The 2016 Race: Polling Still Shows Hillary Clinton With a Lead, but Not a Safe One
The presidential race has tightened over the last week. But the most recent polls, conducted after the latest news about Hillary Clinton’s emails, show that she still holds a modest lead over Donald J. Trump.
So the polls offer clarity on perhaps the most important question: whether Mrs. Clinton still has the edge after the Comey letter. She does.
But they haven’t offered much clarity on many of the other issues that might give us a better sense of just how vulnerable her lead might be. And we might not have that clarity before Election Day because there is so little time left for additional high-quality polling before Tuesday.
The new polls make a wide range of outcomes — from a decisive win for Mrs. Clinton to a narrow win for Mr. Trump — seem within the realm of possibility.
Before Thursday’s polls, I laid out the four big things people should watch for:
■ The size of Mrs. Clinton’s overall lead.
■ Whether Mr. Trump could take a more comfortable lead in the Republican states where he has been vulnerable.
■ Whether Mrs. Clinton could hold on to her “firewall” — the states worth 272 electoral votes where she has held a consistent lead.
■ Whether Mr. Trump would significantly improve his share of the vote and break into the mid-40s.
The answers to these questions aren’t always pointing in the same direction, and it helps explain the uncertainty with so few days to go.
■ Mrs. Clinton’s lead is clear, and probably sits around three points in national polls — including a New York Times/CBS News survey out on Thursday and the ABC News/Washington Post tracker.
A three-point lead is enough to make Mrs. Clinton a clear favorite, but it’s not a particularly strong advantage. It would take only a fairly typical polling error for the national popular vote to end up deadlocked.
■ Mr. Trump has taken more of a lead in the red states. A few recent polls in Utah show him stretching out a more comfortable lead over Evan McMullin, a conservative candidate unaffiliated with a party, and Mrs. Clinton.
Polls also show Mr. Trump taking a wide lead in Missouri and Indiana, two states that have been on the fringe of competitiveness when Mrs. Clinton has been well ahead, and a more comfortable lead in Texas.
Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
But Mr. Trump hasn’t taken a wide lead in Arizona and Georgia.
■ The strength of Mrs. Clinton’s firewall — the states carried by John Kerry in 2004, plus New Mexico, Virginia and Colorado — is less clear. It’s certainly looking worse for her now than it has for most of the year.
There were several polls on Thursday showing a very close race, even a slight lead for Mr. Trump, in New Hampshire, Colorado and Virginia — states where Mrs. Clinton had led nearly every poll this year.
Mrs. Clinton has had better news in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states with large numbers of white working-class Democrats.
In principle, there isn’t anything especially surprising about the possibility that some polls would show a slight lead for Mr. Trump in Colorado or New Hampshire if Mrs. Clinton was indeed ahead by a modest margin. But Mrs. Clinton’s lead has been so consistent that any departure from the trend is noticeable.
Ultimately, there aren’t enough polls to conclude that, say, Mrs. Clinton is comfortably ahead in Wisconsin but vulnerable in Colorado. But taken in totality, it’s fair to say that she leads in her firewall states by a modest but certainly not an overwhelming margin. Her path to the presidency is intact, but the polling suggests it’s not secure.
■ Even now, Mr. Trump is struggling to get his support into the mid-40s.
Recent polls in New Hampshire, Virginia and Colorado showed Mr. Trump between 39 and 44 percent. The New York Times/CBS News nationwide poll has Mr. Trump at 42 percent, as does the broader average of national polling.
In a sense, we’ve been here before. So far this year, Mrs. Clinton’s lead has bobbed up and down between two and eight percentage points, depending on the latest news.
Her lead fell to around two points after the F.B.I. director James Comey excoriated her for using a private server in July; it fell to around two points after her “deplorables” comment and her pneumonia-related collapse on Sept. 11.
It rose to around eight points after she won the Democratic nomination, and also after the Democratic convention and the subsequent spate between Mr. Trump and the family of Capt. Humayun Khan. It also rose to around that level in the middle of October, after Mrs. Clinton was thought to have won the first debate and a recording revealed Mr. Trump bragging about groping women.
In most of those cases, Mrs. Clinton’s numbers fell more than Mr. Trump’s numbers rose.
This time, the story is a little different: Mrs. Clinton’s numbers have slipped only slightly — say, from 46 percent to 45 percent — while Mr. Trump’s numbers have risen from their lows to around 42 percent. This may reflect that more voters have come to their final decision over the last month or so.
But the broad story of polling this year has been fairly consistent. Even at her weakest moments, Mr. Trump hasn’t taken a lead; even at his strongest moments, he has struggled to win the sort of numbers that Mrs. Clinton has held at her weakness moments.
There is not much evidence that supporters of Mrs. Clinton have flipped to Mr. Trump so far this year. But sometimes they do move in and out of the undecided column, become more or less likely to count in a pollster’s “likely-voter screen,” or even less likely to pick up the telephone when a pollster calls. The lower Mrs. Clinton slips, the more one wonders how much she stands to benefit from the pool of voters who have supported her at various times during the election, but currently find themselves on the sidelines.
This doesn’t mean that Mrs. Clinton’s position hasn’t weakened. Their diminished enthusiasm or support for her might mean that they simply won’t vote at all. But it may suggest that there’s more upside than downside for Mrs. Clinton at this point.
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