You’d think given the long recent history of people prematurely writing off Donald Trump that perhaps analysts would be wary of overinterpreting the latest burst of polls showing Hillary Clinton moving into a solid high-single-digit/low-double-digit lead.
But aside from the growing proximity of Election Day, there’s another thing about HRC’s poll performance that could make this “surge” different and more durable: She’s beginning to top 50 percent. That along with a declining percentage of undecideds is beginning to further narrow Trump’s path to a comeback and victory.
The last two big surveys to come out, from NBC/Survey Monkey and ABC/Washington Post, put Clinton at 51 and 50 percent, respectively, in head-to-head matchups with Trump. Three other polls released after the Democratic convention gave her 50-plus; only one general-election poll ever has shown Trump with 50 percent or more. Clinton’s support level in the RealClearPolitics polling averages has crept up to 48 percent.
Now, it’s true that Clinton’s standing is lower with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein included, although a new Monmouth poll released yesterday showed her at 50 percent (with Trump at 37, Johnson at 7, and Stein with 2) even in that circumstance. More important, it is pretty clear from comparisons to two- and four-way matchups that Johnson and Stein in combination are drawing more or less equally from both major-party candidates. So there is no reason to assume the minor candidates are holding on to a reservoir of votes ultimately destined for the Trump column. As they (probably) fade in the home stretch, Clinton will get her share of that vote, or perhaps (if these dissenters decide to stay home) just a higher share of actual voters.
Another straw in the wind that favors Clinton is that polls applying a “likely voter” screen (most do not begin that practice until a bit later in the cycle) to the pool of registered voters do not seem to be showing the usual “bump” for the Republican candidate. The aforementioned Monmouth poll actually showed Clinton’s level of support swelling from 46-34-7-2 among registered voters to 50-37-7-2 among likely voters. It seems there is a good reason for the reported Trump campaign focus on mobilizing marginal voters: He may not benefit at all from a smaller-turnout universe.
Yes, there’s plenty of time for things to change, and yes, the candidate of the party controlling the White House remains vulnerable to “black swan” events that upset expectations and favor the candidate of “change” (though when the challenger is Donald Trump, you have to wonder if crazy events would create an undertow of support for the “safer” candidate). There’s also a chance the debates will crystallize the competition in a way that is favorable to Trump. But at some point voter preferences begin to harden, especially in this era of partisan polarization. And Trump is not exactly the ideal vehicle for a campaign of rational persuasion.