Politics & Policy

Did Donald Trump Just Become the Front-runner?

Trump speaks to supporters in Phoenix, Ariz., August 31, 2016. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)
Momentum may be on his side, but he still has no path to 270.

Just before Labor Day, National Review published a story assessing Donald Trump’s standing in the nation’s key battleground states, based on loads of demographic data and post-convention polling. The piece sought to determine whether Trump had any realistic path to winning 270 electoral votes on November 8.

“The answer, barring unforeseen and politically transcendent developments, is no,” it concluded.

Since then, voters have witnessed two major — and, one could argue, “politically transcendent” — developments in the race, both of them having a negative impact on Hillary Clinton.

First, in a September 9 speech, Clinton clumsily described “half” of Trump’s supporters as “deplorables,” saying they are motivated by some form of bigotry. It was her worst sound bite of the campaign, and drew instant parallels to Mitt Romney’s crippling remark about the “47 percent.” Then, two days later, she was caught on video crumpling into the arms of her entourage while prematurely departing a 9/11 memorial ceremony. Hours after an initial statement explaining that she was simply “overheated,” her campaign announced that she had been diagnosed several days earlier with pneumonia. To some, the incident validated pre-existing theories about Clinton’s poor health, and to many more it fueled fresh criticisms of her lack of transparency.

It was easily Clinton’s toughest stretch of 2016, and it was about to get worse. This past week, a deluge of polling showed Trump overtaking Clinton in four battleground states: Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa. He did likewise in several national polls, which, while useless in analyzing the electoral map, help to demonstrate momentum swings based on narratives sown by mass-media coverage.

It’s fair, in light of all of this, to ask just how drastically and fundamentally the dynamics of the race have shifted. Is Clinton still a prohibitive favorite? Are blue states such as Michigan and Wisconsin suddenly in play? Does Trump now have a clear path to 270 electoral votes?

No, no, and no.

It’s true that Trump has the wind at his back, thanks to Clinton’s worst stretch of the race and several weeks of mostly error-free campaigning on his part. But it’s also true that the Republican nominee remains a decided underdog, even as he surges in the polls of several battleground states.

Here are some important realities to consider, which we’ll elaborate on below.

• Although polls show Trump gaining momentum in a number of competitive states, he’s only established himself as the clear favorite to win one of them: Iowa. The other three where he now narrowly leads — Florida, Ohio, and Nevada — should be considered toss-ups, at best. This owes to a combination of factors, including underlying survey data that bode poorly for Trump, as well as serious organizational deficits in big states, Florida in particular.

• Even if he carries all four of those states, he will still be short of the 270 EVs needed to win the White House.

• Clinton has lost more ground than Trump has gained, thanks to defections from independents and young voters that could prove temporary.

Let’s take these points one at a time.

RAIN ON TRUMP’S PARADE

There were plenty of positives for Trump in last week’s wave of polling, starting with a Monmouth survey that showed him establishing an eight-point lead over Clinton in Iowa. This poll confirms what we’ve heard from operatives on the ground: that Trump has established himself as the heavy favorite to win Iowa. (Not coincidentally, it’s the state where his campaign’s infrastructure is considered strongest, in large part because he enjoys the full support of six-term GOP governor Terry Branstad, whose son, Eric, is running Trump’s statewide operation.)

The results in the other three states — Florida, Ohio, and Nevada — were mixed. Trump pulled ahead in all of them, by margins ranging from two points to five points. But deeper inside each of these states’ surveys are numbers that should be worrisome to Trump as well as trends that could prove unsustainable in the stretch run to Election Day. Moreover, in all three states Trump is badly outgunned in terms of organization and ground game, which has Democrats licking their chops with early voting right around the corner.

Here’s a quick look at where things stand in each state:

Florida (Trump leads the RealClearPolitics average by 1.2 points.)

The most Trump-friendly poll taken recently — conducted by CNN/ORC — showed him leading Clinton, 47 percent to 44 percent, among likely Florida voters in a four-way contest including Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green party’s Jill Stein. Yet for Trump, there are unsettling numbers tucked behind those topline results, especially when it comes to women.

A major reason Trump leads in this poll is his performance among likely women voters in Florida: CNN/ORC shows him down just seven points (50 percent to 43 percent). That’s more competitive than Trump is among women in almost any generic survey; for example, a nationwide CNN/ORC poll released the previous week showed Clinton up 14 points among women, even as Trump led by one point overall.

Here’s the thing: Women were 55 percent of Florida’s electorate in 2012, according to exit polls. Obama carried them by seven points over Mitt Romney, just enough to offset Romney’s six-point margin among men and narrowly win the state. Trump should win men by significantly more than six points — he leads by 14 among them in the CNN/ORC Florida poll — but he still must keep the margin relatively close among women if he’s going to carry the state.

