• Politics

How to Tell Who’s Winning the Presidential Race

9 minute read

As we settle into the final weeks of the presidential election, it can be nerve-wracking for supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to read the news.

Each day seems to bring some new tidbit of information that casts the election in a new light.

But it’s important to keep an eye on the big picture too. Here’s a look at nine major factors that could determine who comes out ahead on Election Day.

Recent surveys indicate a tightening race, but Clinton maintains a lead in state and national polls.

At the state level, Clinton continues to lead in the swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire and Virginia, according to RealClear Politics polling averages.

The most recent national RealClearPolitics polling average shows Clinton currently leading by 2.1 points when included in a four-way matchup against Trump, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. (She leads by 2.7 in a two-way election against Trump.)

Clinton also has a better overall record so far. Since both candidates clinched their respective party nominations, she has led Trump in the polling average for all but a brief period between the conventions.

Advantage: Clinton

The Electoral College
The Electoral College map favors Clinton, giving her more paths to reaching the necessary 270 electors than it does to Trump.

Like any Democratic nominee, Clinton starts with a baseline of blue states that gives her a head start over Trump. Some analysts put her starting point as high as 242 electors, counting every state that’s gone Democratic in each presidential election since 1992.

Even assuming a smaller baseline, Clinton has more routes to the presidency. She could win the White House by doing well in states with substantial numbers of Latinos, such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado, or holding on to the Rust Belt states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, for example.

By contrast any map that shows Trump winning has a smaller margin for error, with some states as must-wins for him to make the math work.

The RealClearPolitics electoral map shows 229 electors going to Clinton, 154 electors going to Trump and 155 toss-up votes. A FiveThirtyEight forecast based on current polling predicts that Clinton will receive 309 electoral votes, compared to 228 for Trump.

Advantage: Clinton

Campaign surrogates
The star-studded nature of the Democratic National Convention stood in stark contrast to its Republican counterpart. And that comparison continues in the difference between campaign surrogates for both candidates.

Clinton has more high-profile surrogates campaigning with her and independently on her behalf, a crucial way for the campaigns to break into local news coverage in swing states. President Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are among those who have campaigned for her and are scheduled to do so again.

Trump lacks the support of all living former Republican presidents, former GOP nominee Mitt Romney and many of the candidates he ran against. His surrogates include his oldest children, who often appear with him at rallies, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Advantage: Clinton

Get-out-the-vote efforts
Although Trump has boasted otherwise, Clinton’s campaign has a massive ground game advantage, especially in key battleground states. In Florida, Clinton has 51 campaign offices and more than 90,000 volunteers. In North Carolina, her campaign has opened 30 offices and signed up 40,000 people to volunteer. And in Pennsylvania, her campaign has 38 offices and more than 60,000 volunteers.

Trump still lags far behind those numbers. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for a comment, but told CNN it had opened 30 new field offices in 21 states in the past two weeks. More than half of those new offices are in Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, according to CNN. In Florida, the campaign plans to have 25 offices running by mid-month, Politico reported. And in late August, Trump still had yet to open a single campaign office in North Carolina, the Raleigh News & Observer reported.

Trump has relied heavily on the information and infrastructure of the Republican National Committee for his campaign’s ground game. The effects of that strategy will start to show as many states begin early voting as soon as this week. Voters in North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan, among others, can cast their ballots before Clinton and Trump even debate for the first time.

Michael McDonald, an early voting expert who heads up the U.S. Elections Project, told the Wall Street Journal that a large number of voters appear to have already made up their minds this year and might be more likely to vote early, eager for an end to a notoriously divisive presidential race.

The number of people who vote early has been steadily increasing since 1992. Almost 32% of voters cast their ballots before Election Day in 2012, and McDonald expects that trend to continue.

Advantage: Clinton

Both Clinton and Trump continue to struggle with record unpopularity.

