Labor Day Reset: Down the Stretch With Clinton and Trump

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As recently as a generation ago, presidential general elections were thought to begin on Labor Day. That was back when August was a political dead zone, of course, with most Americans on news-free (and pre-cable) vacations, the tiny media elites all on retreat in the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard, and the campaigns and their auxiliaries marshaling their resources for the homestretch.

Now election cycles are two-year marathons, and this year’s general election contest got going in earnest in early June, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump crushed the last life out of their primary opponents. There’s been a bit of a lull in late August. But now campaigning will stay white-hot until the deal goes down in November. So Labor Day is a good time to take stock of the trajectory of the race as we near the homestretch.

National Polls. Public-opinion surveys have been generally favorable to Hillary Clinton for the entire general-election campaign, with the Democrat maintaining a lead in the two-way and four-way polling averages throughout, except for brief moments in late May and then immediately after the Republican convention. But every time it looks as though Clinton is about to blow out to a double-digit lead, Trump does better or she does worse. Once again, the national polls have recently tightened from a high-single-digit to a low-single-digit lead for Clinton.

At the moment, the RealClearPolitics polling average has Clinton up 41/39 in four-way polls (with Johnson at 8% and Stein at 3%) and 46/43 in two-way polls. There is a distinct difference overall in results from live-interview polls, which tend (relatively speaking) to favor Clinton, and automated or online polls, which tend to favor Trump. (The very latest polls, however, contradict that generalization: a new CNN/ORC live-interview poll shows Trump now taking the lead over Clinton while a new NBC/Survey Monkey online tracking poll has HRC holding a steady four-point lead). The Trump campaign claims the non-live surveys are more accurate because of social pressure to oppose the mogul when a human is on the phone; some poll analysts suggest the live surveys are simply more accurate from a methodological point of view.

Polls-only forecasters unsurprisingly project Clinton as the favorite. FiveThirtyEight’s polls-only projection has Clinton’s win probability at 69%; The Upshot’s has it at an overwhelming 84%.

One polling dynamic that typically benefits Republicans but is less certain this year is the “switchover” from registered voters to likely voters in reporting and analyzing results, which usually happens in September. Probably because Trump is targeting more marginal and less-educated voters than the usual GOP nominee, it is not clear likely voter “screens” will benefit him the way they did, for example, Mitt Romney. On the other hand, a new CNN/ORC survey shows him leading Clinton by two points among LVs while trailing her by three points among RVs.

None of the unusual features of this election should, however, erode the likelihood that polls will generally become more accurate as Election Day approaches. In part that is because about a third of votes will be cast before November, by mail or using in-person early voting opportunities. Early voting is also an important thing to keep in mind in weighing very late campaign strategies and external news events — they are irrelevant to people who have already voted.

State Polls. Presidents are not, as we were reminded in 2000, elected by national popular vote. So it’s important to look at polling for the battleground states that will determine which candidate gets to 270 electoral votes, and how the two campaigns are adjusting to the emerging landscape.

At present, Clinton is leading in most of the commonly acknowledged “battleground” states. Using the RealClearPolitics averages of four-way (including Johnson and Stein) polling, she’s up by 12 points in New Hampshire, 10 in Colorado, 8 in Michigan and Virginia, 6 in Pennsylvania, 4 in Wisconsin, 3 in Florida and Ohio, and 2 in Nevada. The candidates are tied in polling in North Carolina, and Trump’s up by one in Iowa. (Some Democratic optimists would add Arizona — Trump up 3 — and Georgia — Trump up 6 — to the list of battleground states, thanks to scattered polling showing Clinton ahead, but unless the race gets out of hand, those states will probably stay red.)

If the elections were to wind up precisely as indicated by today’s state polling averages (giving Trump the tied state of NC), Clinton would win with 326 electoral votes to Trump’s 212. That’s very close to Barack Obama’s 332/206 margin over Mitt Romney in 2012; in terms of states, it is precisely the same except for Iowa turning red.

Clinton’s allocation of resources to battleground states has been fairly conventional, with quick abandonment of states that either seem safe or beyond reach. But she has a very significant strategic advantage in two respects: a relatively large investment of dollars and bodies in field operations and targeted ad expenditures in the battleground states, as compared to an almost-invisible field presence and a smaller ad budget for Team Trump. Most of all, Clinton enjoys the flexibility that comes from multiple plausible paths to 270 electoral votes.

