Why Is Hillary Clinton Suddenly Tied in the Polls With a Widely Reviled Demagogue?

By
Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Campaigns Throughout Pennsylvania
That's weird ...Photo: Justin Sullivan/2016 Getty Images

Donald Trump is an electoral disaster — the most unpopular major-party nominee in the history of polling. The most hated by women, Hispanics, and “the blacks.” Heck, more than a third of Republicans can’t stand him. He broke the GOP in two, and it may never be whole again. There aren’t enough white men in America to put him in the White House. Congress is now in play. Suburban conservatives will become “Hillary Clinton Republicans.” America’s first female president has already won.

How young we were in April. How naïve. Thirty days ago — when the discourse was dominated by the sentiments listed above — Clinton was routinely posting double-digit leads over Trump in head-to-head polls. Back then, an NBCWall Street Journal survey had her beating the mogul by 11 points. The same poll now has her up three. The ABC News–Washington Post pollsters had Clinton up nine in March — they have her trailing Trump by two today. The RealClearPolitics weekly polling average now has the mogul ahead by a fraction of a point.

This rapid shift in the state of the race raises two big questions: “Why is this happening?” and “Will it keep happening?” Let’s take them one at a time.

Why have the polls shifted so dramatically for Trump in recent weeks?
There are two key points here, both equally important:

Republicans are not actually divided.

Donald Trump remains a divisive figure among Republicans who serve in Congress, write for blogs, or cogitate in think tanks. But to the ordinary Republicans out in Real America, the Donald is about as unifying as any other nominee. Back in the heat of the primary fight, when Trump was calling Ted Cruz’s wife ugly — and the senator’s father a suspect in the Kennedy assassination — the mogul did generate some ill will among a subset of the GOP base. In April, the NYT-CBS pollsters found that 36 percent of Republicans disapproved of the Donald. Now, with the primary wrapped up and the Donald’s wrath focused squarely on “Heartless Hillary,” that number has fallen to 21 percent.

Trump remains a historically unpopular nominee, but so is Clinton. And now that Cruz’s minions have climbed aboard the Trump train, his negatives are looking roughly equivalent to hers. What’s more, the Donald appears to be winning the votes of some his despisers: As my colleague Ed Kilgore has noted, the most recent ABC–Washington Post survey shows “conservative Republicans” backing Trump over Clinton by a 92-3 margin — even though 22 percent of such voters think Trump isnt qualified to be president. In other words, even among the shrinking percentage of Republicans who don’t like Trump, there is little doubt that their tribe’s vulgar ignoramus is preferable to the enemy faction’s gun-hating, Obama-loving, rape-enabling, Benghazi betraying she-tyrant.

Bernie Sanders is going down swinging.

Hillary Clinton is starting to pull away from the Vermont senator in polls of the Democratic primary. But as Sanders’s softer supporters migrate to Hillary, the resolve of hard-core Sandernistas has grown firmer. As the Upshot’s Nate Cohn observes, April’s polls showed Clinton winning between 71 and 82 percent of Sanders supporters in her head-to-heads with Trump. In the latest batch of surveys, that range is between 55 and 72 percent. In the most recent YouGov poll, 61 percent of Sanders backers voiced an unfavorable view of Clinton, while only 38 offered a favorable one — a record high and record low, respectively, in YouGov’s polling of the Democratic race.

Sanders doesn’t seem to be concerned by this trend. The senator remains harshly critical of Clinton and the “Establishment politics” she represents. In recent weeks he has criticized the Democratic Party officials in Nevada for disenfranchising his supporters at the state’s convention, endorsed the (admittedly objectionable) DNC chair’s primary challenger, and framed Clinton’s refusal to debate him in California as an affront to democracy. All the while, the insurgent socialist has promised to take his political revolution all the way to the convention.

So is this thing really going to be close?
The betting markets don’t seem to think so. But then the betting markets once thought 2016 would be the year of the “Jeb!” And considering how thoroughly the Trumpster fire has humiliated political soothsayers this cycle, it seems unwise to offer a single, definitive answer. So, instead, here are two contradictory ones:

No. Sanders supporters will come home, and Clinton will reestablish a healthy lead.

This is a uniquely good time to be the Donald: Trump’s primary is over, while his presumptive opponent’s rages on. Back in March, when the GOP race was still hotly contested, just 17 percent of his rivals’ supporters saw Trump favorably. Now, in trial heats with Clinton, he boasts the near-unanimous support of his party’s base.

But even with that support, Trump is mired around 43 percent in general-election polls. And while his standing with Republicans has improved, he’s still abhorred by the demographics he routinely demeans (women, Hispanics, Hispanic women). There is no reason to think he’ll gain significant ground with these groups in the coming months. Clinton has a massive fundraising advantage and will be able to mine Trump’s vast back catalogue of racist and sexist musings for dynamite negative ads, which will incessantly remind Ohio’s single women and Florida’s Latinos why they can’t let the Donald become their president.

The stubborn loyalty of Sandernistas is the only thing keeping Trump competitive. And precedent strongly suggests that once Bernie turns his populist fury on the billionaire across the aisle, the party will unite and Clinton will pull away. In 2008, John McCain caught up to Obama after receiving the Republican nomination — but once the protracted Democratic race finally came to an end, the future president regained a comfortable advantage. What’s more, several recent polls portray a Democratic Party less divided than it was at this point in 2008.

As NPR notes, late-May presidential polls have a terrible track record. At this point in 1988, Michael Dukakis led George H.W. Bush by ten points. Right now the safest bet is to trust the fundamentals: Virtually all recent surveys show there are more Democrats than Republicans in the 2016 electorate; the incumbent party’s president has a high approval rating; the Republican candidate is an incoherent, transparently misogynistic pathological liar who has irrevocably alienated critical swaths of the electorate — and many of his own party’s top donors and intellectuals. By the time the confetti falls in Philadelphia, Trump will no longer be visible in Clinton’s rear-view mirror.

Yes. Sanders supporters hate the Democratic Party, and Trump is a unique political talent.

Clinton supporters’ opposition to Obama in 2008 was categorically different from Berners’ antipathy for this year’s Democratic front-runner. The latter are disproportionately young, independent, and alienated from the Democratic Party. The Clinton-Obama race was primarily an argument about qualifications and competence; the Clinton-Sanders race is a referendum on the need for “revolutionary” change. Trump doesn’t need to win over the revolutionaries — he just needs to make them disgusted enough with the major-party offerings to stay home or go Green.

Sure, May polls are historically inaccurate, but this year’s race is a special case. Ninety-seven percent of Americans already have an opinion of Clinton and Trump. In May 2012, 14 percent of the country had no opinion on Mitt Romney; in 1988, a quarter of America had nothing to say about Dukakis. The people know what their options are. And they are evenly divided.

Clinton has always had trouble growing her support over the course of a campaign. Trump, in an admittedly limited sample, has enjoyed the opposite trajectory. This is a change election, and Hillary is a synecdoche for the last two decades of Establishment rule. And don’t forget about her “damn emails.” America has never been so ripe for tyranny.