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Media hype aside, Clinton still has the edge in this race

Hillary Clinton answers a question during the presidential debate with Donald Trump. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
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Seven weeks ago, I wrote that “Donald Trump needs a miracle” to win in November.

Now, with only six weeks until that election, Trump has proven to be surprisingly resilient — but he remains a decided underdog. While there are plenty of high-profile Republican defectors who refuse to support Trump, rank-and-file GOP voters have rallied around their nominee a bit more than I expected.

Still, in spite of alleged Trump “surges” and media hype that the race is a dead heat, the presidential contest looks to be about where it was before the two national nominating conventions – with Democrat Hillary Clinton holding a narrow but clear advantage in the 2-5 point range.

Polls conducted before Monday’s debate showed a number of very different snapshots of the contest, but most surveys found Clinton with the edge.

The September 16-19 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll and the September 15-20 McClatchy-Marist poll each found Clinton leading by six points. The Washington Post/ABC News poll of September 19-22 showed Clinton leading by two points.

A handful of other credible surveys, including those conducted by Quinnipiac University, Monmouth University, the Associated Press and NBC/Survey Monkey also showed Clinton leading by a single point to as many as six points.

Three recent surveys found Trump ahead. A September 11-14 Fox News survey showed the Republican leading by a single point, while a September 21-24 Bloomberg poll and a September 15-19 Reuters/Ipsos poll each showed Trump with a two point lead. (I have excluded the LA Times/USC and Rasmussen polls from consideration because they are often outliers and show an obvious partisan bias.)

Trump certainly improved his positioning from right after the Democratic convention, when he was trailing by double digits in some surveys. But in all likelihood, a good deal of the recent “movement” in the race has been statistical noise – margin of error results that do not reflect significant changes in the contest (see Nate Cohn’s interesting piece here).

While three surveys showed a significant change in the Clinton-Trump ballot test between July (before the GOP convention) and September — two favoring Trump and one favoring Clinton — four national polls suggested that the current shape of the race is not very different from where it was before the party conventions:

Note: Reuters/Ipsos was a clear outlier in July, which explains its massive move toward Trump over the two months. For individual survey results, see RealClearPolitics.

The performance of key demographic groups also continues to raise questions about Trump’s ability to broaden his appeal.

Trump continues to do very well among less educated whites, particularly men. According to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, he is running slightly better than Mitt Romney did among voters with a high school education or less and among voters earning $50,000 or less.

But the GOP nominee’s problems with more affluent and more highly educated voters, as well as his inability to attract non-whites, leaves him in a difficult position that has not changed appreciably over the last couple of months.

Clinton is outperforming Obama (in 2012) among voters making over $100,000 a year and voters with a college degree, two normally Republican groups, as well as among voters with a post-graduate degree and even white men with a college degree.

She has a huge advantage among women and minority voters but needs to  ensure that both groups, as well as voters age 18-29, turn out in large numbers and give her large pluralities.

Luckily for Democrats, the Clinton campaign has ammunition and the time to energize those voters, some of whom are still flirting with the third party candidates. Historically, support for third party candidates ebbs as an election approaches.

Trump’s response in the first debate underscores his problems with minority voters. He responded to a question about racial healing by stressing the need for “law and order” and reiterating his support for “stop and frisk,” words that immediately paint him as unsympathetic to most minority voters. Clinton is likely to increase her turnout efforts in the minority community as Election Day approaches, including using President Obama on her behalf.

Trump certainly has an energetic following, and there is no reason to believe that any of his supporters will defect no matter what stumbles he might have in debates or on the campaign trail in the race’s final weeks. Republicans have such a deep dislike and distrust for Clinton that many look past Trump’s rudeness, arrogance and lack of substance on issues, preferring to focus on Clinton’s warts.

Trump’s disastrous performance in the first presidential debate probably will cost him a few points in national polls, though it isn’t clear how large that bump will be or how long it will last.

More importantly, the first debate showed his flaws as a candidate – his temper, tendency to bully, refusal to study and prepare, and his record of outrageous, derogatory comments that will come back to haunt him. Those flaws are a huge danger for him in the next six weeks.

Given the two nominees’ near total name recognition, the media coverage over the last year, the candidates’ positive and negative attributes, and the polarized partisan environment, a landslide of 1964 or 1984 proportions is unlikely.

But that doesn’t mean the race is too-close-to-call or deadlocked, as some portray it. With two presidential debates still ahead and the opportunity for outside events to impact the presidential race, Clinton continues to have a clear advantage.

This race is not a toss-up, and there remains a reasonable chance that Clinton’s final margin in the race will be comparable to President Obama’s margin over Mitt Romney.

Stuart Rothenberg writes about the politics of the presidential and congressional races.

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