Which brings us to an important question: Was Donald Trump just good enough to beat a bad Democratic opponent on Tuesday, or does he deserve far more credit? Could he, for instance, have competed with the vaunted Obama machine? The answer, somewhat shockingly, is yes. A review of vote totals in the past two elections reveals that Trump 2016 would have defeated Obama 2012 in the electoral college.
(Disclaimer: This obviously is an apples-to-oranges exercise because no two elections are the same, nor are any two electorates. Still, unlike debating whether the 2016 Cubs would defeat the 1927 Yankees, this is not an entirely abstract argument; a comparison of their respective performances in the country’s most competitive states shows Trump edging Obama in a hypothetical head-to-head matchup.)
The math might seem impossible. After all, Obama won nearly 66 million votes in 2012; Trump is currently at 59.5 million and should finish around 60 million, which will actually be one million fewer votes than Mitt Romney won. How, then, could Trump have topped Obama in the electoral college? The answer: Republican turnout lagged in certain parts of the country but shot through the roof in the nation’s most critical battleground states.
It doesn’t matter that Obama would have trounced Trump by nearly 300,000 votes in Michigan; by more than 200,000 in Wisconsin; by 175,000 in Virginia; and by 160,000 in Colorado. It’s similarly meaningless that Obama would have narrowly defeated Trump in Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire. The 44th president carried all of those states in 2012, and in this hypothetical contest, he would successfully defend all of them. But it wouldn’t be enough.
The electoral college would produce a razor-thin margin: Trump 273, Obama 265.