It’s clear that Hillary Clinton is winning. Beyond that, things get tricky.
By Charlie Cook – – – – – –
This presidential race seems to have stabilized at a point where the probability of Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump is very high, but the margin is tough to predict—as is the rate of voter turnout.
Sure, there could be an exogenous world event, terrorist attack, or economic calamity that could change the dynamics of this race, or there could be developments involving the candidates themselves that could change the trajectory of this election. But for every challenge Clinton faces, there is at least an equal one for Trump; think of Clinton’s emails versus Trump’s income-tax returns.
First, look at the national horse-race numbers: Using the RealClearPolitics.com poll averages, Clinton leads by 5.5 points in the two-way trial heat, 47.0 percent to Trump’s 41.5. On the four-way, including Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, Clinton is at 41.6 percent to Trump’s 37.1, a lead of 4.5 points. Leads this long after the two convention bounces have settled generally hold up.
Then look at the swing states, again using the RCP averages. Clinton leads in every single state that President Obama carried in 2012 and runs basically even in Arizona and Georgia. If a Democrat can win Arizona or Georgia, he or she doesn’t need to; it means the election is already won, as other states would have come across the finish line earlier. A Clinton win in either state would just be icing on the cake. And if a Democrat is feeling comfortable enough to scale back efforts in Colorado and Virginia, that’s quite something, given both states’ recent history of close contests.
Third, look at how the candidates are perceived, again using the RCP averages of all of the major national polls. Clinton has 43 percent viewing her favorably, 53.5 percent unfavorably, for a net-minus 10.5 points—deadly in any other race, but not against Trump’s 33 percent favorable, 62.7 percent unfavorable, for a toxic net-minus 29.7 points. It’s awfully hard for someone with negatives that high to turn a race around.
Finally, think about the campaigns: One side actually has one; the other has outsourced its essential functions to the Republican National Committee. If the race were to get close, having a full-fledged field organization could well make the difference of a point or 2 in critical states.
The fact that within two weeks of Labor Day, GOP candidates are debating the etiquette of exactly when it would be appropriate to jump ship makes it pretty clear where the election is headed unless something cataclysmic happens.
Much has been said about Clinton and Trump having the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential nominees in history, but few seem to have considered what that really means. More Americans will be voting for a candidate they really don’t like or trust than ever before. There will be voters who are not fans on Trump who will vote for him anyway because they can’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton. Polls suggest there are many more who don’t particularly like Clinton but can’t possibly vote for Trump. We could have an election with almost as many people voting against someone as for someone.
With such a large pool of ambivalent or unenthusiastic voters, gauging turnout will be particularly problematic. Many are suggesting an unusually or historically low turnout, but my own theory is that we are more likely to have an average to high level of voter participation. The intensity of the hatred for one or the other is so high among so many that the option of refraining from voting at all seems abhorrent to many of these voters. Some can’t see themselves sleeping at night if Trump were to win and they hadn’t voted against him; others feel the same way about Clinton. Given that election officials do not separate the ballots of those voting against someone from those voting for someone, a vote is a vote, no matter the motive.
The polling is clear that Americans are watching this election closely, and that while many are unenthusiastic about their choices, there is a strong sentiment that the outcome is important, that who wins matters. That points to pretty good turnout, even if voters don’t have a real spring in their step walking up to the polling place or mark their ballot with a flourish.
In conversations with pollsters and campaign operatives, it’s interesting to develop profiles of what kind of voters are or are not likely to be Trump supporters. Trump backers are far more likely to be white than nonwhite, they are more likely to be male than female, they are more likely to have less than a college degree, and are more likely to be 45 years of age or older. But less discussed is that they are more likely to live in small-town or rural American than in or anywhere near a city.
I realize that someone is about to point out to me a young, African-American or Latino woman with a PhD living in a three-story brownstone walk-up who loves Trump, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. Indeed, among voter groups that combine several attributes—white, male, no college degree, over-45, and living outside urban areas—Trump will likely over-perform Mitt Romney, while greatly underperforming Romney among college-educated whites, particularly those who are women.
Demographically, Trump has painted himself into a corner. That doesn’t mean that there is no way for him to escape that corner, but it will require considerable athletic ability and agility to pull it off—more than he now appears to have.