Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin’s Hail Mary of a scenario to become president begins with one incredibly unlikely outcome: that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump pick up 270 electoral college votes, at which point the race is over.
This theoretically fascinating idea has one practical implication: McMullin is not competitive in a state Clinton would otherwise be likely to win, so he has to take one (or more) from Trump. Because 270 votes is 50 percent plus 1, this implies that Trump would have to be within reach of 270 votes and a victory himself, provided McMullin wasn’t there to play spoiler.
For the past number of weeks, this has seemed a very unlikely scenario. Most predictions show Clinton with an 85-90 percent chance of winning, taking home between approximately 320 and 360 electoral college votes.
Since Evan is only likely to win Utah, a state with 6 electoral college votes, he needs both candidates to be in the 260s. This means that he needs swing states to shift between 50 and 90 votes into Trump’s likely column.
That’s a large shift, one that most reasonable people didn’t consider likely until yesterday afternoon and, frankly, most still don’t. But let’s assume that the reopening of the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails does shift certain swing states just enough. What would that look like?
There’s a sort of precarious balance here. Too much of a shift and Trump wins even if McMullin takes Utah. McMullin needs a shift in just the right states. I’ve only found two likely ways this works.
Both of these scenarios assume Trump wins Georgia, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Iowa and North Carolina. Georgia and Texas probably will go Trump, though it’s horrifying those normally solid red states are even in question for a Republican. Florida and Ohio could both go Trump; in Real Clear Politics’ aggregates he is only 1 points behind Clinton in Florida right now, 1.5 points ahead in Iowa and 1 point ahead in Ohio. A small shift might get him there. He’s down 2.5 on Clinton in North Carolina, which requires a reasonable, but certainly not impossible, shift.
Remember, in all of these cases, there is still margin of error to consider, but since that cuts both ways, we’ll assume that the sheer volume of polling is bringing the averages to a pretty accurate place.
The simplest scenario from here is that Trump wins Nevada, Arizona and New Hampshire, but loses Pennsylvania. In that case, Clinton gets 269, Trump, 263, and McMullin — as we must assume — gets 6 for Utah. Trump is down by 1.5 points in both Nevada and Arizona right now. Again, certainly possible. However — and here’s where things get dicey — he’s down 5 in New Hampshire.
However, he has closed significantly in the past week. The latest Emerson poll has him down only 3, with a margin of error of 4.9. So it’s not impossible. But we also assume that in Pennsylvania, in which he’s also down 5 points, that Clinton holds onto her lead.
The other scenario is much less likely. It assumes that Trump loses Arizona — meaning it barely shifts — he wins Pennsylvania — meaning it shifts significantly — and he splits New Hampshire and Nevada with Clinton — if either takes both, they win. Let’s take the more likely split. That means he takes Nevada and she, New Hampshire. In that case, Trump has 268, Clinton has 264 and McMullin has 6.
This is obviously still a huge long shot. It doesn’t happen at all unless Trump takes 6 out of 7 toss ups and closes the distance on states that are on the very edge of his reach. The Clinton email investigation probably won’t change too much, but if it perpetuates Trump’s momentum from the past few weeks in some key swing states, it just might happen.
I wouldn’t put money on it happening, but Evan McMullin’s odds of becoming the 45th president may have just shifted from the odds of successfully navigating an asteroid field to the odds of surviving a night on Hoth.