Donald Trump’s Poll Numbers Are Even Worse Than They Look

Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Donald Trump has had a bad ten days. Before the Republican nominee stepped into every trap Hillary Clinton laid across the first debate’s stage, he was making blue America sweat. Polls showed him nipping at Clinton’s heels in Colorado and Pennsylvania, states once thought to be bricks in her Electoral College firewall. And the resilient strength of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein looked like it might solve the problem of Trump’s low ceiling — after all, our first president Clinton won with only 43 percent of the vote.

And then the GOP standard-bearer bragged about avoiding taxes and leading the birther movement in front of 84 million people, recommended the sex tape of a woman he had psychologically abused to his Twitter followers at five in the morning, accused Hillary Clinton of being an adulteress, and had his talent for losing epic sums of money splashed across the front page of the New York Times. Meanwhile, Gary Johnson exposed the depths of his own ignorance so thoroughly, he’s now trying to rebrand the inability to identify foreign nations as a virtue. This week, the libertarian’s own running mate all but endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Now Canada’s Department of Immigration is probably fielding fewer applications. Trump has fallen behind Clinton in polling averages of Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and Nevada. Even if the mogul comes from behind to win all four of those states, he would still need to flip at least one state where Clinton currently leads by an average of more than 5 points to win the Oval Office.

And Trump’s prospects are likely even more dire than such polling averages suggest. The Republican nominee is relying entirely on his party for voter turnout, a perilous strategy for a candidate whose strongest support comes from non-college-educated white voters — a demographic that votes far less reliably than the suburban white women whom Trump has been alienating. What’s more, while the Republican National Committee has an extensive voter file — and should be able to help turn out the party’s base — they aren’t much use for turning out the independent or formerly Democratic voters who make up a portion of Trump’s polling support.

Clinton, by contrast, has the best get-out-the-vote operation George Soros can buy. And the Democratic nominee will be able to capitalize on that advantage for much more than one day. Several swing states have lengthy early voting periods. And, according to Politico, Trump is relying entirely on rallies to mobilize his base:

Trump’s haphazard campaign, ignoring standard practice, relies largely on mining his boisterous battleground-state rallies to amass his early-vote totals. Clinton’s effort is more methodical and traditional, hinging on an extensive field organization to drive its advance voting strategy.

And now Mother Nature (and/or the man-made climate change the GOP nominee denies) is conspiring against Trump. Just as Romney’s efforts to catch up to Obama were stymied by Hurricane Sandy’s domination of the news cycle, so Hurricane Matthew threatens to cost Trump free media at a time when his campaign desperately needs it.

Beyond all this, Trump’s already weak poll numbers may be weaker than they look. Per the New York Times:

Mr. Trump has already slipped perceptibly in public polls, trailing widely this week in Pennsylvania and by smaller margins in Florida and North Carolina — three states he cannot afford to lose.

But private polling by both parties shows an even more precipitous drop, especially among independent voters, moderate Republicans and women, according to a dozen strategists from both parties who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the data was confidential.

Liesl Hickey, a Republican strategist involved in several House races in swing states, said she was dismayed by a sudden exodus of independent voters in more diverse parts of the country. “They are really starting to pull away from Trump,” said Ms. Hickey, describing his soaring unpopularity with independents as entering “uncharted territory.”

The paper also reports that many Republican congressional candidates will take another poor debate performance this Sunday “as a cue to flee openly from their nominee.”

A significant drop in the polls could create a negative feedback loop for Trump, as down-ballot candidates distance themselves from his campaign and the RNC starts shifting resources away from the top of the ticket. As the Washington Post’s Philip Bump has noted, Trump’s reliance on his party for turnout becomes evermore perilous as his polling strength diminishes:

If the Republican National Committee discovers that he is dragging down its candidates for the Senate and the House, that could shift where and how it focuses on turning people out to the polls. Should the RNC put a heavy emphasis in Georgia, where its Senate seat is relatively safe, just to bolster Trump’s chances? If a candidate in a competitive Senate seat is struggling with working-class white men for some reason, why would the RNC want to turn them out?

To get out of the hole he’s dug himself, Trump will need a stellar performance at Sunday’s town-hall debate — a tricky format that disadvantages political novices. Then he’ll need to pray for some terrible misfortune to befall the Clinton campaign — say, a WikiLeaks document dump that shows the Democratic nominee engaging in explicit corruption, or else literally founding the Islamic State.

There is little reason to think either of these things will happen.

Donald Trump’s Poll Numbers Are Even Worse Than They Look