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Even with Hillary Clinton in the race, 2016 is basically a toss-up

Television actor and Glee star, Chris Colfer, left, poses for a photo with former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a book signing event at Barnes & Noble at The Grove in Los Angeles in June. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

It's no big surprise that Hillary Clinton has come back down to earth polling-wise in the last few months. Her stumbles aside, it was basically bound to happen eventually -- for a whole host of reasons.

A new poll from McClatchy and Marist College documents that decline pretty well. In hypothetical matchups with potential 2016 Republican candidates, Clinton has seen her lead decline from 20-plus points in February to the mid-single digits today. She leads Chris Christie by six points after leading him by 21 points six months ago. She leads Jeb Bush 48-41 after leading him by 20 in February. She leads Rand Paul 48-42 after leading him by the same margin early this year.

Here's how that looks:



Clinton supporters acknowledge the ground has shifted in recent months.

" Hillary becomes more involved with domestic issues, as the media begins framing her in terms of a 2016 presidential election and as the Republican attack machine looks for anything and everything to throw at her, it is no surprise that her numbers are coming back to earth," said Adrienne Elrod, a spokeswoman for the pro-Clinton group Correct the Record.

Elrod also pointed out that Clinton is still leads all comers. And that's true. It's also true, though, that these polls pretty much show the 2016 presidential race is a toss-up.

Clinton's continued lead, at this point, is pretty clearly a function of her superior name ID. While Clinton wins the votes of 97 percent of "strong Democrats" in all three matchups, Christie and Paul take only 91 percent of "strong Republicans." While Clinton takes 79 percent of "soft Democrats," Paul only takes 65 percent of "soft Republicans." That's largely because these Republicans aren't as well-known to their base.

In all three matchups, Clinton continues to take at least 20 percent of so-called "soft Republicans." That's to her credit, and good on her if she can somehow keep it up. We would wager, though, that as those "soft Republicans" actually get to know Republicans and the GOP's campaign against Clinton begins in earnest, there's no way Clinton will continue to pick off one in five of even the most casual GOP voters. It's just not possible in today's polarized political environment.

As for pure independents-- those who don't really lean toward either party -- they continue to favor Clinton in two of the three matchups. But in all three matchups, around one-third of these voters are undecided. These are the voters that will decide the 2016 election, and there are a lot of them up for grabs. We doubt many of them know much about Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie, even as all of them know who Clinton is.

At this point in the game, Clinton is so well-known that she's effectively the incumbent, trying to ward off her lesser-known challengers. And, as with an incumbent, to the extent that she's below 50 percent in the polls, it's hard to call her a favorite.

This post has been updated with Elrod's comment.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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