Three Ways to Watch the Presidential Returns

The day of the Brexit vote, the very first constituency to report results, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, reported a defeat for Brexit, 51%-49%. The defeat for Brexit there was expected. However, the margin was wrong: experts had expected Brexit to fail in Newcastle by 12 points, not 2 points. Newcastle had been a “safe state” for Brexit that turned into a narrow win.

This, in the end, was the story of the entire Brexit results night. Areas that were expected to vote for Brexit by a narrow margin voted for it by a large margin; areas that were expected to oppose it by narrow margins ended up supporting it by narrow margins. There were a few places where the anti-Brexit “Bremain” vote did better than expected, as there always are… but not many. By the time the results were tabulated in England’s version of  “battleground states,” the result was fairly clear on the strength of the vote totals in the “safe” constituencies alone.

Lesson for Americans: you can infer a great deal about the state of the presidential race from even early results in small geographic areas.

We talked this morning about the fact that Donald Trump needs to beat his polls, Brexit-style, in order to win the election, while Hillary Clinton only needs to match her polls to beat Trump. That’s why Clinton is a 2-to-1 (nearly 3-to-1) favorite to win. Let’s take a look at three different ways we can find out quickly which story is the true one:


FiveThirtyEight has a very good Election Night Viewer’s Guide that goes through each battleground state, hour-by-hour, and explains the significance of each. I’ll focus just on a couple of very early states (poll closing times in each state in parentheses, all times EST):

Trump Must-Wins: Georgia (7:00), Florida (8:00)

Clinton Must-Wins: Virginia (7:00) , Pennsylvania (8:00)

Bellwether: New Hamsphire (8:00)

Early States: Kentucky, Vermont (both 7:00)

One of the interesting things about this election is that the candidates are competitive in so many places that there are very few true “must-wins”; there is almost always a plausible path for either candidate to recover if they lose one of their key states.

But the four states I’ve listed here really are “must-wins” — without them, there is almost no visible path to victory. Trump has a narrow lead in Georgia and is narrowly behind in Florida. Clinton is comfortably ahead in both Virginia and Pennsylvania. You might say, “That’s not fair to Trump! His must-wins are harder than hers!” Well, that’s because Trump is currently losing the election.

Results in these early states will give us a good idea of how things are going to go. If Florida goes early for Clinton, then she is beating her polls and the race is pretty much over. But if Virginia or Pennsylvania are looking like close races, then Trump is beating his polls, and there’s good reason for Clinton fans to take a few drinks and settle back for a long night.

Most interesting will be New Hampshire, which has been running very close to the exact center of national opinion. An early call for either candidate there is a very good sign for that candidate (though it doesn’t mean the end of the race, since New Hampshire only has 4 electoral votes).

Keep your eyes on the early states, too. Both Kentucky and Vermont should be called immediately for Trump and Clinton, respectively, but keep an eye on the margins in each state: if Trump is going to win the election, he “should” win Kentucky by about T+22 points, and, if Clinton is going to win the election, she “should” win Vermont by about C+57 C+27 points. (UPDATE: +57 was a pretty serious typo! Sorry!) Of course, you should ignore the early counts, when only a few precincts are in, but, by the time each state gets to 60% precincts reporting or so, we should have some idea whether either candidate is having a “Newcastle-upon-Tyne” moment.

North Carolina is a really important state in this election (Trump probably has to win it to win the election), but the vote counting there was a little erratic in 2014. Early N.C. returns showed a near-certain win for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan based on early voting, which is what the polls had said, but Thom Thillis dominated Election Day voting, and ended up pulling out a squeaker. So just ignore North Carolina until the networks officially call it. (A Clinton win in North Carolina is a very bad sign for Trump, but, because North Carolina relies so much on early voting, it’s not necessarily fatal: Trump could recover with wins in Pennsylvania or Michigan, neither of which have much early voting.)

The problem with state-based forecasting is you have to wait ages for entire states to report in. Let’s drill down to a more granular level.


Every seat in the House of Representatives is up for election this year, just like every year. Republicans are expected to lose seats but keep their majority, but the number of lost seats depends largely on how many people turn out to vote for Trump and Clinton. (The course of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s future may well be determined by how large his Congressional majority is, since the GOP caucus is already so deeply divided.) If Trump supporters turn out, iffy Republican seats will be saved, and iffy Democratic seats will be lost. If Clinton supporters show up, the opposite will happen.

So here’s another chart from FiveThirtyEight (the whole article is worth reading), which gives us a really good way of tracking which side showed up:

Close House Race Ratings 2016

My take:

If Democrats have a “good” or “very good” night by the standards of this chart, Clinton will win the presidency.

