Politics & Policy

The Electoral Math against Hillary

Gary Johnson (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
It will take some maneuvering, but Gary Johnson can make the difference.

Among Republicans who support Trump, there’s a lot of concern that Gary Johnson will win enough Republican votes to swing close states to the Democrats. But there’s a way Trump can use Johnson to take states away from Hillary. In fact, with the right approach, Trump can deny Hillary any chance of wining the Electoral College.

And remember: If no candidate has a majority in the Electoral College, the election goes to the House of Representatives, where each state delegation has one vote. Of those delegations, 32 are majority-Republican, 15 are majority-Democratic, and three are tied.

At the moment, general-election polling has Johnson hovering around 10 percent. That’s 5 percentage points too little to make it into the presidential debate, but it’s enough, in theory, to swing a swing state one way or the other.

Because the Libertarian platform is much closer to the Republican platform than to the Democratic, the conventional wisdom is that Johnson will pull many more votes from Trump than from Clinton. And that will probably prove to be the case. But if Trump’s campaign is willing to try something radical — and the evidence suggests it is — it can use Johnson to keep Hillary out of the White House.

If Trump’s campaign is willing to try something radical — and the evidence suggests it is it can use Johnson to keep Hillary out of the White House.

And to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House, what strategies shouldn’t we consider?

At the moment, there is limited general-election polling that includes Johnson; a Trump–Clinton–Johnson race has been polled in only a handful of states. And, this long before the election, what polling there is is suspect. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that there are three solid Democratic states in which polling shows support for Johnson exceeding Clinton’s lead over Trump.

Which means that if Trump’s supporters were to vote Johnson, Hillary could be denied those states’ reliably Democratic electoral votes.

In New Mexico, where Johnson was governor for eight years, he’s currently polling at 14 percent, while Clinton leads Trump by 8. In Michigan, Johnson is at 12, while Clinton leads Trump by 4. In Connecticut, Johnson is at 6, with Clinton leading Trump by 5.

If these numbers are right (and if they don’t change too much before November), Trump could take New Mexico, Michigan, and Connecticut from Hillary by asking his supporters to vote strategically, for Johnson. Those three states combined have 28 electoral votes. Denying Hillary those 28 votes would mean she could (among swing states) win Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire and still fail to win a majority in the Electoral College. In which case the House would elect either Johnson or (much more likely) Trump.

While there’s no Trump–Clinton–Johnson polling yet in Maine, Minnesota, Oregon, or Washington, Johnson’s support might well exceed Hillary’s lead over Trump in those states as well — Romney did better in each of those states than in Connecticut, and each has a libertarian streak to it. They have a total of 33 electoral votes; combined with the votes of Michigan, Connecticut, and New Mexico, that’s 61 total. If Trump were able to tip all those states to Johnson, Hillary could win every single swing state but North Carolina, and still fail to win an Electoral College majority. Which, again, would send the vote to the House (and, again, Hillary would certainly lose).

So why wouldn’t Hillary, by the same token, try to use Johnson to tip Georgia, Arizona, or Utah away from Trump? She could, of course — but unlike Trump (or Johnson), who would be backed up by a Republican House, she can win only if she achieves an outright electoral majority. So there wouldn’t be any point. All she’d succeed in doing would be running down her vote total.

Such a general-election strategy would be highly unorthodox. There would be some playing with fire involved. But that’s something Trump has proved very willing to do.

And remember: Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich tried the same thing (more or less) in the primaries. It worked in Ohio. Someone call the Trump campaign.

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a weekly columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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