Hillary Clinton has a solid lead in the national polls. Donald Trump is trailing in every swing state and is underperforming in states easily carried by past GOP nominees such as Georgia and Arizona. The question now is whether Clinton’s lead is durable and insurmountable.
First, we look at the data. The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has Clinton leading Trump by 9 points, 47-38 percent. Of the seven polls they’ve taken this year, Clinton has averaged a lead of 8 points. The closest this race has been was in May when Trump was just three points behind Clinton 43 to 46 percent. So, what changed between May and today?
As you can see from the chart, Trump’s biggest drops came among some of his staunchest supporters - white men (he dropped 17 points), white voters without a college degree (he dropped 14 points), and Republicans (he dropped five points). Among swing voters, Trump lost big among moderates (21 points), and lost five points among white women. His drop among white women and whites with a college education were less drastic than the swings among white men and white non-college voters. In other words, his biggest drops came from those who are the easiest for him to get back.
However, even if he gets these voters back to the May level, he’s still running behind. If he brings back the white non-college men, he’s still got big problems with moderates and whites with a college education. Moreover, Clinton has solidified her base (she’s now getting 90 percent of Democrats), while Trump still can’t get his party behind him (he's getting just 81 percent of Republicans). In fact, if you plug the best college margin for Clinton (her +7 in August) and best non-college margin for Trump (his +27 from May) into the fivethirtyeight.com demographic model, Clinton picks up every single swing state, plus Georgia, and has a 363 electoral vote margin. Even if you give Trump his college margin from May (tied), and his strong showing among non-college, Clinton still easily carries the electoral college - winning every single swing state.
This means that Trump has to figure out a way to win over voters that traditionally lean Republican but aren’t completely on board the Trump train, while also driving up turn-out and margin among his strongest, but not as reliable base of white voters without a college degree. And, of course, he’ll do this all without a traditional campaign operation. Moreover, and more important, he has to stop making himself and his outrageous statements, the centerpiece of his campaign strategy. That, of course, is highly unlikely.
Recent swing state polling, however, finds Trump doing as well, if not better among white non-college voters but falling deeper behind among white college voters.
In Ohio, for example, both the most recent Marist and Quinnipiac polls found Clinton increasing her lead among white college voters from July to August (+7 in Q poll and +3 in Marist), while Trump’s margins among non-college whites went up in the Q poll (from +19 to +27) and stayed basically the same in the Marist polling (+19 in July to +18 in August). The Pennsylvania data shows a similar pattern. The most dramatic movement was in the Quinnipiac poll which found a whopping 23 point swing to Clinton among white college voters from July to August and a modest drop-off of 5 points among non-college whites. The Marist poll found Clinton increasing her margin with white college voters by 6 points, but Trump increased his margin with non-college whites by 6 points as well.
The Clinton campaign, of course, is doing all they can to keep that wedge between Trump and those traditionally GOP-leaning voters. This week they rolled out a group of Republican and Independents who support Clinton - called Forward Together - and have pledged to recruit their friends and colleagues to support her as well. The public announcement of this group follows on the heels of Clinton’s aggressive appeal to disaffected GOPers at the July Democratic Convention (think of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s message to pick the “sane” candidate for president). Few of the names are particularly eye-popping or surprising. The group consists mostly of well-heeled business and moderate GOP types who held office in the 1980s and 1990s. The goal, it seems, is to give cover to those suburban GOP voters who are trying to justify supporting not only a Democrat, but a Democrat with sky-high disapproval ratings. And, while there is a lot of chatter about a “hidden Trump vote” - the voter who is embarrassed to admit to disapproving friends and family that he’s supporting the controversial billionaire - I also believe there’s a significant group of “hidden Clinton supporters.” After all, there are as many places in this country where it is as socially unacceptable to say you are voting for Clinton as it is to say you’ll support Trump.
The continued defections among GOP leaders is also taking a toll on Trump. I saw this first hand in focus groups conducted this week with so-called Walmart moms in Columbus, Ohio and Phoenix, Arizona by pollsters Neil Newhouse and Margie Omero. Almost all the women in these groups had at least some level of college or technical school education, though fewer than half had a college degree. They were mixed in age and race. They were all undecided and/or soft supporters of one of the two candidates. In other words, they are the kind of “swing voters” that both sides should want to attract. Overall, these women were quite aware that the GOP was divided about Trump, and that it was a big deal. When asked if it mattered that the GOP was not united behind him, a woman in the Columbus group said “Yes. If you’re parents aren’t on the same page, it’s a problem.” In Phoenix, Connie, a 44 year old college graduate, worried that “whatever change he wants to bring he won’t have anyone to work with him…he’s not even getting along with his own party.” Stephanie, a 38 year old mom of two and customer service representative, is leaning toward Trump, but also worries that “he’ll do everything by executive order and take it too far.”
Unlike groups of undecided voters in past elections, these women weren’t withholding their decision because they weren’t paying attention or weren’t engaged. These women were VERY engaged. And, very conflicted. When asked how this campaign made them feel, all were negative: “worried”, “frustrated”, “hopeless,” and “disappointed” were the responses. Most had stories of divided households and friendships that were frayed by Facebook fights about the campaign. As Gidget, a white mom of two from Columbus put it: “no matter which way we choose, we’re going to lose.”
As we’ve seen/heard for months now, these women saw Clinton with a huge trust deficit (“liar” was used most often in describing their concerns about her), and they saw Trump with temperament troubles.(“he acts like a two year old,” said one woman in Phoenix, “and I have a two year old.”) But, these women were also resigned to the fact that Trump was not likely to change. Even those who said they were going to vote for him had a hard time defending his behavior. As one woman in the Phoenix group remarked, “I don’t trust Hillary Clinton on fighting terrorism, but Trump would get us into World War III.”
The most telling, however, was that while these women were less than enthusiastic about supporting Hillary Clinton themselves, they were nearly unanimous in their belief that she’d ultimately win the election. Overall, these women don’t trust Hillary Clinton, but Trump scares them. And, the unpredictability and rashness of Trump seems to be a bigger problem for them. If Trump had shown a side that was less impulsive and more focused, these women would likely be more open to him. But, as one woman in Phoenix remarked: “I think he could change, but he doesn’t want to change.” That, more than anything, underlines how difficult it is going to be for Trump to get these women - and those like them - to vote for him. And, while this race may tighten, Clinton’s lead with these types of traditionally GOP voters may endure.