The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Donald Trump’s polling advantage may be a bit misleading

Clinton vs. Trump. (DSK/AFP/Getty Images)

A slew of surveys have come out over the past few days, exploring the state of the presidential race and the extent to which Americans are fed up with the two options that are likely be on the ballot in November. But it’s worth introducing a bit more context to the polling across the board.

Let’s start with a survey of our own.

Once you’ve taken that, you can see how people responded. As I write this, I don’t have that luxury, so I just sort of have to guess what people picked.

Probably not that many people picked “something you hate.” (Those who did either hit the wrong button or are trolls.) Slightly more, I'd assume, picked “something you hate a bit less,” since, you know, you hate it less. And also because maybe you recognize the downside to the special of the house. You don’t know what it is, so it appeals more than things you know you don’t like, right? But it could be the worst option yet, your liver-and-onions pick. Crickets a la mode. So I’d imagine a lot of you also picked that you’d go hungry.

The metaphor here is painfully obvious, of course. The thing you really hate is Hillary Clinton, or, if you're a Clinton supporter, Donald Trump. The thing you hate slightly less is the candidate from your own party. (Yes, I know there are a lot of people who actually support the candidates from their own party. Just bear with me.) But that’s why, in the Washington Post/ABC News poll released Sunday, more than 44 percent of the electorate says they would like a third-party option. Give me the chef's special, please!

In its poll released last week, Fox News put a name on that chef’s special: Gary Johnson, the likely Libertarian candidate for the presidency. But there’s a big difference between “chef’s special” and “Gary Johnson” — Johnson got 10 percent of support, not 44. In the Post/ABC poll, the special was called “Mitt Romney.” He got 22 percent.

Prof. Allan Lichtman has correctly predicted the outcome of every U.S. presidential election since 1984. Here's how. (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

So let’s take another step back and consider those first two unappealing options. Which option will be the preferred meal on Election Day, 2016? We know from our Post/ABC polling that a lot of people are making their selections for the reason stated above: They simply loathe the alternative. Here’s how our Dan Balz and Scott Clement described voters’ thinking:

Among those registered voters who say they favor Clinton, 48 percent say their vote is in support of the candidate while an identical percentage say their vote is mainly to oppose Trump. Among Trump’s backers, 44 percent say they are casting an affirmative vote for the Republican, while 53 percent say their motivation is to oppose Clinton.

As it stands, registered voters prefer Trump by a narrow two-point margin.

But that figure is probably a bit misleading. No one is actively running against Trump. Clinton is still being challenged by Bernie Sanders, whose vocal base of young voters continues to hope that he’ll defy the odds between now and the convention. Republicans who were leaning against Trump while he was still battling for the nomination have, largely, fallen in line. Democrats who don’t want to vote for Clinton haven’t.

In 2008, the last time the Democrats had a contested nomination contest, Barack Obama led in head-to-head match-ups against John McCain for most of the year. There were two big exceptions: Right after the Republican convention — and right after McCain clinched his party’s nomination. That happened in March, three months before the Democratic contest ended.

His spike was short-lived.

There are big differences between this year and 2008. One is that Post/ABC polling eight years ago consistently showed independent voters preferring Obama to McCain — even shortly after McCain clinched. In our most recent poll, independents prefer Trump by 13 points. There’s overlap here with the point above, that Sanders backers haven’t come around to Clinton yet.

But there’s less incentive for them to do so than there was for Clinton supporters in 2008. The split was larger then, but it was also mostly Democrats. This year, much of Sanders’s support has consistently come from self-identified independents — people who may feel less loyalty to the party than voters eight years ago did. In May 2008, 27 percent of registered voters who preferred Clinton said they would vote for McCain in Post/ABC polling. By October, that had fallen to 14 percent.

At the end of the day, Sanders supporters will have to pick from the same menu as everyone else. Our very limited history of such contests suggests that most will bite the bullet and pick the candidate they hate less. Once the Democratic contest formally ends, we’ll see if that's the case — or if they simply go hungry.