DES MOINES — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are traveling different electoral roads, but both hope their final destination is the White House.
It is far more important to Trump than Clinton, experts say, that the road include a victory in Iowa.
The winner of a U.S. presidential election is the candidate who garners the most Electoral College votes, which are allocated to each state based on population. The candidate to reach a majority 270 electoral votes wins the election.
History and polling show where most states’ electoral votes are headed even before the campaign starts, leaving a small portion of states and electoral votes that truly are up for grabs.
While Iowa’s six electoral votes are few by comparison — fellow swing state Florida, for example, has 29 — they have been highly sought by both parties in recent elections, during which the state has supported a Republican (George W. Bush) and a Democrat (Barack Obama), and has featured competitive races.
This year, however, Iowa’s electoral votes may not be as valuable as other recent elections — at least, not to both candidates.
Multiple experts told The Gazette-Lee Des Moines bureau that Iowa is critical to Trump. Without the state’s six electoral votes, it becomes extremely difficult for the Republican candidate to defeat Clinton.
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Clinton, on the other hand, does not necessarily need Iowa to keep the White House occupied by a Democrat. She has many paths to 270 electoral votes, and not all of them require Iowa’s half-dozen.
“I think Iowa is more critical for Trump getting to the White House than Clinton,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. “Even though Iowa has been in the Democrats’ column the last two cycles, the Democratic nominee just has more wiggle room. Hillary Clinton doesn’t need a clean sweep of the tossup states in order to win, whereas Donald Trump probably does.”
Clinton started the election with a built-in advantage. States that went to the Democrat in each of the past six elections dating back to 1992 provide 242 electoral votes. So if Clinton manages merely to hang on to each of those loyally Democratic states, she needs only 38 more electoral votes for victory. Florida alone would put her over the top.
Trump, meantime, started with only 179 electoral votes based on states that went Republican each of the past four elections dating to 2000. That means he has to win 91 out of the 117 electoral votes available from 10 tossup states — nearly 80 percent — or steal a loyally blue state or two while hanging onto all the red states.
“The electoral map is not favorable for a Republican, so any number of electoral votes are going to be critical” for Trump, said Christopher Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
Most polls in Iowa have showed a very close race between Trump and Clinton, although two post-Labor Day polls showed Trump leading Clinton by 7 and 8 percentage points. Those polls, however, were taken before the first debate, which gave Clinton a polling bump nationally and in other states, and before news reports Saturday showed Trump in 2005 making lewd comments about women.
Iowa’s relative importance to Trump and Clinton is perhaps best illustrated in odds calculated by Nate Silver’s data-based journalism website, Fivethirtyeight.com — so named after the 538 total electoral college votes in a presidential election.
If she loses Iowa, Clinton still has a 39 percent chance of winning the election, according to Fivethirtyeight.com’s calculations. On the other hand, if Trump loses Iowa he has just a five percent chance of winning the election, according to the site.
Iowa is one of four hypercritical states for Trump, along with Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, according to the site.
“The Clinton campaign will spend resources in Iowa largely for cosmetic reasons, but it isn’t necessary for Clinton to win the state to win the election,” said David Wasserman, an editor for the Cook Political Report. “It is necessary, on the other hand, for Trump to win the state to win the election.”
Some campaign activities can signal how serious a candidate is about winning a given state. If a candidate truly craves a state’s electoral votes, he or she will devote resources in the form of paid staff, appear at campaign events and advertise on television and radio.
But Clinton and Trump are sending mixed signals in Iowa, Larimer said.
“You see more organization from the Clinton campaign in Iowa, but you don’t see the candidate. I think it’s the reverse for the Trump campaign,” Larimer said.
Clinton has campaigned in Iowa just twice in this general election, although she also made a stop in the Quad Cities, just across the Mississippi River from Davenport.
In the past few weeks, however, the Clinton campaign has unleashed an army of surrogates on Iowa, including former Democratic primary competitors Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, her daughter Chelsea and current U.S. Ag Secretary and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Trump’s campaign operation in Iowa is much smaller than Clinton’s, but his team works closely with the Republican Party’s national and state organizations established here.
Both campaigns naturally insist Iowa is crucial to their efforts. Clinton’s team has maintained as much from the start and as proof points to its staff, organization and voter turnout programs.
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“Our volunteers and supporters are working hard to mobilize Iowans to cast their votes early for Hillary Clinton and win Iowa’s six electoral votes,” Clinton campaign spokesman Yianni Varonis said in an email. “Early voting so far shows Iowans are rejecting Donald Trump’s hateful rhetoric and dangerous policies in droves, and supporting Hillary Clinton’s plans to build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top.”
The Trump campaign also said Iowa is important to its plans.
“Our campaign has long known that Iowa is a key state if we are to successfully defeat Hillary Clinton and put Donald Trump in the White House,” Eric Branstad, the Trump campaign’s state director and son of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, said in an email. “Mr. Trump’s messages of restoring our nation’s economy, keeping us safe, and making America great again resonate across Iowa.
“He and Gov. Pence have traveled here often to share that vision with voters and their efforts are paying off, as recent polls show Mr. Trump leading ‘Crooked Hillary’ by large margins here in Iowa.”
Both candidates insist they hope to win Iowa. Only one, according to the experts, truly needs it.
Clinton’s “path to 270 electoral votes mainly lies through other states, mainly states like Virginia, Colorado and Pennsylvania, perhaps even in terms of securing the win for her I look at Florida and North Carolina as the states that if she can win one of those, there’s basically no way Trump can win,” said Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “I don’t think she’s necessarily given up on (Iowa), but it’s tough for her, I think, to see that as a priority state compared to a state like Florida and North Carolina.
“But on the other hand, Trump in order to win obviously needs to add on to the states that Mitt Romney won (in 2012), so for (Trump) Iowa is a good starting point. … For them, picking off Iowa and Ohio gets them 24 more electoral votes, which still they have to get more to win, but it’s a starting point.”