It's been a historically crazy election year, and readers/listeners keep asking me, "what's going to happen this election cycle? What could happen?" So I decided to take a crack. I came up with some crazy scenarios just so we could see how it plays out. It'll be fun.
What's Likely: Clinton Wins Decisively.
FiveThirtyEight thinks it's going to be a shellacking, with Clinton possibly sneaking a win in Georgia, which would be pretty bonkers (if you're looking at the polls-only forecast, rather than polls-plus, which I think is pretty junk this year because it bakes in a lot of assumptions about this year's presidential elections looking like previous ones, and I think we can agree that this is a pretty crazy election). RCP agrees.
So I had a run with 270towin's make-your-own-map, and made a modest effort at predicting who's going to win which states based on the direction of polls and some of the demographics.
But that's boring. What crazy stuff could happen?
Crazy #1: Something Terrible Happens to Clinton, and Trump Wins
At this point it would take something really terrible. This definitely counts as a crazy scenario. The map looks terrible for Trump. Clinton is up 7%+ in the polls nationally, and is really rocking it in battleground states.
And things tend not to change too much from here. In the last 16 elections, the candidate that's been ahead at this point of the election has always won.
Unfortunately for Clinton, she has some serious risks, and people don't trust her. One mega-scandal of lying or corruption could sink her campaign. What might those be? Perhaps the Department of Justice decides to ignore the FBI's recommendation, and files charges against Clinton for misuse of classified material (email-gate). Add to that, the FBI actually recommended that the Clinton Foundation be investigated by the DoJ, and they decided not to. If serious bad-news evidence of bad behavior arises in either of these, the DoJ's hand might be forced. How might that happen? Well, if you're a fan of the darker parts of internet politics, you might have heard from a guy with a friend who knows Julian Assange that he might have an "October Surprise," which might just include some of those 160 emails that were missing from Clinton's dump to the DoState/FBI (or maybe 30,000, and Wikileaks allegedly has them). Or Putin might listen to Trump and just do some movie-style hacking.
Okay, so let's say Clinton has a really terrible skeleton in her closet, and it comes out. I decided just as a totally arbitrary number that she and Trump trade 10% in each state, in Trump's favor. What does the map look like then?
There's your Trump win. Colorado and Virginia were edge cases, but I gave them to Clinton just to show that Trump could win in this disaster-for-Clinton scenario.
Crazy #2: Mild Clinton Disaster, But Nobody Cares About Florida, Ohio, Missouri, or Iowa
I saw on Twitter this lovely tweet.
It's always down to those two, ain't it?
This year, it might not be. Basically, Hillary Clinton can win the presidency without winning a single toss-up state, including the classics like Ohio, Florida, Iowa, and Missouri (and it would take some real magic for Trump to snag all of those). You heard it right: she's currently poised to win the election even if she loses all of those (and every single state considered a "toss-up" right now), thanks in part to states like Virginia, Colorado, and New Mexico leaning her way pretty hard.
So long, Ohio and Florida. Your day is done, nobody cares anymore.
(This map, by the way, is like the one above, except NH and PA don't flip Trump, so in a mild disaster scenario, Clinton could still win.)
Crazy #3: Something Super-Terrible Happens to Trump, and Clinton Wins in a Historic Landslide
Trump's poll numbers slid down a good bit after the Democratic election, but he seems to get away with breaking a lot of the rules of campaigning: picking fights with fellow Republicans, lacking endorsements and a serious ground game, insulting federal judges, insulting disabled journalists, insulting the parents of KIA veterans, asking Putin to commit espionage on the US, the Mexican-rapist thing, the Muslim ban thing, and the latest maybe-just-maybe assassinate President Clinton thing. So there's a lot of robustness to stuff that would conventionally crush candidates.
So this scenario is "crazy" because it would take something really bad to sink Trump to epic lows at this point. He's not releasing his tax returns, and there might just be a $250MM tax evasion associated with his Manhattan real-estate business. He might get caught up in a fraud case for Trump University. Trump's campaign chairman probably helped smuggle Russian money out of Ukraine (he'd technically be guilty of undisclosed foreign lobbying), and maybe Trump has Russian ties that are a little too deep?
If Trump's poll numbers sink too much, he might drop out, or Republicans might start defecting en masse after the Congressional primaries are over and they're now hoping to win over Independent voters in the general. There are already some insider calls for him to drop out, and the Wall Street Journal is pressing him to do the same. If he does drop out, it'll be a scramble for the Republicans to try to position someone who can win Trump voters. That candidate will have little time to campaign. Trump voters will feel betrayed by the establishment and probably won't show up. They won't even be able to get a new name on the ballots of most states--once the ballots are officially set, they're set... and they're already set in most states.
So let's say one of these comes up and Trump supporters just get totally fed up, or he drops out, and he and Clinton flip another 10% in each state, in Clinton's favor this time. You'd have an epic landslide--not the re-elections of Reagan or Nixon, to whit, but it would be the biggest since then. Something a lot like Reagan/Carter (though just look at that map--weird stuff. Seriously, West Virginia is one of the six states that holds out for Carter?).
Bad day for Trump, and probably a very bad day for down-ballot Republicans. Expect a decisive DNC majority in the Senate.
Crazy #4: A Tie?!