If it’s even (with maybe one or two surprises), Clinton is very likely to win the presidency, but it’s not quite a closed book.

If Republicans are having a “good” night, then the presidential race is a tossup.

If Republicans are having a “very good” night, then Trump will win the presidency.

That may seem unfair: the Democrats only need to run even in the House to have a strong chance at winning the presidency, while the Republicans have to have a “very good” night to have the same chance. That’s because Trump is currently losing in the polls, and requires a strong Republican showing across the board just to pull even in his race for the White House.

And, of course, as in every election, there will be upsets — possibly even multiple upsets on both sides of this chart. When you’re looking at small districts rather than huge states, things go against the trend a little more frequently just because of the greater variability.

So if the race in the 9th Indiana Congressional District (Trey Hollingsworth vs. Shelli Yoder) looks close, don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s all over and Clinton won. But if Democrats go on to win all four seats in Florida… then yeah, it’s probably all over and Clinton won.

But there’s still one more way we can track the trends in this presidential election: county-by-county.


This method is simple: find a county where 100% of precincts have reported results. Let’s say rural Boone County, Kentucky, at the very tippy-top northern part of the state. It’s an extremely safe county for Trump, and their polls close at 6 PM Eastern — less than an hour after this post is published — so I expect them to report fairly quickly. (Kentucky’s polls overall don’t close until 7:00, so don’t expect results to be released until after that.)

You can find detailed county-by-county results in each state in many places around the Internet. I like to use Politico’s user-friendly results report. (Click the state you’re interested in, then click “detailed results” to see a county-by-county map.)

Remember that you’re looking for counties with 100% or very nearly 100% reporting. Figure out who is winning and how much they’re winning by. Great. That’s step 1.

Step 2: go to ShareBlue Benchmarks. Find that same county. Hover your mouse over it. You’ll now see a (decent) estimate of who will win the county and by how much, based on statewide polls and demographic information about the county.  (Boone County is Trump +38%.)

If Trump is beating his ShareBlue benchmarks in a lot of counties in several states, he’s got a really good shot at winning.  If not, or if Clinton is beating her benchmarks, then he’s pretty much going to lose.

There’s going to be a lot of random statistical noise down here in the weeds, so don’t invest too much faith in any one county. Remember that, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Brexit beat its polls by 10 points, but only won nationwide by 4 points.  That’s going to be true here, too: Trump will beat his benchmarks by wide margins in some areas, Clinton will do the same in others, and the question is whether Trump is able to do it consistently enough, in enough places, by large enough margins (2-3%) to come from behind and win the election.

Although I caution you against reading too much into this, I think it is also the fastest way to draw useful inferences about what’s happening in the presidential election, so it’s what I’m going to be focused on during the early part of the evening.  You can do a lot by comparing actual results to benchmarks.  I would much rather have results from 100% of precincts in rural Boone County than from 5% of precincts in the entire state of Florida. 5% of Florida is way more people than live in Boone County, but, because I don’t know where those votes are coming from or how they’re being mixed with the early vote, I can’t draw inferences from them.

UPDATE: The New York Times Upshot blog will be doing a lot of this automatically tonight, which will save us all a great deal of work. Tune in there for rapidly estimated early results, complete with statistically-reliable margins of error!

The Bottom Line

The odds are, this election will be over early. The networks won’t call it until Clinton officially has 270 electoral votes, but Clinton is going into this thing with a comfortable polling lead.  We should know after a couple of states whether the polls were basically on-target, and, if they were, Clinton is almost certainly going to win.  Trump needs to beat his polls, which is doable, but we should know fairly soon whether he actually is. And there are plenty of reasons to think he won’t.

Those of you following the election with this blog, then, have a very good chance of knowing the outcome of the election by the time polls close in Minnesota (9 PM Eastern), before — perhaps long before — the networks call it.  I’ll be staying up late to see who wins the Senate — which is a genuine nailbiter according to the current polls.

On the other hand, Trump could beat his polls, and, if he does, you will be among the first to know that it’s going to be a long night.

Either way, I’ll be watching Gods of Egypt (as promised) after the final results are known. Expect my review by the weekend.

I may or may not post further updates tonight, but I can tell you I’ll be following FiveThirtyEight’s LiveBlog, the Upshot’s projections, and I’ll probably be tweeting a bit as the spirit moves me, so tune in there if you want to know what’s up.

May God bless America. Vote SMOD 2016.

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