Followers of the 2016 presidential campaign encounter a daily blizzard of questions. In the last few days, we have seen pundits ask whether Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulFauci to Chelsea Clinton: The 'phenomenal amount of hostility' I face is 'astounding' GOP's attacks on Fauci at center of pandemic message Fox host claims Fauci lied to Congress, calls for prosecution MORE's (R-Ky.) annual victory at the (Conservative Political Action Conference) CPAC straw poll was a significant sign of strength, or whether his relatively narrow win over Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) was an indicator of weakness. Analysts wonder how former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNSA leaker Reality Winner released from federal prison Monica Lewinsky signs production deal with 20th TV Police investigating death of TV anchor who uncovered Clinton tarmac meeting as suicide MORE's email issue will affect her likely campaign and are setting the over-under on much money former Gov. Jeb Bush's (R-Fla.) PAC will report in its first filing. This week, like every week, will no doubt bring countless other plot twists.

None of these questions is unimportant, but understanding the dynamics of the election requires some method of weighting the answers as they emerge, some of which are more important than others. While it is true that campaigns are never static or easily predictable, in today's presidential politics, a few pivotal factors are reliable predictors of the outcome. So here is a scorecard of questions that may help you figure out who will be inaugurated in January 2017.

Will a transformative event occur that affects the lives of large numbers of voters?

On rare occasions, major events transform our politics as they reshape the lives of our citizens. Recent examples include the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the near-meltdown of the global financial system that boiled over in September 2008. Such events typically have a strong effect on the party holding the presidency. If the 2016 campaign plays out in a profoundly negative economic environment, it is likely that the Democratic candidate will be in trouble, as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) experienced as the Republican nominee in 2008. If a major foreign policy crisis dominates the 2016 landscape, electoral politics will shift toward the issue of who can best lead us through that crisis. The other type of transformative event would be political: the emergence of third- or fourth-party candidates, such as Ross Perot in 1992.

Will either party nominate a candidate who is perceived by the electorate as unelectable?

Whether for ideological reasons (Republican nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Democratic nominee George McGovern in 1972) or because of weaknesses inherent in a candidate (such as those plaguing Republican nominee Bob Dole in 1996 and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988), parties sometimes nominate candidates widely perceived as unelectable. When this happens, the trailing party's base turns out in smaller numbers, the ascendant party's voters flock to the polls, persuadable voters trend to the winner, and the rout is on.


By definition, no one can forecast a transformative event, and I think that it is likely that each party will produce an electable nominee. Given those assumptions, any understanding of the 2016 election must start with the shape of the Electoral College map. As they did in 2012, eight states collectively holding 100 electoral votes will likely determine the next president: Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. While some normally blue states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan) are on the cusp of competitiveness, barring a transformative event, the winner of the vast number of electoral votes is highly predictable. A viable Democratic nominee will start with no less than 191 of the 270 votes needed to win, and as many as 247 if the somewhat reliably blue states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin are added in. But before Democrats start celebrating, we need to understand how a very small change in the dynamics of a few groups of voters could tilt the outcome toward the GOP. Democratic victory margins in 2012 in the pivotal states ranged from a low of 1 percentage point in Florida to 6 percentage points in Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa. Which leads us to three key questions about pivotal voter groups within those states.

Will the Republican candidate win a greater share of the Latino vote?

In his 2004 reelection, President George W. Bush captured 40 percent of the Latino vote. In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney captured only 27 percent. GOP strategist Steve Schmidt, who helped to engineer that 2004 win for Bush, argues that the 2016 GOP nominee must win about 40 percent of the Latino vote in order to win. I think he is spot on. If the Democrats win by margins approaching two to one, then Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia become very steep climbs for the Republicans.

Will African-American voter turnout look more like 2012 or 2004?

In 2012, for the first time in American history, some analysts conclude that a greater percentage of eligible African-Americans voted than did eligible white voters. Obviously, 2016 will not recreate the dynamic of the first African-American president fighting back against a heated and bitter onslaught. How will African-American voters evaluate the 2016 contest? If turnout in the community in 2012 had equaled turnout in 2004, Romney would likely have won the election. It seems unlikely that 2016 turnout will match 2012 turnout. But the closer it gets to 2012 levels, the more likely the Democrats will carry a decisive share of the pivotal states, especially Ohio, Virginia and Florida. The more the turnout resembles 2004, the more likely that Republicans win.

How will voters react if a woman wins one of the nominations?

Neither the candidacy nor the nomination of Clinton is by any means certain. Clinton is not the only prospective woman candidate. But if the general election matchup is Clinton against a Republican man, women voters, who already strongly favor Democratic candidates, will find themselves able to elect the first woman president. There are three possible outcomes that would move the needle in most, if not all, of the pivotal states. First, if the Democratic win among women voters widens (10 points in 2012) and their loss among men (7 points in 2012) stands still or worsens only slightly, the Democrats benefit substantially. If, however, any more severe Democratic loss among male voters outweighs any gain among women, the Republicans benefit. Finally, if any changes in gender vote shares essentially net each other out to repeat the gender gap of 2012, results among Latino and African-American voters will have an even greater impact on the outcome.

Politics is often full of surprises. Perhaps the 2016 presidential election will provide some of those surprises. The probability, though, is that if the GOP registers significant gains among Latinos, holds its normal vote share of women and sidesteps a 2012-type wave of African-American turnout, the Republicans will win. If, however, the Latino vote breaks at or near two to one for Democrats, African-American turnout approaches 2012 levels and any diminution of Democratic margins in either of these groups is offset by Democratic gains among women, the Democrats will be celebrating on Election Night.

Amidst the daily barrage of questions and punditry, absent a transformative event or an unelectable nominee, I think we already know the three big Electoral College questions that will determine the race. In the next 20 months, we will see these questions answered.

Andrews served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey for nearly 24 years. He currently leads the government affairs practice at Dilworth Paxson LLP.