There’s a fascinating Washington Post article doing the rounds at the moment, which shows that – by two US state boundaries were in very slightly different places, moves so tiny that you’d barely spot them on the map – then Hillary Clinton would be president elect right now.
— Will Jordan (@williamjordann) November 29, 2016
Thanks to the vagaries of the electoral college system, not a single vote would have had to change hands. Move four counties between states, and Clinton would have won Florida and Wisconsin, giving her 271 electoral votes, to Donald Trump’s 269. The world right now would feel like a very different place.
This got me wondering, though – could we go further than this? Could we swing the election by moving just one county?
This is Los Angeles county, California. It’s home to over 10m people, making it larger than 40 individual US states.
It’s also – being urban, coastal and Californian – not very friendly to Donald Trump. He won just 23.4 per cent of the vote there – around 620,000 votes. Clinton won 71.4 per cent, or 1.9m votes, giving her an edge of just under 1.3m votes.
The state-wide result was closer, but not much closer. Clinton got 7.4m votes, or 61.6 per cent; Trump got 3.9m votes, or 32.8 per cent. All of which means you can remove Los Angeles county from California, and Clinton would still win the state.
So the question is – is there a state where the margin was less than 1.3m votes, and which has enough electoral college votes to flip the election?
In Texas, Donald Trump beat Clinton by 52.6 per cent to 43.4 per cent, handing him the state’s 38 electoral college votes. This wasn’t a surprise – no Democrat has won Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976. The surprise, if anything, was that the margin was under 10 per cent.
But to get that result, Trump only needed to win around 814,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton: 4.7m to 3.9m. That, you’ll notice, is a smaller margin than the one by which Clinton won LA.
And so, if Los Angeles county was a part of Texas, Hillary would have won the state’s electoral college votes. In that alternative reality, of course, Texas would carry more than its current 38 electoral college votes, and California less than its 55. But the exact distribution doesn’t matter: the point is, Clinton would have won all those votes.
She’d have hit the magic number of 270 and won the election.
Okay, so this is silly on a number of levels. It’s silly because Los Angeles very obviously isn’t in Texas: it’s three states and 700 miles away, and about as different a culture as one can imagine within a single country. It’s silly, too, because in this parallel universe I’ve just invented, the campaigns would have made different choices about how they fought the election. A Republican party that couldn’t win Texas would be a very different Republican party. The whole election would have played out differently.
But it goes to show quite how silly the entire electoral college system itself is, too. Move two state boundaries slightly – even shift a single county from one state to another – and without a single voter changing their mind you get the exact opposite result. In an election that wasn’t even that close.
We’ve often noted that the exact location of political boundaries can have weird effects on our cities. But it’s rare those effects are quite as significant as this.
Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.