2016 Election Countdown: Can Trump Jump Clinton’s Midwest Firewall to Win?

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Donald Trump has been hot on Hillary Clinton’s trail but still lags in the electoral college. If the election is still uncertain, the states that will determine it are more clear. And to win it all, Trump may need to jump Clinton’s Midwest firewall.

The long election season has some down to just a few, but still entirely plausible, paths to victory for Trump. This come-from-behind win mostly likely would involve the following outcomes (electoral votes in parentheses):

  • Trump wins the five swing states of Florida (29), New Hampshire (4), Nevada (6), North Carolina (15) and Ohio (18).
  • Then Trump wins all the other states in which he has a lead, plus one vote in Maine (for a bare electoral college majority of 270).
  • But if he loses any of these states, he jumps the Clinton firewall either in Pennsylvania (20) or the Midwest states of Michigan (16), Minnesota (10) or Wisconsin (10).

Hence the importance of Clinton’s Midwest firewall.

The Clinton campaign has devoted much attention to securing the upper Midwest states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. As a result Clinton has been able to keep a lead in these three states, all of which have gone Democratic in the last six presidential elections (Minnesota and Wisconsin even longer). But Trump deeply covets these states. Any one of them could make up for the loss of New Hampshire and Nevada combined; Michigan could offset the loss of North Carolina; and all of them together would more than make up for a defeat in the critical state of Florida.

Not surprisingly Trump has also spent a lot of time down the stretch campaigning in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. His campaign has always felt that these states with their blue collar workers and struggling manufacturing centers could be ripe for harvesting by his economic message of discontentment. Disenchanted former Bernie supporters concerned about trade have been a natural target, since Sanders won all three states in the Democratic primaries. And although these states have been in the Democratic column for a while, there is evidence that their margin of victory in these states compared to the national average may have been eroding over time.

One question in these states is whether Trump’s anti-environmental energy policies will help or hurt him? Energy policy is often a very regional affair, with energy producing states often lining up on one side of an issue and energy consuming states on the other. This is especially true of the politics of fossil fuel production. Accordingly the Trump campaign has used the charge of an Obama-Clinton “war on coal” to try to court eastern coal states such as Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But the upper Midwest is not part of the eastern coal region. It produces little in the way of fossil fuels and is not highly reliant on power plants using eastern coal. In these respects it more closely resembles the more environmentally-minded states of the Northeast and the West Coast. And in those regions renewable energy and energy efficiency are widely supported, as is Hillary Clinton.

This distinction between the states of the upper Midwest and the coal states of the lower Midwest has a long history. Back in the 1980s the fight was about acid rain, which states in the upper Midwest and the Northeast felt was being produced by eastern coal-fired power plants and drifting their way. Health threatening smog and soot from these plants and automobiles was also a concern. Congress eventually passed the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 with strong bi-partisan support and George H.W. Bush signed it into law. Now President Obama has taken the next step to clean up carbon pollution from dirty, old coal-fired power plants by implementing his Clean Power Plan. Trump has probably not done himself any good by promising to repeal these standards.

So let’s see where the race stands in each of these states.

Wisconsin. The current RealClearPolitics polling average advantage for Clinton equals +5.5 percentage points. Nevertheless, of these three states Wisconsin seems to be the most likely to be plucked. The state is headed by Scott Walker, a conservative Republican who is also a climate denier, and is home to Republican Paul Ryan, who has advocated extremely anti-environmental legislation as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. However, this year the Democrats are looking good for state-wide office with Russ Feingold continuing to lead in a close race to take back his old job as U.S. Senator from Republican Ron Johnson. The lifetime environmental ratings of these two candidates reveal a tremendous gulf, with Feingold achieving a nearly perfect 95% score and Johnson close to zero.

Michigan. The current RealClearPolitics polling average advantage for Clinton equals +4.0 percentage points. Trump feels he has a real shot here, but of these states Michigan has shown some of the most dramatic movement in the last several years towards the clean energy economy. In the 1980s politicians of both parties representing the auto industry helped block strengthening the Clean Air Act. By contrast when the automakers needed financial assistance during the Great Recession, the Obama administration provided it and the automakers subsequently improved both the efficiency of their operations and the fuel efficiency of their cars. The deal saved the auto industry, significantly reduced carbon pollution and helped reelect Obama. The tragic contamination of the drinking water supply in Flint Michigan under the Republican administration of Governor Rick Snyder has also probably galvanized minority support for the Democratic ticket.

Minnesota. The current RealClearPolitics polling average advantage for Clinton equals +6.0 percentage points. Given the volatility of the presidential race almost nothing can be ruled out, but Minnesota is the least favorable of the upper Midwest states for Trump. The state is led state-wide by a progressive trio of Governor Mark Dayton of the Democratic Farmer Labor party, and Democratic U.S. Senators Amy Klobucher and Al Franken. The Trump campaign probably knows this, as their first campaign visit here was a private fund-raiser, and even that attracted protests.

With four days to go in the election much could still change, but the main options for the two candidates seem to be crystalizing. For Trump it starts with running the table of most or all of the remaining swing states. For Clinton it might come down to cashing in on her environmental credentials and holding the Midwest firewall.