So if we take the above map and add just a bit more magic, Trump could take New Hampshire. Who knows, we're in crazy territory here. But if he takes New Hampshire, there's a dead tie, 269 and 269.
What on earth happens then? It goes to the House of Reps--they get to pick the president. It's right there in the Constitution. It's the incoming Congress (since 1936), but that will probably still be a Republican majority, albeit possibly slimmer--but frankly, who knows. Some Republicans are defecting from Trump, and more might... so it's not even clear with this magic that Trump could pull off a win. But the odds would be in his favor. Establishment Republicans probably hate Clinton just a bit more than they hate Trump.
Crazy #5: The Gary Johnson "Sneak"
Johnson was a pretty popular candidate in New Mexico, and is polling his best there, at about 16%. Maybe that number goes up to 15%, maybe he gets into the debates, maybe he doesn't go berzerk in the polls and get far over that.
This would be in a Clinton-Disaster scenario, where Trump can hold onto states like Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Iowa, Nevada. It'd take a strong Trump here, and Clinton voters going largely to Trump but not Johnson (or just not showing up, which is more likely), but bear with me.
If in this Clinton-Disaster, Johnson sniffs out a chance to throw the election for a total loop, and just goes all-out in New Mexico. His national supporters throw all their money at New Mexico, and he reminds them just how much they used to like him. He wins New Mexico, and nobody crosses 270.
Like the tie scenario, the vote goes to the House, but this time Johnson's technically in the running: Congress is able to elect any of the top three earners of electoral college votes. So technically Congress could anoint him, but... don't bet on it. Still, exciting times in November.
Crazy #6: Gary Johnson Makes a Credible Run for President
The 10% of Americans excited about Gary Johnson will really like this one.
So both Clinton and Trump have some baggage, and Johnson is trying to position himself as a "Libertarian-Centrist," general good guy, anti-partisan, non-corrupt, successful governor. He's trying to turn the Libertarian party into the sensible third-party, rather than a fringe element. He's pulling from both Trump and Clinton, so he's positioning himself better than Libertarians of the past.
Let's say Johnson does get some surge in the polls and he hits 15%. He gets on the debate circuit, and gets ignored for a bit as Clinton and Trump both rip into each other. Americans start thinking he's a credible guy, he pokes up in the polls more.
Johnson's polling is lumpy--in some states he has a tiny die-hard 3%, in some he has 15%+. And remember that those disaster scenarios could happen to both Clinton and Trump, even in somewhat minor ways, and wick voters away from both of them. Johnson has two advantages here he can play to. First, 43% of Americans registered voters are Independents, which means they probably have a little bit less devotion to the DNC or GOP winning than party-affiliated voters. Second, Clinton and Trump are the most disliked candidates in any election since we started keeping track. Also for the first time, most voters are voting for a candidate because they're voting against the other, rather than liking their own.
So if Johnson looks like a credible alternative, there could be a "runaway" effect. First-past-the-post systems mean strategic voting--a vote for a small candidate is a "throwaway" that risks the candidate you really don't like winning. But let's say some disasters happen to one of Clinton or Trump while Johnson is on the stage, and people get really fed up with one of them, enough that Johnson becomes something-like tied for #2... then things might change. People might be willing to abandon their "vote against" if they're more excited about a "vote for."
What's actually most likely is that it would mean one of the above "disaster" scenarios--crazy #1 and crazy #3, as the GOP/DNC candidate that gets crushed by scandal sees total voter flight, and there's a split vote. Imagine something like Clinton - 25%, Johnson - 25%, Trump - 50%; or Clinton - 50%, Johnson - 25%, Trump - 25%. You'd have the "spoiler" effect of Ross Perot getting Clinton to win by wicking away enough Bush votes.
But in this election, few people are really fond of either candidate, and there's tons of anti-establishment sentiment. So in Crazy #6, Johnson keeps pulling from both candidates. We'll play this out by giving them a dead tie--about 1/3 each (sorry, Stein fans, but she has no experience in office, no ground game, and can't position herself as "centrist"--she's a "hard left" candidate and won't pull this off).
Given that Johnson's support is "lumpy," I ran some really fast-and-loose numbers. Looking at states where Clinton and Trump are fairly close, and where Johnson is polling well above 10%, we could give him states where he's able to sneak away votes from both Clinton and Trump and get to something like 40% overall, while still lagging behind in very blue or very red states.
Johnson would do really well in lots of little states, particularly the western, low-density, big-sky places that are big fans of "leave me alone." What's the map look like?
So he pulls a little more from Trump than he does Clinton, but he scores Virginia, Ohio, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island (weird, right?), Minnesota, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico from Clinton, which gets Clinton just below 270. 2 freakin' electoral votes.
Then we're back to Congress. At this point, they definitely don't want Clinton, and they probably don't want Trump, and everyone's got about 1/3 of the popular vote. The Republicans aren't too fond of Johnson, but it would be a really sticky situation for them--who's the one they can actually work with? Will they have seen the writing on the wall and defected from Trump? Already some Republicans are endorsing Johnson, which builds a claim to legitimacy--and again, he might get more after the primaries are over for Congress, and/or if Trump keeps ticking off the Republican establishment.
So hey, maybe he could win. We're in crazy-town, so who knows?