Deeper inside each of these states’ surveys are numbers that should be worrisome to Trump.

Seven points would certainly qualify as “relatively close,” and would probably guarantee a Trump victory in Florida. But it doesn’t seem likely: Seven points is a much smaller spread than we’re used to seeing in this matchup, and it seems highly unlikely that Trump, who has proven historically unpopular with female voters, will limit the first female major-party nominee to a margin identical to Obama’s in 2012. In other words: It’s not a great sign that Trump clings to a three-point lead in a survey that shows him overperforming with women.

Trump should be equally concerned by his broad structural deficiencies in the state. As both the Associated Press and Wall Street Journal documented this week, Clinton’s campaign organization in Florida dwarfs Trump’s. In a state that was decided by “hanging chads” in 2000, and by less than one percentage point in 2012, ground game could prove to be the deciding factor — and right now, despite the Trump campaign’s spin that it has unpaid volunteers swarming the state on his behalf, the organizational advantage belongs to Clinton.

A final point: As the WSJ notes, Florida election officials begin mailing ballots to voters in about three weeks. And Florida’s early-voting period begins ten days before Election Day. For a Trump team scrambling to play catch-up on the infrastructural front — he just installed a new state director after Labor Day — preventing the Democrats from establishing an early lead by banking millions of early and absentee votes should be a top priority.

Ohio (Trump leads the RealClearPolitics average by two points.)

Two polls this week drew much attention to the Buckeye State: one by Selzer & Company for Bloomberg Politics showing Trump up five points, and one by CNN/ORC showing Trump up four points. While both polls were great news for the GOP nominee, they also contained data that call into question their accuracy — and by extension, cast doubt on Trump’s perceived strength in the state.

The Bloomberg poll is hard to believe for a simple reason: Its pool of respondents looks nothing like the expected 2016 electorate.

In response to the survey, 43 percent of likely voters in Ohio identified as Republicans (or said they lean Republican) compared with 36 percent who identified as Democrats (or said they lean Democrat). This amounts to an R+7 party-ID advantage. But in 2012, the numbers were flipped: Thirty-eight percent of Ohio voters identified as Democrats in exit polling, and 31 percent identified as Republicans. That’s a D+7 party-ID advantage. Is it possible that Ohio has seen a 14-point swing in party identification over the past four years? Sure. Is it probable? No.

Furthermore, 83 percent of likely voters in the Bloomberg survey were white. That’s unlikely to be the case on Election Day: White vote-share has steady fallen in Ohio, from 86 percent in 2004, to 83 percent in 2008, to 79 percent in 2012. That trend of an ever-diversifying electorate is also evident nationally; political scientists fully expect it to continue in 2016. If Ohio’s electorate is 83 percent white this November — four points whiter than it was in 2012 — it would signal a stunning, dramatic dropoff in black turnout in the first post-Obama general election. Again, that’s possible, but not probable. (If you buy the controversial USC/Los Angeles Times tracking poll, it doesn’t matter whether black turnout drops, because Trump is now winning 20 percent of the black vote. We don’t buy it.)

Last, the Bloomberg poll shows Trump’s favorability-unfavorability among all Ohio likely voters at 45–52. That’s nearly identical to President Obama’s 46–51. Simply put, we haven’t seen many — if any — surveys over the past year in which the net favorabilities of Obama and Trump were even in the same neighborhood. That finding underscores just how shaky this poll’s methodology is. It’s certainly feasible that Ohio has taken a sharp right turn since reelecting Obama by a three-point margin in 2012, but these numbers are very hard to believe.

Speaking of hard to believe: The CNN/ORC poll shows Rob Portman, the incumbent Republican senator, leading Democratic challenger (and former governor) Ted Strickland by 21 points among likely voters.

The truth is that Trump has tied Clinton, or overtaken her, without improving his own standing much at all.

Portman has run a terrific race in a difficult year, and is cruising to reelection, as our Eliana Johnson reported in a must-read piece. But nobody, including his biggest Republican supporters, thinks he’s winning Ohio by 21 points in November. Ten points would be pushing it. But 21? No chance. That result alone calls into question the accuracy of the entire survey, and the makeup of its respondents. If the survey was so skewed toward Republicans that Portman leads by 21, why is Trump only up four? A 17-point spread between the GOP’s presidential and Senate nominees suggests for the former a lack of enthusiasm from the base, lack of support from independents, or both.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that in Ohio, early voting starts a full 29 days before the election. (It would have been 35, had the Supreme Court last week not rejected the Ohio Democratic party’s bid for an extra “golden week” that allowed simultaneous registration and early voting.) With the first ballots being cast on October 12, Trump’s campaign has little time to close a get-out-the-vote gap that’s apparent on the ground. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Clinton has 150 staffers there, roughly double what Trump has.) And unlike in Florida, where Trump can at least lean on the organizational support of Governor Rick Scott and his state-party apparatus, the GOP nominee is getting little help in Ohio from Governor John Kasich or the party machinery loyal to him. 

