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The race is tightening for a painfully simple reason

Hillary Clinton’s ongoing campaign to paint Donald Trump as unacceptable in the eyes of most Americans is working. It’s just not good enough. That’s the message of the spate of recent polls showing a dramatically tightened race that Trump may even be narrowly winning.

The truth is that Trump is not doing well. Even Trump’s very best recent polls (which, by definition, are outliers that likely overstate his true level of support) show him receiving fewer votes than Republican candidates usually get. A recent CNN poll of Ohio, for example, that gave him a 5-point lead in the crucial swing state also shows him only getting 46 percent of the vote. Mitt Romney and John McCain both did better than that. Clinton’s attacks and Trump’s well-known weaknesses seem to have him losing the support of some GOP loyalists, even in his best polls.

The problem is that Clinton herself is doing worse. Because despite her campaign’s emphasis on Trump’s weirdness and unpopularity, that isn’t the only force shaping this race. It’s profoundly unusual across two other dimensions — the strength of third party candidates and the weakness of the frontrunner — that will probably prevent Clinton from ever opening up a sustained comfortable lead unless she can do something to make herself better-liked.

Clinton is a freakishly unpopular frontrunner

Despite a couple of days’ worth of bad polls, Clinton still leads in national polling averages. It remains the case that if the election were held tomorrow, she would win.

In that context, her 42-56 favorable/unfavorable split in national polling is truly, freakishly bad. Political junkies have probably heard the factoid that Clinton is the least-popular major party nominee of all time — except for Donald Trump. But conventional dialogue still underrates exactly how weird this situation is. John McCain, John Kerry, Al Gore, and Bob Dole were all viewed favorably by a majority of Americans on the eve of presidential elections that they lost, and Mitt Romney was extremely close.

It is totally unheard of to win a presidential election while having deeply underwater favorable ratings, and it is actually quite common to lose one despite above water favorable ratings.

Since there are only two major party nominees in the race and they are both far underwater right now, it’s pretty likely that precedent will be shattered. But we are in a bit of an undiscovered country in terms of the underlying opinion dynamics.

Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are doing remarkably well

RealClearPolitics’ four-way polling average shows Gary Johnson at 9.2 percent and Jill Stein at 2.7 percent.

If those numbers hold up (which of course they might not), they would make Johnson the strongest third-party candidate since Ross Perot in 1992. That’s a big deal. Stein’s strength is, however, even more unusual. She is polling ahead of where Ralph Nader did in 2000 and is the strongest fourth-party candidate we’ve seen in a 100 years, besting both the Thurmond and Wallace tickets from the infamously four-sided election of 1948.

To find a fourth-place candidate polling higher than Stein’s current results, you need to dial all the way back to the 6 percent of the vote Eugene Debs earned in the bizarre 1912 election that saw the GOP nominee (the incumbent, no less!) finish in third place behind a third-party bid spearheaded by ex-president Teddy Roosevelt.

For a stable lead, Clinton needs to be liked

These two unusual quirks of the 2016 race seem to be linked.

Lambasting Trump while being unpopular herself would be a clear winning strategy in a zero-sum head-to-head race. But in a four-sided race, where the two lesser candidates aren’t receiving much scrutiny from the press or the campaigns, it tends to have the side consequence of pressing a lot of people to Johnson or Stein. The fact that there are two different third-party candidates in the race — one for people who think Clinton’s too left and one for people who think she’s not left enough — makes it really difficult to avoid bleeding voters.

If polls stay very tight or Trump pulls into a lead, then anti-Trump messaging to Johnson and Stein voters could take the form of classic warnings about spoilers and wasted votes.

But the fact that Clinton has been consistently leading in the polls — and in August was doing so by a large margin — has itself undercut purely tactical arguments for voting Clinton. If she is overwhelmingly likely to win, which is what people have been hearing, then you may as well not vote for her if you don’t like her.

It’s simply going to be very hard for Clinton to open up the kind of stable lead that her supporters think Trump’s awfulness deserves while she herself is so little-liked. September of a general election year is probably not a great time to turn that around.

But the fact remains that her basic problem in this race is almost painfully simple. Over the course of her winning primary campaign she became a deeply unpopular figure. And it’s hard — indeed, unprecedented — for such an unpopular person to win the presidency.


The bad map we see every presidential election