Three months from now, with the 2016 presidential election in the rearview mirror, we will look back and agree that the presidential election was over on Aug. 9th.
Of course, it is politically incorrect to say that the die is cast.
Journalistic neutrality allegedly forces us to say that the race isn’t over until November, and most media organizations prefer to hype the presidential contest to generate viewers and readers rather than explain why a photo finish is unlikely.
But a dispassionate examination of the data, combined with a coldblooded look at the candidates, the campaigns and presidential elections, produces only one possible conclusion: Hillary Clinton will defeat Donald Trump in November, and the margin isn’t likely to be as close as Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney.
First, the polling numbers are stunning.
Pre-convention polls showed the race competitive but with Clinton ahead by at least a few points in most cases. Post-convention polls show Clinton leading the race much more comfortably. The NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll puts Clinton’s margin at nine points, while Fox News shows it at 10 and The Washington Post-ABC News survey finds the margin at eight points.
These numbers could close a few points or jump around depending on the individual survey, but the race is already well defined.
In four-way ballots, Clinton maintains her solid lead over Trump, while Libertarian Gary Johnson draws in the high single digits or low double digits. Green Party nominee Jill Stein generally draws in the low to middle single digits. Relatively few voters are undecided. (See RealClearPolitics’ poll numbers here.)
State polls confirm the national surveys, with some normally Republican-leaning states up for grabs or leaning toward Clinton.
Both major-party nominees enter the fall sprint with terrible personal ratings. That’s unprecedented and remarkable, but it doesn’t necessarily make the electorate inherently more volatile, as some have asserted.
Clinton’s favorable rating is up to 37 percent in the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll and 48 percent in the Post-ABC poll, while Trump’s favorable ratings stand at a much lower 28 percent and 34 percent, respectively, in the two surveys.
Clinton’s unfavorable rating is 53 percent in the NBC-WSJ poll and 50 percent in the Post-ABC survey. Trump’s unfavorable numbers are much higher — 61 percent and 63 percent in the two polls. Clearly, many more registered voters have a net positive view of Clinton than of Trump.
In November, Clinton will need a handful of votes from those with an unfavorable view of her, while Trump will need support from many more voters who have an unfavorable view of him.
Second, major polls show the Democratic electoral coalition holding and the Republican coalition fraying.
Clinton is winning women overwhelmingly, consistently holding margins that are larger (sometimes much larger) than Obama rolled up in 2008 or 2012. At the same time, Trump’s advantage among men generally ranges from somewhere between McCain’s performance (no advantage) and Romney’s (+7), depending on what survey you believe.
Trump is winning white voters by five points (NBC-WSJ), 12 points (Post-ABC) or 14 points (CNN). McCain carried that group by 12 points in losing the overall race by over seven points. Romney lost to Obama by less than four points, but he carried whites by 20 points. Again, Trump has a long way to go to get back into the race.
Republican defections remain a huge problem for the GOP nominee, more than likely offsetting any Democratic voters or previous nonvoters Trump can attract. (This was so even before the chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, Evan McMullin, announced his candidacy as an independent.)
The new Post-ABC survey shows 5 percent of Democrats defecting to Trump, a very normal level of defection.
But couldn’t something dramatic alter the current trajectory of the race, possibly more WikiLeaks emails or a terrorist attack in this country? Of course, unforeseeable events could scramble the content.
But no one can predict the future, and until something happens, there is no reason to assume it will or that whatever happens will change the race dramatically in Trump’s advantage.
Quite obviously, Trump needs a dramatic turn in the race. But the assets and liabilities of both candidates are already well known, since Clinton and Trump have been scrutinized by the media for over a year. New information could change voters’ impressions, but the attention both candidates have received makes it difficult for either camp to move the race from where it now stands.
What about the “It’s only August” argument? Most elections are won or lost in the late summer, not in October. More importantly, Trump never did the groundwork in the spring and summer to help him remake the race in the fall.
Michael Dukakis’s dramatic fall from a midteens advantage in the polls to defeat in November is often put forward to prove that dramatic swings can occur.
In fact, a dramatic swing did occur in 1988, but it happened at the conventions. Gallup found George H.W. Bush surging ahead of Dukakis in its post-GOP convention survey, 48 percent to 44 percent, in part because Bush’s favorable rating skyrocketed. From that point on, Bush never trailed.
There have been instances when events in the final two months have affected the trajectory of the race.
Al Gore built a lead in mid-August after the 2000 Democratic convention but was overtaken by George W. Bush four or five weeks later, according to polls. And Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan in October of 1980 before the race blew open for the Republican late in October. But Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan, and most presidential contests form early.
Finally, there is no reason to believe that Trump will improve as a candidate. He doesn’t sound more “presidential,” more knowledgeable about issues, more thoughtful or more articulate than he did during the primaries. He has not shown an ability to broaden his appeal.
And he has already uttered such a long list of comments that run from merely goofball to outrageous and dangerous that he will not be able to remake himself in the next 13 weeks before Election Day.
In May, I wrote that Clinton had a “decisive” advantage, an assessment I reiterated in July. But now that the conventions have passed and the race stabilized, Clinton’s advantage has gone from decisive to overwhelming.
In short, Donald Trump needs a miracle.
Stuart Rothenberg writes about the politics of the presidential and congressional races.