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How panicked should Democrats be about Donald Trump’s poll surge? We asked 8 experts.

It is now no longer the case that we need a major new catalytic event to think Trump can win.

Trump (Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

It is now no longer the case that we need a major new catalytic event to think Donald Trump can win. Hillary Clinton hasn’t just lost the massive 8-point cushion she had in late August — she’s now clinging to a narrow 1.5-point lead in the polling averages that are widely viewed as the best gauges of the race.

Last week, I wrote that Trump had cut into Clinton’s lead but that something dramatic would still have to change for him to really be in contention in the presidential race.

Well, something did change.

Yes, Clinton is still more likely to prevail. But, remember, even the polling averages are themselves ultimately just rough guesses of who is winning. (They were off by about 3 points in 2012, for instance.) In other words, Clinton could lose no ground at all in the polls from now until Election Day and a Trump victory is still very much within the realm of possibility.

"At the risk of inducing mass liberal panic, please note that polling averages are just probabilistic," says Georgetown political scientist Jonathan Ladd, noting that the New York Times now gives Clinton a 75 percent chance of winning and that FiveThirtyEight gives her just a 60 percent chance — down from close to 90 percent in mid-August.

To figure out what, exactly, has changed, I interviewed eight polling experts to find out where we are in this roller coaster presidential election. They made clear that to try to gauge whether Clinton can regain her strong lead, the key is to first understand how she lost it.

The two key groups that have put Donald Trump back in play

According to the pollsters and political scientists I spoke to, there are two major demographic reasons Trump has been making a comeback: 1) Young people are abandoning Clinton for third-party alternatives, and 2) Republicans are coming home to their party’s nominee.

The first group is one that Clinton may be able to reclaim. The second one is probably Trump’s to lose.

Let’s start with the first. "If I had to point to one thing that’s going on here, it would be dampened enthusiasm among young voters," says David Wasserman, a political analyst at the Cook Political Report.

Wasserman pointed to a poll released this week from Quinnipiac of young voters that put Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson at 29 points and Green Party candidate Jill Stein at 15 points, for a combined 44 points. Some polls from mid-August had Clinton at around 60 points with young voters (similar to Barack Obama’s 67 percent of the youth vote in 2012), but she’s now slid to the mid-30s (!) in a four-way race.

This trend has gotten a lot of attention. On the one hand, Clinton’s personal unpopularity with young people is off the charts, and she’s going to have to do something different if she’s going to win them over. And John Della Volpe, director of polling at The Institute of Politics at Harvard University, notes all of the candidates have "favorability ratings under water" among millennials.

"This is extremely disconcerting for Clinton," says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "If they’re going to come at all close to having the support of the Obama coalition, they need young people."

On the other hand, young people are regarded as a key group of the Obama constituency — and, perhaps, a group likely to be able to come back into the fold in November. Historically, third-party candidates have tended to fade as the realistic options become harder to ignore, for reasons Vox’s Tara Golshan explains here. They also hate Donald Trump.

"These voters really should be gettable," Ladd says.

And Clinton has some good surrogates on her side to appeal to this base. Bernie Sanders is headed to Ohio this week to stump for Clinton. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is following suit. Barack and Michelle Obama have started to hit the trail on behalf of Clinton.

If you believe young people will come back into the Democratic fold — that even if they dislike Clinton, they’ll probably listen to the politicians they do like — then you can probably expect Clinton will survive.

And if not?

Republicans are increasingly enthusiastic about Trump

Try thinking about the candidates in the presidential election as climbing a big mountain that only gets steeper the higher they climb.

Because the mountain gets steeper the higher up you go, every additional step becomes a bit more difficult. But the further down you are on the mountain, the easier it is to begin climbing.

This metaphor helps illustrate the second big thing that’s caused Trump to look more competitive. When Trump was losing by 7 or 8 points, traditionally Republican voters — close to 30 percent — who still said they couldn’t stomach the Trump pill were a big part of the reason.

That’s really changed. Trump’s support among Republicans was in the low 70s a few weeks ago in many polls, and is now closer to 85 percent, according to Will Jordan, a YouGov pollster.

