The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Clinton holds narrow lead over Trump on eve of conventions

Cleveland's residents are preparing for the beginning of the RNC, as tens of thousands converge onto the city under heavy security. (Video: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

On the eve of the two national political conventions that will shape the images of the major-party presidential candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are in a competitive contest nationally but with the presumptive Republican nominee facing deficits on key character attributes and issues, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The survey shows Clinton leading Trump by 47 percent to 43 percent among registered voters. That represents a shift in Trump’s direction since last month’s Post-ABC poll, which showed Clinton leading by 12 points. In the new poll, Clinton leads by 10 points among all adults — 50 percent to 40 percent — compared with a 14-point lead among this wider group last month.

Both candidates remain highly unpopular — the two most unpopular in the history of Post-ABC polling. By about 2 to 1 (64 percent to 31 percent), Americans view Trump unfavorably. Clinton’s numbers are not quite as negative — 42 percent favorable and 54 percent unfavorable. Half of all registered voters say they have strongly unfavorable views of Trump, while 47 percent say they have strongly unfavorable views of Clinton — the highest ever in a Post-ABC poll for her.

The survey also highlights the degree to which Americans are motivated by negative impulses rather than seeing the choice in positive terms. Almost 6 in 10 say they are dissatisfied with the choice of Trump vs. Clinton. Fifty-four percent of Clinton’s supporters say they are mainly voting against Trump, while 57 percent of Trump supporters say they are mainly voting against Clinton.

Given the dissatisfaction, there is the possibility that candidates from minor parties will attract the support of disaffected voters. In a four-way matchup that also includes Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party, the poll results are Clinton 42 percent, Trump 38 percent, Johnson 8 percent and Stein 5 percent.

The new poll comes after a tumultuous two weeks that included the killings of five police officers in Dallas and deadly shootings by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. As the calling for the poll was closing came news of an apparent terrorist attack in Nice, France. All these events have added to the tensions of a country on edge and heightened the importance of security and racial issues in the choice of a president.

The poll also comes after Clinton was spared prosecution by the government for her use of a private email server as secretary of state. But while avoiding any criminal charge, Clinton received a stern rebuke from FBI Director James B. Comey, who said she and her aides had been “extremely careless” in their handling of sensitive classified material in their email exchanges.

The previous Post-ABC poll showed Clinton with a larger lead than some other national surveys taken around the same time. Whether or how much the shift toward Trump in the current survey was affected by how the FBI investigation was resolved can't be measured. Other recent polls show the difference in the race nationally to be in low single digits, with Clinton generally enjoying the advantage.

Republicans begin their nominating convention here in Cleveland on Monday and will conclude Thursday with the expected nomination of Trump, with Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana as his running mate.

Here are some of the people who are speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and some who've opted to skip the event. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

The Democratic convention, in Philadelphia, will begin July 25, with Clinton poised to become the first woman nominated for president by a major party. She is still mulling her vice-presidential choice and met with several contenders Friday.

Trump hopes to produce a convention that helps to alleviate questions about his fitness to be president among many Americans, but he begins with an enormous deficit on that issue. The Post-ABC poll found that nearly six in 10 registered voters say he is not qualified to serve as president — with 49 percent saying they strongly believe that. Meanwhile, Clinton is seen as qualified to serve as president by 56 percent of voters.

Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, about 7 in 10 see Trump as qualified to be president — but almost one-quarter of that part of the electorate still questions the presumptive GOP nominee’s fitness.

The survey highlights familiar fault lines in the electorate. Trump leads among men, 49 percent to 41 percent, while Clinton enjoys an even larger margin among women, 52 to 38 percent. Voters ages 18 to 39 support Clinton 54 to 34 percent, while those 65 and older back Trump 51 to 42 percent. Those between 40 and 65 are almost evenly divided. Trump leads by 15 percentage points among white voters, while Clinton has a huge 52 percentage point lead among nonwhite voters.

At this point, the Democrats are slightly more united behind Clinton than Republicans are behind Trump. One goal of the Trump campaign is to leave Cleveland at the end of the week with the party more united and enthusiastic about the nominee. Currently, 86 percent of Democrats back Clinton, while 82 percent of Republicans back Trump.

Independent voters lean toward Trump, 47 to 41 percent, although winning independents is no guarantee of winning the presidency. Four years ago, Mitt Romney won among independents while losing to President Obama.

Clinton enjoys the support of 8 in 10 self-identified liberals, while 7 in 10 conservatives back Trump. Moderates go decisively for Clinton, 52 to 36 percent.

Take this quiz on American voters

The contest between Clinton and Trump highlights one potential shift in the electorate that will be closely watched between now and November: the division among voters based on educational attainment.

Trump’s most important block of voters are whites without college degrees, who support Trump by a margin of 60 to 33 percent. But college-educated white voters have been shifting toward the Democrats, and the poll underscores that the competition for those voters will be hard-fought and potentially decisive in the election’s outcome. Republicans historically have carried the votes of whites with college degrees, and Romney won the group by 14 points over Obama four years ago.

The Post-ABC poll finds whites with college degrees are evenly divided — 43 percent Trump, 42 percent Clinton, with an outsize 10 percent volunteering support for “neither.” When gender is included in the analysis, the poll finds that white women with college degrees narrowly support Clinton, while white men with college degrees support Trump by a slightly larger margin.

Of seven issues tested, Clinton has double-digit advantages over Trump on three — race relations, handling an international crisis and immigration. Clinton has smaller edges on looking out for the middle class and handling terrorism, while Trump holds small edges on taxes and the economy.

Across six attributes, Trump has an 11-point margin among registered voters on the question of which candidate would do the most to bring needed change to Washington. By a margin of five points, he is seen as more honest and trustworthy. Clinton has a similar edge on empathy with people’s problems and representing people’s values and holds double-digit edges on having better judgment and having a presidential personality and temperament.

In an election that is likely to be framed as a choice of continuity with Obama’s policies vs. a change in direction led by a Washington outsider with no previous political experience, a bare majority of voters say they prefer experience in politics to someone outside the establishment. That’s a narrower margin than earlier in the year, when 59 percent said they favored a politically experienced candidate. The poll indicated there was growing support for an outsider among Republicans and independents.

Clinton’s trust deficit is highlighted on another question in the poll: whether she is too willing to bend the rules. Seven in 10 Americans (72 percent) said she is. The poll also asked whether respondents saw Trump as biased against women and minorities. On that question, 56 percent said yes. When people were asked which was the greater concern, a plurality (48 to 43 percent) cited Trump’s possible bias.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted July 11-14 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the error margin is 4 points among the sample of 816 registered voters.

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.