Nevada (Clinton leads the RealClearPolitics Average by 0.4 points.)

Nevada has been consistently competitive for Trump, which is somewhat surprising given the state’s fast-growing Hispanic population and rapidly diminishing white vote-share (77 percent in 2004, 69 percent in 2008, 64 percent in 2012).

The latest survey, from Monmouth University — which contains a relatively small sample size of 406 likely voters — shows Trump ahead by two points in a four-way matchup, 44 percent to 42 percent. That’s a six-point swing since Monmouth’s July poll, which showed Clinton leading by four points.

Strangely, this poll shows Trump pulling ahead of Clinton even as his favorable-unfavorable rating has slipped since the July survey while hers held steady. (He was at 35–53 and is now at 30–55. She’s at 34–54 in both.) 

That Clinton slid three points and Trump picked up three points during a period in which her favorability was steady and his declined suggests that nationally and in Nevada he isn’t gaining ground as much as she’s losing it, especially with young people and independents. (More on that in a minute.)

Still, there are major hurdles for Trump in a state where sweeping demographic change gives him practically zero margin for error. The Monmouth poll shows Clinton leading him 63 percent to 28 percent among non-whites. That margin, in Democrats’ eyes, should be even bigger. But if it holds and Clinton turns out her base, ensuring that white vote-share continues to decrease at the rate it has over the past three elections, it’s difficult to see how Trump wins Nevada.

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THE MATH DOESN’T ADD UP

Suppose all of those numbers hold. Suppose Trump wins Florida’s 29 electoral votes, Ohio’s 18, Nevada’s six, and Iowa’s six. And suppose he combines those 59 with the 206 that Romney won in 2012 (which is hardly guaranteed, considering the candidates are neck-and-neck in North Carolina and Clinton remains competitive in Arizona.)

That would be 265 EVs. Trump would still be short of the 270 he needs.

How else can he get there? There are a few ways:

•​ New Hampshire (four EVs) + Maine’s 2nd congressional district (one EV): This would give Trump five more and 270 total. But a win in New Hampshire appears unlikely; he trails in the RealClearPolitics average by six points and hasn’t led in the polls there in months. It’s quite possible — even probable — that he wins Maine’s 2nd district. (The state awards two EVs to the statewide winner and one to the winner of each of its two congressional districts.) But that’s a small bounty; Trump needs more to reach 270 total.

•​ Virginia (13 EVs) or Colorado (9 EVs): Once expected to be premier battlegrounds in 2016, both states have vanished from Republicans’ radar. A handful of recent, little-known surveys of Virginia show the race tightening. But the fact remains that Clinton has not trailed in a single poll of the commonwealth, and there is no movement on the ground suggesting it is suddenly in play. In Colorado, with the exception of an outlier poll (whose methodology is known to be shaky) that shows Trump up four points, he hasn’t led in a single statewide survey against Clinton. Her team feels so confident about Colorado that they stopped airing TV ads in the state, and GOP officials there acknowledge he doesn’t stand a chance. Barring a miracle, Trump will have to look elsewhere to get himself to 270.

•​ Michigan (16 EVs) or Wisconsin (ten EVs): In a scenario where Trump protects Romney’s 206 and carries Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa to reach 265 total, he could reach the White House by winning either Michigan or Wisconsin. Polls have tightened in both states — Clinton claims three-point leads in recent respectable surveys of both — but it remains extremely unlikely that Trump wins either one. Neither Michigan nor Wisconsin has voted for a Republican for president in decades, and the two states haven’t been competitive in the last two elections. And history aside, the fact is that Trump hasn’t reached 40 percent in a major general-election survey of either state. The tightened polls in both Michigan and Wisconsin owe to Clinton stumbling, not Trump surging. The bottom line in both states is this: Clinton’s party has a significantly larger pool of voters than Trump’s, and unless her base stays home it’s impossible to see him making up the deficit.

• Pennsylvania (20 EVs): This is the grand prize. Carrying Pennsylvania would, under this scenario, not only put Trump well over the top; it would allow him to lose North Carolina’s 15 EVs and still have 270 total. The problem is, Clinton’s lead has been steady in Pennsylvania for months and shows no sign of abating. The latest poll, conducted by Muhlenberg College for the Allentown Morning Call, was released Sunday and shows Clinton leading by eight points in a four-way race. (Notably, the survey was taken after Clinton’s health episode and her “deplorables” comment.) As we’ve written before, Pennsylvania is a pipe dream for the GOP every four years. Trump in some ways is a better fit for the state than most Republicans, and there’s still a chance he could run up big enough margins among white working-class voters in its western precincts to overcome huge shortfalls among minorities and college-educated suburbanites in its eastern ones. But that chance is very remote.

