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Opinion: 'I all but guaranteed a win for Hillary but then we had a political earthquake...'

At this extremely late stage, there are a lot of unknowns, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

WRITING HERE ON 26 October, I all but guaranteed that Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the United States, “barring something unforeseeable and unprecedented in the next 10 days”.

Well, there was something.

The letter from FBI Director James Comey to Republican chairmen of congressional committees signalling that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails was being reopened in light of 650,000 additional emails discovered in the course of an unrelated matter – the ‘sexting’ scandal involving disgraced former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of long-time Clinton aide Huma Abedin – is nothing short of breathtaking.

That Comey would make such a revelation a week and a half before Americans choose their next president beggars belief. Leaving aside his purported reasons for doing so and the longer term legal and other consequences, it has precipitated a political earthquake.

Campaign 2016 Comey Career Highlights Source: AP/Press Association Images

Both national and state polls reflect dramatic erosion in Hillary Clinton’s previously commanding lead.

There is no doubt that the letter has caused some Americans, who had intended to support the Democratic nominee notwithstanding their lingering questions about her character and trustworthiness, to shift their preference.

It is undeniable that some of these swing voters are women who have settled on Donald Trump, even though they have been disgusted at times by his words and deeds.

In typically red states, such as Arizona and Georgia, which appeared as if they could break for Clinton, more Republicans and conservative-leaning Independents are “coming home”.

Polls manifest a pronounced tightening in battleground states. And reports from across the US are to the effect that the momentum is very much with Trump, who may have delivered the best speech of his entire campaign this past Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

At this extremely late stage, there are a lot of unknowns.

It’s impossible to know whether the movement in the polls following Comey’s letter will translate into actual votes.

It’s impossible to know whether there are any further bombshells to come in the next few days.

It’s impossible to know whether the skyrocketing premiums for ‘Obamacare’ that Americans have just been made aware of will have a significant impact.

It’s impossible to know whether there is a ‘silent Trump’ vote that will upend conventional wisdom and surprise everyone on Tuesday or if there’s a “Trump recoil” (i.e., voters who decide, at the last minute, that they can’t cast a ballot for the controversial and unpredictable Republican nominee), which might mean the most recent polling data is overstating his actual vote.

It’s impossible to know what can be extrapolated from early voting trends. And it’s impossible to know how many members of racial and ethnic minority groups and young people will go to the polls.

Campaign 2016 Trump A campaign rally in Selma, North Carolina on Thursday Source: Evan Vucci

There are also some facts that remain unchanged.

First, Hillary Clinton has a substantial Electoral College advantage. She could probably lose Ohio, Florida, Nevada, Iowa and North Carolina to Donald Trump and still win the election.

In order to prevail – even in this unlikely scenario – Trump would have to pull off a monumental upset in at least one other blue(ish) state to garner the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win the White House.

Michigan and Pennsylvania are two potential targets. But neither state has been won by a Republican presidential candidate since 1988. Donald Trump has campaigned furiously in both states and, in particular, has aggressively courted blue collar workers with promises to revisit trade deals that have robbed many of them of their livelihoods.

Yet Hillary Clinton still holds a clear, albeit narrow, lead in Pennsylvania and Michigan. She is currently ahead in all of her other ‘must win’ states, although some polls taken in New Hampshire (which has just four Electoral College votes) this week show the two candidates running neck and neck.

Second, there is no comparison between the ground game and well-oiled ‘get out the vote’ operation that Democrats can rightly boast about and the weak organisation of the Trump campaign, which hasn’t been helped by the low regard in which he is held by numerous seasoned operatives in national and state GOP headquarters.

Democrats have hundreds of campaign offices throughout the US and have been identifying and phoning voters incessantly for weeks. As such, some observers claim that, for Trump to triumph, he actually would need to be ahead by 2-3 points in the battleground states, and not locked in statistical dead heats (at best), as the poll aggregates now indicate.

Third, the number of black and hispanic voters has risen dramatically. For instance, in 1980, when Ronald Reagan defied the polls and defeated Jimmy Carter, people of colour comprised 12% of the electorate. Now, they are approximately 30%. They have always backed Democratic presidential candidates by a wide margin and will do so again this year. Only 17% of them voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and it’s widely felt that Donald Trump’s level of support will be lower – and possibly a good deal lower.

Fourth, voter turnout in presidential elections is invariably higher than in all other elections in the US. This helps Democrats.

Campaign 2016 Clinton Source: Andrew Harnik/PA Wire

In sum, the facts definitely favour Hillary Clinton and the unknowns suggest that Donald Trump could win.

Politics is a numbers game above everything else. Because it is and because of how difficult the Electoral College maths are for Donald Trump, I am still convinced that Hillary Clinton will tough it out on Tuesday.

But on the final weekend, I am less absolutely certain of the outcome than at any other juncture in this long, tumultuous campaign.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com. He will be analysing the election results as they come in on RTÉ on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

The US Electoral College: An Explanation and a Defence

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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