shift to the GOP in states with above-average numbers of noncollege-educated whites -- a core Trump constituency -- may also occur, but our sources aren't seeing such a shift just yet.
As always, we're categorizing 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.
For this handicapping, we're shifting one state, Arizona, from likely Republican to lean Republican, and two states -- Missouri and North Carolina -- from lean Republican to tossup. We're also shifting four states from tossup to lean Democratic: Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Virginia.
Perhaps the most fascinating shift comes in Utah, where a Deseret News/KSL poll released on March 20 found Clinton slightly ahead of Trump, 38 percent to 36 percent. This is a stunner, since Utah is one of the most solidly Republican states in the nation and hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964. But as BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins notes, Mormon voters are among the "most stubbornly anti-Trump constituencies in the Republican Party."
Since this is just one poll, we're only shifting Utah from safe Republican to likely Republican at this point. But if further polls confirm this trend, we could shift Utah in the Democrats' direction again. In addition, we're waiting to see polls from other strongly Republican states that have large Mormon populations, such as Idaho and Wyoming, to see whether shifts are warranted in these places as well.
Meanwhile, we're shifting just one state in the Republicans' direction -- Minnesota, which moves from likely Democratic to lean Democratic. We're also moving the more rural and conservative congressional 2nd district in Maine, one of only two states where electoral votes are allocated based on congressional districts, from lean Democratic to tossup.
Taken in their entirety, these changes tilt a modestly Democratic-leaning playing field to a more strongly Democratic-leaning playing field. The GOP starts with 170 electoral votes either in the safe or likely category, down from 181 in our last handicapping. The Democrats start with 182 electoral votes considered safe or likely, down from 192.
But the big shifts appear once you add in the seats that lean toward one party or the other. Counting states that are safe, likely or leaning toward one party, the Democrats hold a 280-181 lead in our analysis. That's enough for Clinton to win the election without having to take any of the five tossup states -- Florida, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio. Together, these tossups (including the Maine congressional district) have a collective 77 electoral votes.
To get a sense of how big an edge this is for Clinton, we compared the current map to our previous efforts at handicapping the 2008 and 2012 presidential races. We looked at our final pre-election handicapping in both elections and found that in neither 2008 nor 2012 did the Democratic candidate (or the Republican, for that matter) have enough states in the safe, likely and lean categories to reach the winning 270 electoral vote threshold without needing to win some tossup states.
To break it down: In our 2008 pre-election handicapping, Republican candidate John McCain had 163 electoral votes in the lean, likely and safe categories to Democrat Barack Obama's 263. To win the election, Obama had to pick up a few tossup states (which had 112 electoral votes). Similarly, in our 2012 pre-election handicapping, Republican candidate Mitt Romney had 191 electoral votes in the lean, likely and safe categories to Obama's 237. Again, Obama had to win some of the 110 electoral votes in the tossup category.
If our analysis is accurate -- that Clinton has 280 electoral votes in the lean, likely and safe categories to Trump's 181 -- this makes Clinton's path to victory easier than either of Obama's, at least numerically.
That said, neither a narrow Trump victory nor a Clinton blowout can be ruled out.
"What is fascinating about a Clinton-Trump race is that both are highly disliked by their opposing bases and by swing voters," said David Schultz, a Hamline University political scientist and co-editor of the 2015 book, Presidential Swing States. "Their negatives almost cancel each another out. While right now the received wisdom is that Clinton beats Trump, I am one who thinks Trump might actually win. In a year of anti-establishment politics and a time when media skills are important, Trump has an advantage."
Each of the states we shifted in the Democrats' direction has at least one of the following demographic factors favorable to Clinton: higher-than-average percentages of college-educated whites, lower-than-average percentages of noncollege-educated whites, higher-than-average percentages of African-Americans and higher-than-average percentages of Latinos.
Meanwhile, the opposite demographic pattern -- which is more favorable to Trump's chances -- holds for several Democratic-leaning states. One of these states, Minnesota, has higher-than-average levels of noncollege-educated whites and lower-than-average percentages of either blacks or Latinos.
Several other battleground states check several of these Trump-friendly boxes -- Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- but political observers agreed that we should keep these states at lean Democratic for now. If Trump is to gain ground in the coming months, it will probably be seen first in these states.
In the meantime, we're keeping two states with characteristics potentially favorable to Clinton -- Georgia and Indiana -- in the likely Republican category. However, if a Democratic landslide gathers steam, these two states could come into play.
And one final note, our discussions with state experts confirmed something also seen in national polls: A Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or, especially, Ohio Gov. John Kasich nomination would hurt Clinton in this handicapping.
Here is our handicapping of the states for the 2016 presidential election. States listed in bold have shifted since our December analysis, and there are currently no states rated "likely Democratic."
Safe Republican (136 electoral votes)
Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Idaho (4), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Montana (3), Nebraska (4 of 5 electoral votes), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), West Virginia (5) and Wyoming (3)
Likely Republican (34 electoral votes)
Georgia (16), Indiana (11), Nebraska (1 of 5 electoral votes), Utah (6)
Lean Republican (11 electoral votes)
Tossup (77 electoral votes)
Missouri (10), North Carolina (15), Ohio (18), Florida (29), Maine (1 of 4 electoral votes), New Hampshire (4)
Lean Democratic (98 electoral votes)
Colorado (9), Iowa (6), Virginia (13), Nevada (6), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10), Michigan (16), Maine (3 of 4 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)
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Maine is the only state where electoral votes are allocated based on congressional districts, from lean Democratic to tossup. It is one of two states. The other is Nebraska.