Getting to 270: How to tell who’s really going to vote

Supporters cheer for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a campaign rally in the Special Events Center on the Florida State Fairgrounds November 5, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.
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Supporters cheer for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during a campaign rally in the Special Events Center on the Florida State Fairgrounds November 5, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.

We're down to the numbers game. Don't worry, we'll still have the name calling, threats, promises, rallies, commercials and more — I didn't say the campaign is over. But all focus now turns to a single number: 270.

What's the best path for both candidates to get there? And what's it like inside the campaigns in the final days.

As part of my podcast, Political Wire Conversations, I asked Neil Newhouse, lead pollster from Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. Newhouse is partner and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies and has been named "Pollster of the Year" three times by the American Association of Political Consultants.

Based on his experience and reading of current polls, what guidance did Newhouse offer?

Enthusiasm matters. Don't look simply at which candidate voters say they'll vote for; look at how enthusiastic those voters are.

Newhouse: "We passed the time when people were going to be persuaded to one candidate or the other. We're now in the stimulation period, which is: How do I get my people out to vote? How do I motivate them? That's a huge challenge, especially for the Hillary Clintoncampaign. She's kind of lost her momentum… Right now you're trying to figure out where the key media markets in the key states where I can send these candidates so I can turn out voters for my campaign."

"Keep in mind that you have the two least popular presidential candidates in the history of the country since polling began. This is a nose-holder election. This is an election where voters are not in love — most of them — with either of the two candidates. So you're looking at potentially a lower-turnout election, one in which voters are holding their nose and voting for their candidate."

"The most recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll which was done about 10 days ago — there were about 13-15 percent of voters who were either undecided or were voting for [third party candidates] Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. I went back and I kind of recalculated the image numbers for Hillary and for Donald Trump among those 'up for grabs' voters. The numbers are very similar for both candidates: Hillary had a 7 percent positive and a 73 percent negative, and Trump was 7 percent positive and 79 percent negative. They don't want to vote for either one of these candidates."

"The only issues in this campaign are the temperament, the personality, the honesty of these two candidates. Voters are not deciding based on their foreign policy or economic plans. Those days have gone. They're deciding on who they dislike least to be president."

No news might be good news in this campaign. Newhouse calls this the "nose-holder" election. Trump and Clinton have some of the highest unfavorable ratings of any candidates in history; we know that. But Newhouse went further: Most of the time, you want your candidate in the news — you want the headlines. This go round, the only time Trump or Clinton gets sustained attention is when something negative happens – from emails to "Access Hollywood" tapes.

"In this year's election, whenever the focus has been on Hillary, she has lost support. When the focus has been on Donald Trump, he has lost support."

"Don’t look simply at which candidate voters say they’ll vote for; look at how enthusiastic those voters are."

Watch the momentum. "Four years ago we asked the question: Has what you've seen read or heard regarding Mitt Romney or regarding Barack Obama or their campaigns given you a more favorable or less favorable impression?," Newhouse said. "It is what we call the 'campaign information flow question.' It is the leading indicator of ballot change … If we were doing polling right now, you'd see Hillary's numbers being more inverted on that question than Donald Trump's. He clearly has more momentum going into this." Newhouse added that four years ago, that momentum shifted away from Romney and towards Obama after Hurricane Sandy struck some two weeks before the vote and the president was seen much more prominently than his opponent.

States to watch. "Donald Trump is making progress in states like New Hampshire, New Mexico, Colorado to some extent, Nevada, Michigan," according to Newhouse.

He added: "I'm looking again at Florida. That becomes a must-win state for both candidates. I'll look at North Carolina and Michigan. I think Michigan is closing. I think that's going to be a very competitive race there. Those are the first three. Toward the middle of the country, I'd be paying attention to New Mexico. That's a state I think the Trump people believe they can win, and I'd look at also Nevada."

Senate and House races. "I think you're looking right now at probably 60/40 odds, if not better, that Republicans will hold the Senate, and I think Republican losses in the House may be 15 seats or so. (Republicans) will remain in control of the House," Newhouse said.

His bottom line about Tuesday: "I think potentially it's a late night," Newhouse said. "I'll just put that out there. We could be here for a while."

And that led, arguably, to perhaps his best recommendation based on his reading of the polls: "Get a good night's sleep on Monday night, take a nap on Tuesday, and no drinking until at least 11 pm."

Commentary by Chris Riback, host of Chris Riback's Conversations, in-depth and engaging conversations on business, international affairs, technology, politics, economics, culture and more. Subscribe to Political Wire Conversations at iTunes or Google Play. Follow him on Twitter @chrisriback.

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