May 23, 2016
According to the Real Clear Politics average, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are now in a dead heat in national polls. If you don’t care about things like margin of error, Trump can boast of a 0.2% lead, 43.4% to 43.2%. Given Hillary’s 11 point advantage two months ago and 9 point lead one month ago in the same measure, he’s clearly advanced.
They previously reached approximate parity in mid-September and early December. Individual polls put Trump ahead in January and February. He’s made clear progress, but this isn’t a first. If we just stick to the averages, since Trump became the clear GOP polling front runner in early August, his ceiling is being tied, while his floor is trailing by low double-digits.
Trump hasn’t reached 50% in a single national survey. His high is 48% and he has very few results north of 45. Hillary is currently mired in the mid-low 40s, but has seen several results over 50%. She’s at or near her worst favorability numbers since the early 1990s. Trump is near his best of the past year. They’re still roughly tied.
Anytime a candidate makes up 10 points in about a month, it gets people thinking. Trump clearly has more momentum right now. All but the most determined #NeverTrump Republicans are coming around, while Hillary deals with an increasingly stubborn Bernie Sanders. Compared to the landslide many were predicting a few weeks ago, it appears we’re looking at a different set of outcomes now.
Perhaps so. But we still need to see what happens when Bernie either concedes the nomination, or Hillary wins the floor vote at the convention. There are still running mates to pick. Most importantly, we haven’t seen Trump pull ahead yet. In 2008, there were times where John McCain actually led Barack Obama in the polling averages by a few points.
In 2012, there were brief moments where Mitt Romney found himself ahead. Back in 2004, John Kerry led George W. Bush by several points before he got Swift Boated. In each of those instances, the winning candidate led more often than the loser. Hillary has led Trump for the vast majority of the past year. If the pattern holds, Clinton wins.
Looking at key swing states provides a further check on the Trump hype. Florida and Ohio are must wins for any GOP candidate, even one who thinks he can re-draw the map. Each are consistently slightly more Republican supporting than the median state. Obama won both in 2008 and 2012, but reached 270 with states he performed better in.
In order to take the White House, Trump needs all of Romney’s states, plus these two, plus Pennsylvania. He believes he can challenge in places like Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin too, but those, along with Pennsylvania are more Democratic leaning than Ohio. It’s hard to see how he loses Ohio but wins a couple of those.
A loss in Florida, and he’d need Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota or Wisconsin (or Iowa and New Hampshire.) That’s a lot of places Republicans have spent the post-Reagan years losing. Not impossible, but the equivalent of pulling an inside straight. This is all a long way of saying the Ohio and Florida state polls are as worth looking at as the national numbers.
Clinton is two points up in the Florida average. Trump sits at 42% in the three most recent polls, while Hillary boasts (ok, that’s pushing it) two 43s and a 46. Not exactly a dominant lead. Plenty of voters remain undecided. But she’s still ahead of him. Again, this is a state that is usually a couple/few points more Republican than the average. It’s purple with a dose of red.
While 2016 is attempting to break all the rules, one steadfast one, lasting over a century is no Republican can win the presidency without Ohio. At the moment, Hillary is ahead there too. Not by much. Just over a point in the RCP average, and leading in 2 of the 3 recent surveys. None have the candidates separated by more than 5 points. It’s close.
Two of the three pollsters in the state surveys (Quinnipiac and CBS/YouGov) have treated Trump well during primary polling. They tended to show him in better position than the average poll. If you see Trump doing well with NBC/WSJ/Marist, it’s another story. At such point they have him ahead by a few points nationally and 5 or 6 in Ohio and/or Florida, he’s truly leading.
At the moment, they don’t have current data in Florida or Ohio and are showing Trump down 3 nationally. That’s not a bad number for him with them, but he can probably wait a few weeks to think about gold plating additional fixtures in the Oval Office.
Conditions or events will need to change or evolve to produce the previously expected blowout. At the moment Hillary is unpopular enough to overcome Trump’s demographic disadvantages and his ability to offend most of the non-white males over 40 part of the electorate (and he’s not as spectacularly popular with them as you might think.)
For those who think Trump is or should be unelectable, Hillary is succeeding at the impossible. She’s brought him into contention. But he’s not ahead, and isn’t a favorite based on the current data. You need to crawl before you walk, walk before you run. Right now, Trump is somewhere between a crawl and a walk.