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Wargaming the Electoral College

RealClearPolitics Battlegrounds for October 21, 2016. RealClearPolitics Battlegrounds for October 21, 2016.

This week's battlegrounds haven't changed much from last week's, when the totals were Clinton 259 - Trump 164. Same story for the No Tossups map. Clinton and Trump swapped places in Ohio and Arizona, putting Trump over 200 for the first time -- and this would make him the first Republican since Richard Nixon in 1960 to win Ohio but lose the election.

ASIDE: Even Andrea Mitchell admits that the '60 race was "obviously" stolen by Jack Kennedy with a big assist by LBJ. But that's a topic for another column.

So that's the conventional wisdom, backed up by countless state polls of likely voters, dutifully averaged by the awesome folks at RealClear.

Today though we have a trio of polls showing Trump in the lead.

First there's this:

Donald Trump held onto his 1-point lead over Hillary Clinton in the second day of the IBD/TIPP presidential tracking poll — 41% to 40%. Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party's Jill Stein remain far behind at 7% and 5%, respectively.

In a two-way matchup, Clinton holds a two-point lead over Trump — 43% to 41%. The poll included 779 likely voters, giving it a margin of error of +/- 3.6 percentage points.

The second day's results of the IBD/TIPP poll don't reflect any impact of the spirited presidential debate Wednesday night, which covered a wide range of issues, from the Supreme Court, to abortion, to ISIS, to economic policy and entitlement reform.

And then this:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey of Likely U.S. Voters finds Trump with a 43% to 41% lead over his Democratic rival. Five percent (5%) favor Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, while Green Party nominee Jill Stein earns three percent (3%) support. Another three percent (3%) like some other candidate, and five percent (5%) are undecided.

And finally there's the Los Angeles Times daily tracking poll, where Trump holds a slimmer-than-slender 0.7-point lead at 44.5%.

All this is courtesy of William Katz, who adds:

Are these simply outliers, the polls that we'll look to in the future as having been terribly wrong, or are they finding things the others aren't? We won't know until the election is over, but the cold fact remains that the RealClearPolitics average of polls puts Clinton 6.4 points ahead.

I have no educated guesses here. I have only a hunch that the race will tighten toward the end unless Trump totally self-destructs, which is a possibility. On the other hand, Clinton can have a medical crisis, another possibility. All speculation at this point.

Complicating things is that IBD/LAT/Rasmussen are all national polls, and as the clever folks at 270toWin like to remind us, "This isn't a popularity contest."

A good example of the limited utility of national polls is the three-point lead Democrats enjoy on the generic congressional ballot. Democrats will win more votes in toto than GOP congressmen will, and yet the GOP will likely retain control of Congress. The reason is that Democrats will run up huge totals in lopsided victories in their districts, while the GOP districts tend to be a little more balanced. The race for the House is 435 individual races, just like the race for the White House is 51 statewide races.

So what we can safely glean from national polls is limited -- but we can try.

I went state-by-state, looking for anyplace where Clinton's lead was less than 4.5 points, which is about right for smoothing out the discrepancies between today's three national polls and our state-by-state data.

While the result is the closest we've seen in weeks, it isn't enough.

Colorado might still manage to surprise, but given the bad blood between Trump and many grassroots Colorado Republicans, that doesn't seem likely. Or, maybe popular opposition Colorado's single-payer Proposition 69 will drive enough right-leaning votes to Trump to make up for Trump's ugly 7.2-point deficit. It is, as Katz said, all speculation at this point.

But as of today, even with my thumb pressed hard on the scale in several battleground states, not even speculation adds up to 270 for Donald Trump.