Web Video: What each candidate must do to win the Electoral College

Sep. 15, 2016 AT 11:49 a.m. EDT

While polls show the presidential race is tightening, in the end it comes down to this: The candidate who wins at least 270 electoral votes will prevail. Gwen Ifill examines different paths to the White House with Republican strategist John Brabender and former Deputy White House Press Secretary Bill Burton.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: The latest national polls show a tightening in the race to the White House, especially in key states like Ohio and Florida.

But when it comes down to it, winning in November will depend on which candidate has a viable path to 270 electoral votes.

For more, we’re joined by John Brabender, Republican strategist and chief creative officer for BrabenderCox, a political media firm, and Bill Burton, former deputy White House press secretary under President Obama and currently California managing director for SKDKnickerbocker.

John Brabender, give us a map, give us a tour of what it takes for Donald Trump to get to 270.

JOHN BRABENDER, Republican Strategist: Well, I’m going to oversimplify it


JOHN BRABENDER: You first start by winning every state Mitt Romney won.


GWEN IFILL: Is that possible?

JOHN BRABENDER: The tough one, probably, if there is one, it’s probably North Carolina. That will be a battleground.

That doesn’t get you anywhere near 270, because Mitt Romney wasn’t anywhere near 270. So, there’s two different paths you can go. You win a whole bunch of small states and cobble them together, which is almost impossible.

To me, the logical path then is where could have Romney maybe have won and didn’t? And you look at Ohio, Florida. You’re still not there. Now you have got to win either Pennsylvania or Michigan. And I think Pennsylvania is probably a little bit more doable than Michigan, but, again, neither one of those states have the Republicans won since 1988.

GWEN IFILL: Bill Burton, take that map and add what you would think that Hillary Clinton needs to get to 270.

BILL BURTON, Former Deputy White House Press Secretary: Well, I think you start in the same place.

You look at the states Obama won and wonder, well, where would Hillary Clinton have a problem and where does Donald Trump have problems? And the truth is, Donald Trump is not showing strength in any of the big states that he would need in order to actually get to 270. And Hillary Clinton is showing herself to be remarkably stable in all the states that she needs.

So I think that Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, all those states actually look pretty good for Hillary Clinton right now. And while Donald Trump is showing some strength in places like Iowa, it’s just not enough to get him close to getting the electoral votes that he needs to win.

GWEN IFILL: John Brabender, we know that he did incredibly well in the primaries. We didn’t expect Donald Trump to do as well as he did.

Can he use that megaphone or alter it in some way to have it apply in the general election?

JOHN BRABENDER: I think to some degree.

Pennsylvania is a good example. He won every one of the 67 counties. Pennsylvania might be a parochial state, but it’s not a homogeneous state. So, even among just Republican voters, to be able to pull that off, when you have very moderate voters on one side of the state and more conservative in the middle, shows that he has very, very broad support.

The second thing, in fairness to the Trump people, if you look at the most recent numbers, they’re actually doing well in Ohio, winning, winning in a lot of polls in Florida, and now Pennsylvania and Michigan have both tightened. They’re not ahead, but they have tightened. And that’s a good trend.

GWEN IFILL: Bill Burton, one of the things that Democrats say is that Donald Trump gets a lot of free media and that that’s a disadvantage for Hillary Clinton.

Can the free media lift him to where he needs to be? Isn’t that a potential threat to her?

BILL BURTON: Well, I do have to give their campaign a little bit of credit.

Monica Langley has a great piece in The Wall Street Journal today about how they’re trying to create different kinds of moments for Donald Trump, as opposed to just him shouting at rallies. They’re trying to get him in classrooms, and in churches, and in diners and places where he can make a more personal connection.

Now, obviously, the strategy has its setbacks, as you saw today, Donald Trump in a church getting interrupted by the pastor because he started attacking Hillary Clinton.