Clinton HAS STUMBLED; TRUMP HAS NOT SURGED

Trump has gained steadily — if very slightly — over the past several weeks. But the polls have tightened primarily because Clinton’s numbers have plummeted in nearly every poll, both nationally and in battleground states. As mentioned earlier, she is hemorrhaging support among young people and independents, and enthusiasm among minorities for her candidacy has waned. The truth is that Trump has tied Clinton, or overtaken her, without improving his own standing much at all.

Consider some examples:

• In Michigan, a Detroit Free Press poll taken after the Democratic convention showed Clinton up eleven points. Just as notable as the spread was Trump’s share: He pulled a paltry 32 percent of likely voters. So when a new Free Press poll last week showed Trump trailing by only three points, the assumption was that he’d rocketed up and out of the 30s. Wrong. Instead, Clinton had joined him there, falling from 43 percent in the previous survey to 38 percent this time around. Trump did inch upward to 35 percent, but that’s still an anemic number. The story is Clinton falling to 38 percent — as well as Johnson taking a full 10 percent of likely voters. (One reason for his rise: He takes 24 percent of voters 18 to 34 in the new survey, an amount equal to Trump and just seven points behind Clinton; in the previous poll, Clinton led among that age group by 24 points. More on young voters below.)

• In Nevada, Clinton has lost independents at twice the rate Trump has gained them. Consider that Johnson, the Libertarian nominee, takes 8 percent overall in the latest Monmouth survey, and 17 percent among independents. That’s up from the 5 percent and 10 percent, respectively, he registered in Monmouth’s July survey. Clinton has been the victim of this reorientation: In July’s poll, among independents, she had 37 percent to Johnson’s 10 percent. She now has 29 percent to his 17 percent. While she has lost eight points, Trump has gained four, going from 39 percent among independents in July to 43 percent now.

• Nationally, two polls released last week show a stunning trend: At least one-third of young voters support neither one of the major-party nominees. In the CBS News/New York Times survey, Clinton takes 48 percent of voters under 30 — twelve points off Obama’s 2012 mark of 60 percent — while Trump takes 21 percent. And in the Quinnipiac poll, Johnson takes an eye-popping 29 percent of voters under 35, three points more than Trump and just two points fewer than Clinton. This represents a sharp decline for Clinton since Quinnipiac’s August poll, which showed her taking 48 percent of voters under 35 and Johnson taking 16 percent. (Trump was virtually unchanged at 24 percent.)

All of these examples raise questions of sustainability:

Will Clinton continue to register below 40 percent in a blue state where Obama won 57 percent in 2008 and 54 percent in 2012?

Will Johnson keep growing his share of the independent vote in Nevada at the expense of Clinton?

Will young people, who favor Clinton lopsidedly in head-to-head polling against Trump and hold overwhelmingly negative opinions of the GOP nominee, continue to reject that binary choice and support a third party if and when they step into the voting booth?

In this rollercoaster of a campaign, predictions aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. But if history, demography, and political science are any guide, the answer to all of these questions is no. (Especially important when projecting the realistic impact of third-party candidates is this quote from veteran GOP pollster Bill McInturff to CNBC’s John Harwood: “Reading their names [to survey respondents] significantly overstates their actual support.”)

And then there’s the most important question of all: Can Trump, who stabilized his numbers after a lengthy stretch of disciplined campaigning — speaking from teleprompters, doing outreach to black voters, resisting the urge to exploit Clinton’s health scare — keep it up?

#related#There’s reason to be skeptical. On Wednesday, campaigning in Michigan, he finally went off-script and asked his audience, “I don’t know folks, do you think Hillary could stand up here for an hour?” The next day he consciously resurrected the birther issue, and only after multiple evasions and too-cute-by-half comments did he abruptly acknowledge that Obama was, in fact, born in the U.S. The episode effectively sabotaged the best week of his general-election campaign and handed Clinton fresh, potent ammunition to energize the Democratic base. (Questioning the legitimacy of America’s first black president is a good way to ensure Ohio’s electorate isn’t 83 percent white in November.)

The conventional wisdom heading into next Monday’s first debate is that the campaign has been upended — by Clinton’s health episode, her “deplorables” comment, and her sliding poll numbers — so much so that the momentum now belongs to Trump. That might be true. And with a debate performance that exceeds the public’s low expectations, he could suddenly find himself the consensus front-runner.

For now, however, the stubborn reality remains: Trump lacks a realistic path to 270 electoral votes.

— Tim Alberta is National Review’s Chief Political Correspondent.

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