A new round of polls have confirmed a rapid tightening of the presidential race between frontrunners Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
After trailing Clinton for months, two recent surveys — from Fox and Rasmussen — show Trump with a slight edge, +3 and +5, over Clinton. A CBS/New York Times poll taps Clinton with a 6-point lead, much narrower than the 10-point she enjoyed in that survey last month.
A number of battleground state polls, also, have shown a very close race between Trump and Clinton. Trump leads in Arizona, Georgia and Ohio, while Clinton maintains narrow leads in Oregon and New Hampshire. Pennsylvania and Florida are toss-ups.
Predictions of an inevitable Clinton landslide victory against Trump seem rather premature.
Obviously, the election is in November, not May, and the next few months can encompass several life-times in politics. Some of Trump’s strong performance in recent polling could be a function of him clinching the Republican nomination, while Clinton is still struggling against a tenacious primary challenger.
Recent political stories have tracked Trump consolidating his victory at the same time that Bernie Sanders continues to win or at least competitively contest Democrat primaries against Clinton. Trump no longer has a significant number of his own party openly criticizing him, while Clinton is still dogged by sectarian fighting within the Democrat party.
Also, early polling is rarely predictive of the final election results. In May 2012, Mitt Romney led Obama in several polls. In May 2008, the race between McCain and Obama was a toss-up, with each holding narrow leads in some polls. John Kerry enjoyed broad polling leads in May and June 2004, while George W. Bush held a 7-point lead over Gore in May 2000.
The ups and downs of individual polls at particular points of time also obscures the new normal in Presidential politics; the two parties are very evenly balanced across the country, generating very close contests. Three of the last five presidential elections have been decided by four points or fewer.
Even the exceptions were relatively modest. President Obama defeated Sen. John McCain in 2008 by around seven points. Bill Clinton won reelection against Bob Dole by just over eight points. It is very likely that the 2016 election will be decided by fewer points than either of these two elections. American politics just doesn’t deliver large popular vote landslides for President anymore.
With the first party convention still more than 6 weeks away, the Presidential election is still very much in its preseason.
Speculation about a contested convention at the Republican gathering has evaporated, the spectre of drama at the Democrat convention in Philadelphia is increasing. Until those events are in the history books and the nominees are formally confirmed, the general election hasn’t yet begun.
All that said, there are four clear themes emerging from early polling that suggest Trump is in a stronger position for the general than many assumed would be the case. Although the general campaign is in its earliest days, these themes could easily solidify into a foundation for the election. If they do, Clinton would surprisingly find herself on the defensive throughout the campaign.
Clinton’s “Historic” Campaign Is a Dud. Hillary Clinton has left little doubt that her campaign will be based on the historic opportunity to elect the first woman President. The American political commentariat has long been obsessed with the “gender gap,” and if any candidate were poised to benefit from this phenomenon it ought to be Hillary. Yet, her lead over Trump, among women, is little better than that of a generic Democrat.
In the recent Fox poll, Clinton leads Trump by 12 points among women. In Rasmussen, she leads women by 11 points. She fares better in the CBS/New York Times poll, leading Trump by 17 points among female voters. Among white women, however, Clinton trails Trump by 1 point.
In 2012, Obama beat Romney by 11 points among women voters. In 2008, Obama racked up a 13 point advantage over McCain among female voters. It almost goes without saying that neither Romney nor McCain had the unfavorable rating among female voters that plague Trump. In the Fox poll, 63 percent of women have a negative view of Trump.
In spite of this and, presumably, with the winds of history behind her candidacy, Clinton fares no better with women against Trump than Obama did against his two Republican rivals. Perhaps a sizable number of women would like to see a female President, but many seem to not want that person to be Hillary Clinton.
Trump Is Benefiting From a Reverse Gender Gap. For all their talk about a “gender gap,” political pundits have rarely looked at the other side of the ledger. In fairness, while men have always had a slight Republican bias, it didn’t seem to break as clearly as the way the women’s vote has, or at least appears to. Based on early polling, however, the 2016 election may be one were the “male gap” has a profound impact on the election.
In the Fox and Rasmussen polls, Trump leads Clinton by 22 points among male voters, nearly double her advantage among women. The CBS poll shows his lead among men at just five points, but his lead among white men is 22 points.
Obama lost men to Romney by just seven points. In 2008, Obama edged McCain among men by one point. If Clinton loses men by double-digits, her White House dreams will likely collapse again. Trump, in particular, has run very strongly among male voters throughout the Republican primary.
Clinton Cancels Out Trump’s Biggest Negatives. One could make several arguments for why Trump doesn’t make a strong general election candidate. In many cases, though, the marks against him are mitigated by blights on Clinton’s own record. Hillary is perhaps unable to fully exploit Trump’s bad numbers with female voters because of Bill Clinton’s unique problems with women. An entire generation of young female voters, who are critical to any Democrat election campaign, are only now learning about Bill’s very checkered past with females. The sensibilities of these young voters today is dramatically different than the views of female voters in the 1990s.
The Fox poll illustrates a deeper problem for Clinton, however. The poll surveyed voters about particular candidate “characteristics,” which have proven pivotal in how voters select a candidate. Trump scores poorly on many of these, but Clinton fares just as poorly or worse. Only 42 percent of voters think Trump “cares about people like me,” but only 46 percent believe the same of Clinton. A strong 65 percent of voters think Trump will “say anything to get elected,” but 71 percent believe that about Clinton. Just 37 percent believe Trump has “strong moral values,” but a similar 40 percent believe that about Clinton.
A strong majority, 56 percent, believe Trump is running for President to benefit himself, but even more, 57 percent believe Hillary is simply running to benefit herself. Moreover, voters say Hillary is more corrupt than Trump by a 12 point margin. Another characteristic where Trump enjoys a strong advantage over Clinton is on being a “strong leader.” A solid 59 percent of voters say trait describes Trump, but only 49 percent say the same about Clinton.
The “characteristics” that might normally hurt Trump aren’t, simply because Clinton ranks no better with voters on these qualities.
Clinton Has a Likeability Problem. Every pundit will quickly point to Trump’s unfavorable numbers to justify their prediction of a Clinton landslide. Trump’s numbers are indeed bad on many of these measures, although there is some recent evidence that his ratings have inched higher since the end of a divisive primary. In any case, Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable numbers are equally bad.
In the Fox poll, Clinton’s favorable rating is only 37 percent, four points lower than Trump’s. Her unfavorablity is 61 percent, 5 points worse than Trump’s. Among Independents, 74 percent have a negative view of Clinton, 17 points worse than Trump. Among men, her unfavorablity is a jaw-dropping 71 percent. Ex-wives have higher favorable numbers than Clinton.
Even in the Democrat-leaning PPP poll, Clinton’s unfavorable rating is 55 percent, just a few points better than Trump. Her net-rating (favorable minus unfavorable) among women is -14 and among men is -25.
Trump may have bad personal polling numbers, but Clinton’s are equally bad or worse.
Campaigns will wax and wane between now and November. Outside events and the inevitable controversies will nudge the numbers a few points on either side. If history is any guide, the 2016 election will be very close in the end. Elections, however, do slip into general contours based on the individual candidates.
The four themes evident in early polling may define the broad parameters of the general election. If they do, then Trump has secured a solid early lead position in the race for the White House. It doesn’t look now like the election many predicted. But, then, nothing so far has proceeded as anyone predicted.