Swing-State Polling Shows Cautionary Notes for Both Trump, Clinton

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By GERALD F. SEIB – – – –

A flurry of polling in key battleground states in recent days suggests three bottom-line readings of the 2016 presidential race at this point: The race is growing closer, but remains Democrat Hillary Clinton’s to lose; the presence of third-party candidates scrambles the equation but not to either major-party candidate’s obvious benefit; and, an intriguing question going forward is whether polling is finding a ceiling of sorts for Republican Donald Trump.

These readings emerge from polling the Journal, in conjunction with NBC News and the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, has done in recent days in the states that figure to determine the outcome of the 2016 election—specifically, in seven swing states that both campaigns identify as key targets.

The polls, taken as both parties head into their national conventions, are a useful reminder that a presidential race remains at its core not a national contest but a collection of 50 different state contests. Those state contests determine who wins which votes in the Electoral College. Those Electoral College votes in turn determine who moves into the White House next year.

It does neither Mr. Trump nor Mrs. Clinton a lot of good to rack up big vote totals in the easy states if they can’t carry the close states.

With that in mind, the Journal/NBC/Marist pollsters canvassed Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. Consider the three key takeaways:

There are no runaways in these key states. In six of the seven states, Mrs. Clinton leads. But in each case, her lead is in single digits. Her widest margins were nine points in Pennsylvania and Virginia. In Iowa, her lead was three points. And in the seventh state, the crucial swing state of Ohio, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump were tied at 39% apiece.

Those numbers, while good news overall for Mrs. Clinton, delivered plenty of cautionary notes. In particular, the race in Pennsylvania is tighter now than when that state was surveyed in April. And the six-point lead she enjoyed in Ohio in March has evaporated.

Still, the trend is clear: Mr. Trump has work to do in swing states.

The third-party candidates still are a wildcard in this year’s electoral deck, but it’s hard to know right now how they will affect the outcome.

There has been fear among Democrats that disgruntled supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who opposed Mrs. Clinton in the Democratic primaries for months, might turn instead to Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson or Green Party contender Jill Stein in the general election. Mr. Johnson’s libertarian views on social issues have some appeal to Sanders liberals; Ms. Stein’s green credentials appeal to environmental activists in the Sanders camp.

But the effects of those two candidates on the race aren’t that clear. They seem to work to Mrs. Clinton’s benefit in Ohio but against her in Iowa, for example. But mostly their effect on the gap between the two major candidates is minimal. They seem to be drawing from both the Democratic and Republican contenders, in nearly equal proportion.

Is there a Trump ceiling? Democrats think they see one emerging from this and other polling. Even when Mr. Trump is closing or even eliminating the gap with Mrs. Clinton in statewide and in national polling, he seems to have a hard time getting much above 40% of the total vote.

That phenomenon is illustrated by the Ohio poll, where he now pulls even but draws just 39% of the vote in a two-way race. The remainder of voters haven’t made up their minds, say they won’t vote for either candidate, or remain undecided.

Indeed, Mr. Trump doesn’t draw 40% of the vote in any of the seven states polled. That could mean that he faces some kind of natural ceiling around that level, which could prove fatal. Democrats hope so, of course.

However, it also could mean that large numbers of voters can’t or won’t choose between the two major candidates now, and will be late-deciders. Late-deciders tend to break away from the incumbent—and, if Mrs. Clinton’s Democrats are considered the incumbent party because it now occupies the White House, the break could be bad for her.

For now, the one thing that is clear is that late-deciders and those who say they can’t get behind either major candidate are a force to be watched in the fall.

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