This is the first in a series of reflections from Harvard scholars on the results of the US election.
This was originally published in the Indian Express.
By Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs, Director of the Brown-India Initiative
How did Donald Trump, defying all pollsters and projections, manage to win the US presidential elections? And what does it say about American politics today? The first question requires that we reconstruct the voting data and assess how it is distributed over key demographic categories. The second would take us to the larger conclusions.
As is well known, it is possible to win the popular vote in the US, but lose the presidential election. This is because the presidential elections are decided in the electoral college, where states are the building blocks of victory, not the popular vote. Hillary Clinton had to win 270 out of 538 electoral college votes. As of this writing, even though she is about 2,81,000 votes ahead of Trump, a lead eventually expected to rise above a million or more, she has only 228 votes of the electoral college, whereas Trump’s tally is 279. She has already conceded defeat. In 2000, Al Gore also lost in a roughly similar fashion.
Given how the electoral college works, the so-called battleground states were critical. A few days before the elections, it was widely believed that there were nine battleground states, accounting for 130 votes. Since the reliable Democratic states outnumbered the safe Republican states, Clinton seemed to require only 40-50 of these battleground votes for victory. In contrast, Trump needed 80-90 votes, if not more. In the end, Clinton won just two battleground states, Colorado and Nevada, securing a mere 15 swing votes, whereas Trump won six battleground states, including the much bigger Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Arizona, clinching 115 votes. How could something so unanticipated happen?