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.
• I though 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.
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.
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.
Continue reading below…