Not all states are created equal when it comes to the electoral college, and it’s the electoral college map that will ultimately determine the next president (unless it ties and goes into the House of Representatives, anyway).
There are a handful of battleground states that are considered more critical than others. Where those states go, goes the presidency most likely.
Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been aggressively competing in the battlegrounds, many of which were dead heats as Americans went to the polls on November 8. FivethirtyEight predicts that Clinton has a 71.6% chance of winning the presidency based on electoral college predictions, but Trump has surprised before.
We will know more as just a few critical states come in.
Here are the most important states to keep an eye on this election night as the returns come in:
No state is more important tonight than Florida. Its large number of electoral votes – 29 – make it a critical prize. The above map, created through the 270toWin customizing map, shows one way that Trump could win the presidency. However, it’s predicated on him winning Florida. Here’s the thing: The map above also gives Trump every state that is currently deadlocked or almost deadlocked in recent battleground polling averages (except Pennsylvania). It gives Clinton the battleground states that she leads by more comfortable margins.
You see the formidable task for Trump, and why he’s been campaigning to pick up a traditional blue state like Michigan or Pennsylvania. He has to prevail in every battleground that is close, basically.
And he has to – he absolutely must – win Florida. Here’s what happens to that map if you give Clinton Florida.
Such is the power of Florida that a victory there would allow Clinton to lose in a slew of other tightly contested battleground states.
Who will win Florida? The polls are basically deadlocked. Republicans have found some positives in early voting trends. Turnout will matter. Five ThirtyEight is now predicting that Clinton has a 55.1% chance of winning Florida.
Keep your eye on Pennsylvania. Why? Because Clinton leads there, but this state would be a huge pick up for Trump that would solve a lot of his problems in the electoral college. In the map above, created through 270toWin, you can see the power of Pennsylvania.
Give it to Trump, and he can afford to lose some other battleground states where it’s close, in this scenario, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Iowa. Give him Pennsylvania and give him back Nevada and New Hampshire, and give her North Carolina, and the race is a tie, and ends up in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (where he would presumably win).
He’s in striking distance in Pennsylvania, and the polls have tightened in Pennsylvania ominously for Clinton in the past week, as Trump picks up support from western Pennsylvanians upset about trade, the economy, and large Obamacare premium increases announced only October 24. Pennsylvania doesn’t have robust early voting, so it’s hard to read any tea leaves there.
The RealClearPolitics polling average has Clinton leading Pennsylvania by a slender 1.9%, and Trump leads by 1% in the most recent poll, although it’s GOP leaning.
FiveThirtyEight still gives Clinton a 77% chance to win Pennsylvania, which has been a reliable Democrat state for years. However, if Trump has a chance for a critical upset, it might be here. If he’s able to pull off Pennsylvania, all bets could be off.
3. North Carolina
Almost all experts agree. It will be almost impossible for Trump to win the White House if he loses North Carolina. Clinton needs it too, but she has more of a cushion and can weather losing North Carolina if she prevails in other states.
The map above, from the 270toWin customizing database, shows how important North Carolina is. If Clinton wins the state, she can lose a bunch of other battlegrounds and even a shock loss somewhere like Minnesota (where she leads but Trump has targeted in recent days.)
The polls are deadlocked in North Carolina, according to RealClearPolitics polling averages, although Trump has gained some ground in the past week and Republicans are happy about early voting returns that showed Democrats under their 2012 pace (the state is riven with election suppression controversies, though).
FiveThirtyEight gives Clinton a 55.5% chance of winning North Carolina, however.
Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio are widely regarded as the trio of must-win states for Trump. Polling has been stronger for Trump in Ohio than in other battleground states.
However, it’s a critical win for him. The above map, through 270toWin, shows what happens if Trump loses Ohio. The only way he could weather the loss of Ohio is to flip a state like Pennsylvania, where he’s competing and in striking distance but behind. Even winning Michigan doesn’t get him the White House if he loses Ohio.
FiveThirtyEight projects that Trump has a 64.6% chance of winning Ohio. He’s ahead 3.5% in RealClearPolitics polling averages, and early vote looked promising for Republicans. But it’s still pretty close.
Tiny Nevada could determine the presidency. Why? It only has 6 electoral votes.
The reason is simply the electoral college math. Again, Clinton starts out in a stronger position in the electoral college before the battlegrounds are considered. A loss in Nevada means Trump would have to put another state in his column where Clinton has been leading. He’d need to flip a blue state, like Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin. That becomes a much taller order.
Take a look at the map above. Nevada gives her a 10 electoral college vote lead – and that’s assuming Trump wins EVERY SINGLE battleground state that is deadlocked. Where would he go to make that up? There aren’t that many choices. He’s got to turn to Pennsylvania or Colorado. Or a state in the Midwest. New Mexico would tie it (he’s been polling well in some polls there). Clinton leads in all of those states in polling averages. Trump’s closest in Pennsylvania in the RealClearPolitics polling averages, with Michigan a second (she still leads there but her support has eroded dramatically in the past week, putting the race almost in the margin for error).
Nevada has never been a lock for Trump – not even close. The state went for Barack Obama by a healthy margin. Hispanic turnout is up. But Trump has kept the state competitive. It’s basically deadlocked in recent polling averages.
A Nevada TV reporter, Jon Ralston, has been studying early voting returns and predicts a Clinton win, saying that Trump would need to way outperform with independents and Clinton would need to lose more of her base than expected for Trump to pull Nevada off. FiveThirtyEight gives Clinton a 58.3% chance of winning Nevada.