At this point, Trump’s “path to victory” looks very narrow and depends on winning the small band of states with a relatively large number of non–college educated white voters and a relatively small number of minority voters (an exception being Florida, where the large Latino vote is composed of two groups, Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans, who are not very focused on the immigration issues poisoning Trump’s prospects with Mexican-Americans). The difficulty of getting to 270 for Trump is illustrated by Daily Kos’ state-by-state projections, which award not only Iowa and North Carolina but also Florida, Nevada, and Ohio to the Republican. Clinton still wins 290/248.

It is possible, of course, that if Clinton’s national popular vote lead vanishes, additional states will become winnable for Trump. But the mogul’s battleground state strategy appears to parallel his demographic gamble of making up for weaknesses among minority and college-educated white voters (especially women) with a record showing (in terms of both candidate preference and turnout) among white working-class voters (especially men). That is not likely to work in states with either a large minority population or a relatively high number of college-educated whites. And that’s why states like Colorado and Virginia that were considered very close in the last two presidential cycles are off the table and conceded to Clinton this time around.

Late Campaign Strategies. If the various pollsters and pundits agree on any one thing, it is that both major-party candidates are unusually unpopular. That means a turnout strategy focused on positive enthusiasm for either candidate may not be terribly effective.

On the other hand, the nasty tone of the campaign (which everyone expects to get much, much worse) reflects the belief that fear of and even hatred for “the other” candidate can become a potent driver of turnout.

As best we can tell at this moment, there is very little crossover voting apparent among either Democrats or Republicans or even independents leaning toward one party or another. Yet there is also a sizable minority-party vote — which would normally melt away down the stretch — and an unusually large number of undecideds. “Pushing” minor-party voters toward one of the major-party candidates does not, however, seem to be producing a net gain for either of them, and the “melt-away” factor isn’t happening either, so far. As for undecideds, the best evidence we have is that they are disproportionately young and alienated from politics. It’s a good guess a relatively high percentage will stay home.

This all points toward a wildly negative base-mobilization strategy by both candidates, with Clinton again holding a sizable advantage when it comes to traditional get-out-the-vote efforts and the strategic flexibility to put money (whether it’s ads or true knock-and-drag GOTV) where it matters most. As for “swing voter” persuasion, it will be interesting to see if Donald Trump’s sporadic efforts to soften his tone toward minorities and Hillary Clinton’s outreach to conventional Republicans continue right down to the end of the contest. More likely is that both candidates will appeal to truly undecided voters by seeking to make them fear or hate each other more vividly and decisively.

The last predictable set of events that could change the campaign’s dynamics are the debates (three presidential and one vice presidential), which begin on September 26 and conclude on October 19. There’s an additional “forum” — meaning back-to-back but not simultaneous candidate appearances — scheduled for September 7.

Given the diametrically opposed styles of the two candidates, the nasty tone of the general-election campaign, and the likelihood that Trump — who said some historically outrageous things about his rivals in the nomination contest debates — will need to “throw a bomb” to catch up with Clinton, these could be some of the most avidly watched and heavily overanalyzed debates since at least Gore-Bush and maybe Kennedy-Nixon. Republicans will remember that in 2012 Mitt Romney all but erased Barack Obama’s polling lead immediately after the first presidential debate (he later lost it, but whatever). They will also point out that despite the poor scores Trump received from professional analysts during the GOP primary debates, actual voters reacted well. Democrats will count on Trump’s arrogance in eschewing debate prep and will point out that a general-election audience is a different animal from a bunch of Republicans angry with their party leadership and spoiling for a big fight.

Beyond the debates, other “real-life” events could have an impact (hence the perennial bipartisan fears of an “October surprise”), though the closer we get to Election Day, the more dramatic they would have to be to make any real difference. One factor often discussed, an economic shock of some sort, is becoming less and less likely as the indicators continue to show an economy slowly growing but without much wage growth. There is always the possibility of a terrorist attack or a mass shooting or some other terrifying incidence — but less and less clarity about which candidate (if either) would benefit.

Everything at this point suggests a Hillary Clinton win by a national popular vote and electoral vote margin similar to that won by Barack Obama in 2012, which could, with luck and skill (or missteps by Trump), begin to resemble Obama’s margin in 2008. But Trump has shocked the world before, and seems to be coming back from a big polling deficit yet again. And we will have to navigate two months of mad spinning and partisan hysteria to get to November 8. Hang onto your butts.