Wednesday 7 December 2016

Swing states, the Pope and crown jewels: Kevin Doyle's armchair guide to US presidential election day

Published 07/11/2016 | 15:09

US voters will make their choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Tuesday Photo: REUTERS/Mike Segar/Carlos Barria/Files
US voters will make their choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Tuesday Photo: REUTERS/Mike Segar/Carlos Barria/Files

FINALLY America decides.

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After months of bluster, name calling and very little policy debate 120 million people across the United States will go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether they want Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton to become the 45th President.

Hillary Clinton boards her plane in Philadelphia Picture: AFP/Getty
Hillary Clinton boards her plane in Philadelphia Picture: AFP/Getty

While there are other names on the ballot paper these are the two that matter and ultimately one of them will win.

Much like the campaign, reaching an outcome will be tricky - but by Wednesday morning we’ll know the answer.

Here’s how it works: 

The voting is nothing like the system in Ireland

Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa on Sunday Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Sioux City, Iowa on Sunday Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

All 50 US states and Washington DC have a set number of "electors" in the electoral college - roughly proportionate to the size of each state.

California, the largest state, has 55 electoral votes, while sparsely-populated Wyoming and tiny Washington DC only get only three each.

There are 538 electors and to win a majority and become president either candidate needs to accumulate 270 electors - half the total plus one.

The number of electors each state gets is also equal to the number of seats it has in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

All but two states - Maine and Nebraska - use a winner-takes-all system, so if you win the most votes in a state you take its entire haul of electoral college votes.

This means it’s possible to win the popular vote but not the election.

What are swing states?

The major swing states in 2016 are Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Other important states include Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Colorado, and North Carolina. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been working their way through these States in the last few days.

1. The crown jewels

In recent cycles, the presidency has been won in Florida and Ohio. America's 3rd and 7th largest states, with 29 and 18 electoral votes respectively, they are constantly swinging back and forth between parties.

The two states also have near-perfect records of picking the president over the past five decades.  The result in Ohio has mirrored the national outcome in every election since 1960, while Florida has diverged from the nation at large just once over that period.

2. Trump's must-holds

Because of demographic shifts in the US, paired with Mr Trump's unpopularity, states that were once solidly Republican are now within reach for the Democrats in 2016.

When Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008, he was the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter. Mitt Romney won the Southern state back in 2012, and it now appears to be a toss-up between Mrs Clinton and Mr Trump.

The Democratic nominee hopes to expand the map with wins in Arizona, Georgia and Missouri, all of which have consistently voted Republican for nearly two decades.

Because of the realities elsewhere on the map, Mr Trump cannot afford to let those states change hands in 2016.

3. 'Obama coalition' holdovers

Mr Obama won the electoral college by wide margins both in 2008 and 2012, and he did so by taking traditional swing states like Iowa and Pennsylvania.

He also helped bring ethnically diverse states like Colorado and Nevada into the Democratic fold.

Mrs Clinton looks likely to hold on to Colorado, Pennyslvania and Virginia, with Iowa and Nevada still hanging in the balance.

She is also facing a stronger-than-expected challenge in New Hampshire, which has voted for the Democrat in every recent election except 2000.

Is there even a contest anymore?

Most of the polls suggest there’s still a lot to play for but Mrs Clinton is still the frontrunner.

It could even be a tie, with both candidates stuck at 269, in which case the House of Representatives would vote to choose the next president.

Are voters just casting ballots for the presidential election?

No. As well as voting for president, Americans are also electing all 435 members of Congress's lower house, the House of Representatives, and one-third of the Senate. Plus, they are voting for a medley of local and state officials.

What’s the link between the Pope and the way America votes?

When America's founding fathers created the electoral college system in 1787, there was no way a presidential candidate could mount a national campaign - and there was little in the way of national identity.

Election of the president by Congress was rejected as it was thought to be too divisive. Likewise, electing a president by state legislatures was discounted as it could have eroded federal authority.

Electing the president by direct popular vote was also vetoed over fears that people would vote for their favourite local candidate and no president would emerge with a popular majority sufficient to govern the whole country.

The system of electors, based loosely on the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals selecting the Pope, was chosen with the theory that the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State would select a president on merit, disregarding state loyalties.

Will there be exit polls?

As soon as polls close, there will be a projection for that state based on opinion polls carried out throughout the day. These should give a good indication of who has won that state, although as we have saw during the Brexit referendum, they are not to be relied upon.

We will get our first projections from east coast states. There may be a dozen states where it's too close to call based on exit polls, and in those states the TV networks will make no projection and we will have to wait for the actual results.

Timeline for how events will unfold

Polls open as early as 6am Tuesday in the US. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are both expected to cast their votes in New York.

Around midnight (Irish time) polling stations start to close and first state projections made based on exit polls

Everybody, including the candidates, will be glued to the main TV networks who are usually the first to ‘call it’. The earliest possible time to have a serious projection is around 4am Wednesday

Both candidates have booked New York venues for a ‘victory party’. Mrs Clinton has a convention centre capable of facilities tens of thousands, whereas Mr Trump is being more low-key with a room in the Midtown Hilton Hotel.

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