"That’s allowed him to make up a lot of ground fairly quickly," Jordan says. "It’s also why his (8-point) deficit was always a bit suspect in the first place."

Those voters were always going to be open to coming around to the Republican nominee. Now many of them have. The problem for Trump is there’s only a limited number of them that he can win over merely by looking "more presidential" and not picking offensive fights with Gold Star families.

"If Trump is down 7, he just has to start persuading Republicans to eat away at Clinton’s lead. But the closer he gets, the harder that next point becomes. He has to start winning over moderate voters," Ladd says. "That last percent to draw fully even is going to be much harder."

The consolidation of the Republican vote is obviously good for Trump. But it also suggests that at least part of Clinton’s recent slippage was inevitable — and, perhaps, unlikely to get worse.

"It’s not like there are Democrats or independents who are suddenly flocking to Trump," says Julia Clarke, director of polling at Reuters/Ipsos.

Are voters really going to elect someone they themselves think is an unqualified bigot? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Beyond the top-line poll numbers that show who is winning, some analysts like to look at the underlying perceptions of the candidates.

Of the eight experts I interviewed, Brookings Institute scholar Bill Galston was the most bullish on Clinton’s chances. (Galston also was a White House policy adviser during Bill Clinton’s presidency.) He pointed to a new set of polls from Quinnipiac that he said had nightmarish numbers for anyone hoping for a Trump presidency.

"Seriously, go through it; it’s amazing," Galston said.

I did, and Galston was right. Some of the numbers seem impossible to square with the idea of a Trump victory:

  • More than twice the number of voters think Clinton is qualified to be president compared to those who think Trump is (63-38).
  • About 70 percent think Clinton has the experience to be president, about 70 percent say Trump does not have the experience to be president.
  • Close to 70 percent of voters think Trump is not level-headed. About 60 percent think Clinton is level-headed.
  • More than 60 percent of Americans, including 61 percent of independents, think "the way Donald Trump talks appeals to bigotry."

This dovetails with a point that Vox’s Ezra Klein made months ago: Once you look under the hood of the polls, Trump is viewed with such doubt it’s hard to imagine that he could actually win.

"There are very few certainties in life, especially in politics," Galston said. "But based on the way I think about campaigns, the odds are — given the current state of the evidence — that Hillary Clinton will win the election."

But Clarke, of Reuters, had a different reaction. She noted that voters say their two most important concerns when headed to the ballot box are, overwhelmingly, handling of the economy and terrorism. And on those two questions, Clarke noted, the candidates are running pretty much even.

Could America elect someone who most voters themselves think is unqualified, not level-headed, and traffics in bigotry? Clarke thinks the answer may very well be yes.

The 2016 presidential election looks more volatile than 2012

In 2012, Mitt Romney never fell too far behind Barack Obama. The race was mostly steady. Even the polling firms like Gallup that wrongly predicted a Romney win were fairly consistent about where the race stood. Excluding the convention period where we always get swings in polling numbers, the race looked mostly steady throughout.

Everything about this year suggests instability in polling. Maybe, Ladd says, that’s because of differences in response rates. In other words, voters may be becoming just temporarily more likely to respond to pollsters when they’re feeling passionately about their candidates. That would falsely make big swings in the polls look like millions of people are changing their minds, when what’s really happening is something less connected to what will happen on Election Day.

But we don’t really have a way of knowing for sure. And that’s at least leaving the open the possibility that voters are much more open to changing their minds this year than is traditionally the case.

"The polling averages were very stable, and that’s not true this year," Ladd says.

Skelley, of the Center for Politics, adds: "We’ve seen this undulating wave in her polls, and Trump’s have vacillated wildly as well."

As Vox’s Matt Yglesias pointed out yesterday, Trump is still running behind John McCain in 2008 or Romney in 2012 in crucial states. But because Clinton is so historically unpopular, and because the third-party candidates are doing better than usual this year, Trump may be able to win with only 45 percent of the vote.

And, for now, that’s making it look like anybody’s race.

"Our results show what’s pretty much a dead heat," says Tim Malloy, a pollster at Quinnipiac. "If the election were held tonight, my bet is that you reporters would be having a very, very long night."

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