If the election were held today, Hillary Clinton would almost certainly become America’s next president.
Clinton continues to lead Donald Trump by a substantial margin in the vast majority of polls. It’s not really even close: Clinton is up by about 5 points in the polling averages that most experts see as the best way to gauge the true state of the race.
Still, the race certainly has tightened over the last few weeks. Trump was getting blown out by as much as 8 points a few weeks ago, and his ability to close that gap to 5 points marks a first step toward making it a competitive race. Clinton’s unfavorability ratings have also recently soared, with new polls suggesting she’s more unpopular with Americans than ever before. A flurry of battleground polls has shown Trump within striking distance in crucial swing states, and a poll from Rasmussen today even put Trump ahead nationally.
Those are all bad signs for Clinton, and they suggest her campaign is heading in the wrong direction. But if you’re simply trying to figure out who is winning the race, it’s best not to lose track of the big picture: Clinton is set to become president, and Trump is set to become a (huge) loser.
Hillary Clinton’s popularity really is sinking
From the perspective of Democrats, there is one black cloud hanging over the polling data: Clinton’s numbers really have begun sliding over the last two weeks. If they continue to do so, she could be in trouble.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has a roundup of the tightening battleground polls here, and they show Trump now within 3 points in Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa. He’s also only now down 5 points in Wisconsin — a state Clinton should expect to win easily if she’s going to win the race overall.
Just as worrisome, from the Clinton camp’s perspective: A series of new polls have shown her becoming more and more disliked by the American people, and the polling averages have her unfavorable ratings shooting up for the first time above 55 points — the worst of her quarter-century in public life.
It’s unclear exactly why Clinton is getting less popular. There’s been a spate of critical press coverage around her ties to the Clinton Foundation, with mainstream media outlets hammering her family’s charity for accepting corporate donations amid her tenure as secretary of state. That has probably contributed to her sinking popularity, given that 66 percent of voters think the foundation sold influence for donations, according to a new Fox News poll:
ABC News reported that Clinton’s favorable ratings are falling even among her core voter demographics:
Notably, Clinton’s popularity among women has flipped from 54-43 percent favorable-unfavorable last month to 45-52 percent now; it’s the first time in a year that most women have viewed her unfavorably.
Clinton’s favorable-unfavorable rating has also flipped among those with postgraduate degrees, from 60-39 percent in early August to 47-51 percent now. She’s now back to about where she was among postgrads in July.
The Washington Post also notes there’s been a "renewed focus" on Clinton’s use of a private email server, noting that those critical pieces might mark a strong contrast to the positive press she was getting out of the Democratic convention. Whatever the actual cause is, there’s no sugarcoating it: Clinton’s popularity is fading, and that’s bad news for her election prospects.
Despite dipping popularity, Hillary Clinton still has a strong polling lead
There are dozens of pollsters and news outlets constantly releasing new polls from battleground states or about the national race. These companies often have a direct financial interest in highlighting an interesting or surprising finding, which they then blast out without the full context of the race — or with that context buried further down in their accounts.
That can give the impression of a wild race in state of constant flux. Look back at early August. Clinton came out of the Democratic National Convention in late July leading by around 8 to 10 points in national polls. Trump did a lot of things that got particularly awful press, even for him, including insulting a Gold Star family and feuding publicly with prominent Republican officials.
However, if you want to keep above the fray between now and November, these daily polling alerts really aren’t that helpful. Instead, you should look at the polling averages that examine the full field of pollsters and can account for those way outside the mean.
Trump may not have moderated his tone or softened his hard-line immigration position since then. But the extraordinarily bad press he was getting in early August has abated, and his polling numbers appear to be reflecting that.
Some of the most widely respected "polling aggregators" are run by RealClearPolitics, the Huffington Post, and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. Here’s what they show:
RCP has Clinton up by 4.6 points. The Huffington Post has her up by 6.4 points. FiveThirtyEight has Clinton up by about 3.9 points.
Five points might not sound like a lot, but remember that each point represents millions of American voters. In 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 3.9 points — and that was considered a tremendous blowout. The polls show Clinton on pace for an even bigger victory, and we have little reason to doubt their accuracy.
Of course, we can’t know what will happen in reality until Election Day. But the numbers themselves aren’t giving us much reason to believe that dire scenarios or radically changing poll numbers will happen.
Donald Trump is still going to have to radically change something to become president
The good news for Clinton is that this none of this is likely to matter for one simple reason: Trump is still extremely personally unpopular.
This is something Vox’s Ezra Klein pointed out back at the beginning of this month, and it’s still true: Crack open the polls, and they look even worse for Trump than the top-line results. That’s because Trump still is viewed as unfit for office on crucial metrics by big majorities of Americans.
Quinnipiac, for instance, found this week that 71 percent of Americans think Clinton has the right experience to be president — compared to a 32 percent for Trump. About 60 percent of voters say Trump doesn’t care about people like them. Clinton’s unfavorability ratings may not be great — but Trump’s, at 61 percent, are even worse.
And he’s running out of time to change that. Politico notes today that 90 percent of Americans say they’ve already decided who they’re going to vote for. Vox’s Andrew Prokop noted in mid-August that candidates leading at this point in the polls in the last 16 elections had gone on to win the popular vote.
Can we really trust the polls after the rise of Trump?
There was a lot of chatter during the presidential primaries about how the polls had badly missed the races. It was easy to understand why: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both did far better than they were expected to in their primaries.
But that wasn’t the fault of the polls — the pundits and press were the ones who consistently misread their chances. In fact, as Business Insider’s Josh Barro has tirelessly pointed out, the polls were pretty spot-on in predicting the outcomes of the primaries. (The one big exception was Michigan in the Democratic primary, where the polls really were wildly off, for reasons I explained at the time here.)
Sanders and Trump did start out their primaries far worse in the polls than they ended up — but their rise over time was actually well documented, accurately, by the polling.
Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, notes the polls did often miss the margin of victory in the primaries by quite a bit. But, in general, they called the eventual winners of the race with great accuracy. Hillary Clinton is going to be hoping that trend holds up come November 8.