But I think that if he does really want to make gains, if he does want to find a path to those voters who are in the middle, then he needs to do different things than just do these rallies. And, you know, I think he’s actually doing a pretty good job of that.

He’s still pretty limited in the effect that he can have because he so disqualified himself with such a large number of voters that I don’t think that there is an actual a path to victory for him. But he is at least doing a better — engaging in a better strategy than he had previously.

GWEN IFILL: But, John, isn’t there a reason for that? That we see him in a church in Detroit, Michigan not a state that he’s necessarily competing in, that we see him bring forth the child care program, isn’t that to try to address the issues that Bill Burton is talking about?

JOHN BRABENDER: Well, I think what it’s to do is to make him more likable.

Here’s the biggest problem I think Donald Trump has. He’s not getting enough votes today of the people who already say they don’t like Hillary Clinton. And so I agree with Bill. I agree with the pastor. I don’t think Donald Trump has to be out there making the case against Hillary Clinton. I think people have known her 24 years. How you feel about her, you feel about her.

What they’re still unsure about, particularly some moderate Republicans, we know gender there is difference, I think Donald Trump has to seal the deal by letting people feel comfortable to vote for him.

GWEN IFILL: Bill, you used to work with David Plouffe, who ran the Obama campaign. And he said that — I think it was yesterday — he said this depends on who’s showing up, the composition of the voters that everyone is fighting for.

What do you think the composition has to be in order for Hillary Clinton to win?

BILL BURTON: Well, something that is interesting about the current polling is that, as you watch Hillary’s numbers fluctuate, part of the reason that they are is because the Obama coalition, younger voters, African-American voters, Latino voters, they’re not showing up in as large a number for her as they did for President Obama.

And for that reason, I actually think that her numbers are artificially low. I think that, at the end of the day, those voters are going to join ranks, and it is going to help propel Hillary Clinton to victory.

GWEN IFILL: We have seen — I’m going to stay with you for a moment, Bill, because we have seen in the last few days a big debate over the deplorables comment that Hillary Clinton made the other night.

And I wonder if part of that debate isn’t about this very issue. How do you win over the people either who are offended by portions of the Trump coalition, or how does Trump, in turn, tar her as being intolerant? Isn’t that about part of this?

BILL BURTON: I think that that conversation is happening along the edges.

I don’t think that the folks who are in the middle look at the conversation over whether or not Donald Trump’s campaign is racist or whether or not Hillary Clinton should use that term to describe some of his supporters made sense, I don’t think that the folks in the middle are looking at that debate.

I think they’re more looking at these two candidates. It’s a band of voters with which neither candidate has very high approval ratings. And they’re trying to make up their mind on who has a better plan for the economy, whose presidency would more positively impact my life?

And I think that debate happens sort of among people who have already made up their minds.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, John Brabender?

JOHN BRABENDER: Well, I agree.

Sometimes, we all go on these shows and we have this debate over deplorable, not deplorable. And that’s not what people around their dining room table are talking about at night.

One of the things Trump has done is tie into particularly what would be the sons and daughters of Reagan Democrats in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, who are voting for him because they feel both parties left them on the economic battlefield.

They feel Washington doesn’t understand their lives anymore, and they feel that even though Donald Trump might make a mistake with what he says from time to time, they see that as authenticity and maybe somebody who will truly pay attention to them, because they feel ignored.

GWEN IFILL: And there are, briefly, enough of those people to get 270 for Donald Trump?

JOHN BRABENDER: Well, here’s the thing.

In a state like Pennsylvania, the paradox is, to win, you have to get the conservative Democrats in the west, but you still have to do well with the collar-county moderates in the east. Romney did fine with the moderates, but not the conservative Democrats. Trump is doing well with the conservative Democrats. Now Trump has to seal the deal with the moderates in the east.

GWEN IFILL: Fifty-six days, guys.

John Brabender, Bill Burton, thank you both very much.

BILL BURTON: Thank you.



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