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Here's what's at stake for Trump, Clinton in the home stretch

Donald Trump
Mike Segar | Reuters
Donald Trump

That retching sound you heard Tuesday morning was Democrats across the nation waking up to the new CNN/ORC poll showing Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton 45 percent to 43 percent in a general election matchup, a statistical deadlock just two months before Election Day.

Democrats are right to freak out given the big leads Clinton held after her convention in July. But it's just one poll. Clinton still holds a 3.3 percentage point lead in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. Still, even that is down from nearly 8 percentage points just a month ago.

There is no question the race tightened significantly since the conventions, as Trump consolidated some of the GOP vote and Clinton largely stayed off the trail to raise money instead of courting votes. But the fact remains that Clinton is a very strong favorite to win on Nov. 8. And the race was always likely tighten up just as it did in 2012 when Mitt Romney closed the gap on President Barack Obama.

The difference in 2016 is that Clinton, for now, is still up in the average of polls. After taking a solid early lead, Obama was deadlocked with Romney 46.8 percent to 46.8 percent on Sept. 5, 2012. Obama completely tanked the first debate in 2012 and Romney took a brief national lead and the race remained deadlocked going into Election Day. Then Obama won 332 electoral votes.

And that's why a brief freak out — which is arguably exactly what Democrats need to avoid complacency — should not lead to total panic. And among Clinton loyalists, there is little sign of panic because the Electoral College still tilts heavily in the Democratic nominee's favor.

Clinton's paths to 270 electoral votes are many while Trump's are few. Clinton can win without either Ohio or Florida as long as she wins Pennsylvania and a couple of the other remaining toss-up/leaner states, a group that includes Virginia, North Carolina, Nevada, Iowa and Wisconsin. If Clinton picks up Ohio or Florida, Trump pretty much has no chance.

The Trump campaign claims it can win without Pennsylvania but it's very hard to see how. If the GOP nominee loses the Keystone State (where he trails by nearly 7 points), he could win Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Iowa, Nevada and Arizona and STILL lose 272-265 in the electoral college.

Trump, who attempted an impossible dance on immigration over the last week, is likely to drop Colorado and New Mexico in part over his stance on the issue. The white, non-college-educated voters who gobble up Trump's talk on immigrants and Muslims just don't make up enough of the electorate in key swing states to deliver a win.

And Trump could do extraordinarily well with white male voters in a state like Pennsylvania and still lose by a significant margin due to his weakness in urban areas and the well-educated suburbs where many Republicans, especially women, are uncomfortable with his candidacy.

The New York Times' Upshot project has the likelihood of a Clinton win at 84 percent. The Upshot also has an interactive chart that shows if Clinton and Trump win where they are expected to win and 10 states remain up for grabs, Clinton has 1,023 paths to victory while Trump has … one.

It's not that national polls don't matter. A candidate with a solid national lead is very likely to win. But a race that is deadlocked nationally tends to suggest the Democrat will win given the party starts with a safe base of 229 electoral votes to just 154 for Republicans. That means Clinton just needs to add a few states to win. If she takes Pennsylvania (where she's up by 7), Virginia (up by 5) and Wisconsin (up by 5), she wins. Any other states would just pad the electoral college margin.

To win these states, Clinton can rely on her large money and organizing advantage. She needs to be strong in the debates but she doesn't need overwhelming performances to win. Trump, by contrast, needs to have dominant debate performances, create a turnout machine that doesn't currently exist and then run the table in the swing states.

Trump could do all that but nothing that's happened so far suggests that he will. He'll have to instead hope for more damaging information to come out about Clinton's email or Clinton Foundation connections. And he's got his own foundation problem — arguably much worse than Clinton's — with reporting on the illegal $25,000 contribution his charitable organization made to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who then decided against bringing a case against Trump University.

The bottom line is that Trump at the moment is at least succeeding in making the 2016 campaign resemble something close to a normal presidential race. The problem for him is that Republicans now lose normal presidential elections and he is likely to be no different.


—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.