Seven Things About the 2016 General Election Campaign So Far

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

By MATTHEW J. DOWD    – – – – – – –

Matthew J. Dowd is an independent; chief political analyst for ABC News; and founder of Paradox Capital, a social-impact venture fund. He was chief strategist of President George W. Bush‘s 2004 campaign. He is on Twitter: @MatthewJDowd.

 

Labor Day is the traditional start of the fall campaigns, but in this anything-but-traditional race it’s worth noting some fascinating developments in the general election contest already.

With 70 days left, here are seven key points to understand this election:

1. The equilibrium of this race has been set for many months and trades in a narrow range. Before the political conventions in July, Hillary Clinton had, in an average of national polls, a four-point lead over Donald Trump. After the GOP convention, the race went to roughly even. After theDemocratic convention, Mrs. Clinton again took a four-point lead. Then came a series of miscues by Mr. Trump, and the race went to roughly an eight-point Clinton advantage. Today, the average margin is Mrs. Clinton leading by five points. The race has mostly ranged between zero to eight points and settled at four or five points. Though small, this is a significant advantage for Hillary Clinton and is likely to be impacted only through the debates.

2. The choice between the two major-party candidates is a dissatisfying one for a majority of voters. Most Americans dislike and distrust both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump. Some voters are looking at Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein, but as last week’s Quinnipiac poll pointed out many Americans are afraid that if they vote for a third-party option it would either effectively waste a ballot or help the candidate they strongly oppose. Again, fear seems to be getting in the way of voters considering an alternative.

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks to supporters and delegates at the national party convention in May.ENLARGE
Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson speaks to supporters and delegates at the national party convention in May. PHOTO: JOHN RAOUX/ASSOCIATED PRESS

3. Neither major-party nominee has improved their favorability rating in the course of this campaign. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have not changed their favorability ratings one statistical percentage since last summer. According to Gallup, in July 2015 Mr. Trump’s favorability rating was 32% to 63%; this month it is 33% to 62%. Last July, Mrs. Clinton’s favorability rating was 40% to 55%; now it is 40% to 55%. The conventions and all the communications have not altered their favorability one bit.

4. Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Trump has expanded their “pro” vote since the primaries ended, and voters are primarily supporting them as a vote against his or her opponent. In the same Quinnipiac poll, only 25% of Trump voters were with him because they like him; for Mrs. Clinton, that number is 32%. Mr. Trump got roughly 14 million votes in the GOP primaries. Extrapolating from the Quinnipiac data, in a November election with an estimated turnout of 135 million, the same number of voters would be “for” him. It’s much the same for Mrs. Clinton: She got 17 million votes in the Democratic primaries and caucuses. Using same analysis and extrapolation, only 20 million votes in November are likely to be “for” her. It seems that whichever candidate the election is most about over the next 10 weeks is going to lose.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein this summer.ENLARGE
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein this summer. PHOTO: STEVE EBERHARDT/ZUMA PRESS

5. Ad buying has no real effect on presidential races today. Mrs. Clinton has outspent Mr. Trump by more than 10 to one in key battleground states, but those states haven’t moved any differently than non-target states that have received no advertising dollars. Polling in battleground states and the country as a whole moves in ebbs and flows based on large dynamics and broad communication in the media, not through paid media campaigns.

6. Many in the media continue to cover the campaigns based on old models and anecdotes, reinforcing the legacy (and outdated) message of a binary choice. The press still assumes that paid media matters, but there is no evidence that it is affecting voter sentiment. Some journalists highlight singular polls without putting them in context and reporting on the average, which is much more meaningful. Many also report the race as though Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are the only ones running and thus the only choices. They do this by highlighting two-person surveys and reporting only on happenings of the Clinton and Trump campaigns.

7. The most important dynamic of this election continues to be the political environment and how the candidates match up to it. Tactics are not going to win this election, nor are travel schedules, paid ads, or numbers of offices. People are dissatisfied with where we stand as a country and the dominant mood is for change, but they want change that is going to make them more secure–not less. So far, the change Donald Trump has offered makes more voters feel less secure, not more, but if he can change that dynamic at debates (a tall, tall order), then he has a real opportunity for victory.

 

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