A recent CCN/ORC poll found that 36% of voters were not too enthusiastic or not at all enthusiastic about voting for president. When asked to compare their enthusiasm to previous presidential elections, 49% of registered voters said they were less enthusiastic than usual about voting this year. (Just 42% said they were more enthusiastic than usual.)

Although both candidates are relatively unpopular, Trump might be driving more enthusiasm than Clinton. More registered Republicans (48%) said they were more enthusiastic than usual about voting, while 40% said they were less enthusiastic. Among registered Democrats, only 38% said they were more excited than usual about voting, while a majority (57%) said they were less enthusiastic.

That could matter if Trump is able to turn out a substantial number of voters who don’t normally head to the polls, upending the assumptions built into polling and get-out-the-vote efforts.

Advantage: Trump

Earned media
As he did throughout the primary race, Trump continues to dominate his rival in so-called earned media, unpaid coverage of his campaign across broadcast, print and social platforms.

During the month of August, Trump received about $509 million worth of free media, while Clinton received about $364 million, according to data collected by mediaQuant, which tracks media coverage of each candidate.

Clinton had almost caught up to Trump during the month of July amid the Democratic National Convention, nearing Trump’s earned media value, which mediaQuant attributed to the historic nature of her nomination. (Trump received $573 million in July, while Clinton received $539 million.) But she doesn’t come close to matching Trump’s total over the course of the campaign. Since September 2015, Trump has earned about $4.6 billion worth of free media, nearly double Clinton’s $2.5 billion.

That being said, mediaQuant’s figures include both positive and negative coverage, which means an abundance of free media is not necessarily an advantage. Trump’s free media in August, for example, would have included the fallout from his criticism of a Gold Star family whose son was killed while serving in Iraq.

Advantage: Toss-up

When it comes to television advertising, Clinton has vastly outspent Trump, who has relied largely on his ability to earn free media coverage throughout much of his campaign.

Clinton’s campaign has spent about $81 million on television advertising during the general election campaign—more than six times what Trump has spent. His campaign spent about $13 million, NBC News reported, citing data from Advertising Analytics.

Pro-Clinton outside groups are also outspending pro-Trump outside groups on TV ads by about $35.5 million, according to NBC News.

Notably, in seven key battleground states, Clinton has significantly outspent Trump (by a difference of $127 million to $18 million) in purchasing airtime through Nov. 8, NPR reported. That report is backed up by recent data from Advertising Analytics showing that Clinton outspent Trump in most battleground states last week, alone, with the exception of Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire and Virginia.

Advantage: Clinton

Debate preparation
The first debate—on Sept. 26—will be a critical moment for both candidates, and their different preparation styles are telling.

Trump, who resisted debate prep until recently, dislikes mock debates and practice sessions. “I believe you can prep too much for those things,” he told the New York Times. The Republican nominee has been relying on guidance from campaign CEO Steve Bannon, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and family members, Politico reported.

Clinton, known for diligent preparation and a competitive debate style, has been studying policy briefings as well as briefings of Trump’s past comments compiled by her team, which includes campaign chairman John Podesta, chief strategist Joel Benenson and other debate veterans. Clinton’s advisers have consulted with the ghostwriter of Trump’s The Art of the Deal and have spent time analyzing GOP primary debates in search of his strengths and weaknesses, the New York Times reported.

That said, Trump will benefit from rock-bottom expectations and many outsider candidates have benefited from the chance to appear presidential under the bright lights of the debate stage.

Advantage: Toss-up

Clinton continues to best Trump when it comes to fundraising. Her team raised a striking $143 million for her campaign and the Democratic Party in August—the best month for her campaign, a jump from $90 million raised in July.

Clinton’s campaign started September with more than $68 million in the bank, and her joint fundraising accounts have a combined $84 million in the bank, CNN reported.

Trump, just a few months into a real fundraising effort, still lags behind Clinton. His campaign raised about $90 million in August, passing the $80 million raised in July, Reuters reported. The campaign didn’t release many additional details, but some of that money might have come directly from Trump, who said at a rally last week that he is still self-funding his campaign.

Advantage: Clinton

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com