On Tuesday morning, the ABC/Washington Post tracking poll showed Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton for the first time by 1 point in a four-way race. It’s a result that seems stunning, coming a few days after FBI Director Jim Comey’s October surprise letter to Congress and apparently showing a double-digit drop from Clinton’s lead in that same poll two weeks ago.
And that’s a good reminder that you shouldn’t overreact to individual polls you happen to see.
Now, I’m not going pick apart the ABC/Post poll in particular, because it’s natural that individual polls will differ in their methodologies, samples, and, ultimately, results.
Rather, I’ll repeat the advice that avid poll watchers know by heart: The best way to follow the race at this point is to look at polling averages and forecasting models. It’s best to throw all the recent polls together in an average or in a model, rather than overly focusing on (or entirely dismissing) the ones that look particularly dramatic to you.
What pretty much all of these averages and models currently show is a race that looks like it’s tightening somewhat but still has Clinton ahead for the time being — nothing like the seemingly catastrophic collapse she’d had in this one poll. That could, of course, still be coming, but we should see more data before jumping to the conclusion that it’s happening.
Right now, polling averages range from showing Clinton about 2 points ahead (RealClearPolitics) to about 6 points up (HuffPost Pollster). Obviously, one of those is more comforting to Democrats than the other. (FiveThirtyEight’s popular vote estimate is in between them, showing Clinton up 4.4 points).
Why is this approach better than looking at individual polls? Well, first of all, you’re much more likely to even see outlier polls, because they are interesting and are hyped up by media outlets. That is, after all, why I mentioned the ABC/Post poll at the top of this piece, rather than one of the several other more boring polls that show narrow Clinton leads.
Second, we have no real good idea of knowing in advance of the election which of the various different polls with different results will be right. Averaging them all has proven to be a pretty good indicator of the eventual outcome in the past — though not a perfect one. (Poll averages occasionally nail the final margin but also frequently miss it by a few points.)
Where you should go to follow the race
First off, besides our handy poll updates on Vox.com, if you want to scroll through the poll averages for yourself, head over to RealClearPolitics and HuffPost Pollster. Their decisions on which polls to include and their methodologies are a bit different, with the ultimate effect that RCP’s average at this point is more about the very latest numbers (it currently shows Clinton +2.2 nationally) while HuffPost’s model changes more gradually and doesn’t drop older polls entirely (it shows Clinton +5.6 nationally).
As RCP’s Sean Trende explains on Twitter, if you believe the race has had a very serious shift recently, RCP’s average is likely to pick up on the trend more quickly, since it drops older polls out of the average altogether. HuffPost’s average, though, tends to be more stable, since it still includes older data and “smooths” the newer data into it.
At both sites, though, you can scroll through and look at all the polls they’re including in their respective data sets, as well similar averages and poll listings for every competitive state, which will help you get a better idea of the bigger picture.
Now, if you prefer models that attempt to crunch the Electoral College numbers and estimate each candidate’s probability of winning, you have many options, and the Upshot has a handy roundup of them all. Right now, five of them give Clinton an 85 percent chance or more of winning, while just one (FiveThirtyEight) puts her a bit lower but still as a solid favorite, with 74 percent.
The winner in the popular vote will usually match the winner in the states. But if you want to dig more into things and check out the latest numbers in individual states, Clinton’s easiest path to victory looks to be winning the solid blue states plus six “Lean Democrat” states.
So check on the polling averages for those six states below to see if her firewall is holding up — though keep in mind that if there hasn’t been a lot of recent polling, recent changes in the race might not be reflected there. Right now Clinton’s lead still looks relatively comfortable in all of them:
- Colorado: RCP Clinton +4, HuffPost Clinton +4.9
- Virginia: RCP Clinton +5.2, HuffPost Clinton +6.1
- Michigan: RCP Clinton +6.7, HuffPost Clinton +6.7
- Wisconsin: RCP Clinton +5.7, HuffPost Clinton +5.9
- Pennsylvania: RCP Clinton +6.0, HuffPost Clinton +6.4
- New Hampshire: RCP Clinton +5.6, HuffPost Clinton +5.3
The next group to keep an eye on is states that aren’t quite must-win for Clinton but that could help her win even if she loses one or more of the above states.
- Florida: RCP Trump +1.0, HuffPost Clinton +2.5
- North Carolina: RCP Clinton +2.6, HuffPost Clinton +2.7
- Nevada: RCP Clinton +1.0, HuffPost Clinton +2.1
- Arizona: RCP Clinton +0.6, HuffPost Trump +0.9
Finally there are a few other swing states that have leaned pro-Trump so far. Clinton doesn’t need these, but if she does manage to win them, it’s hard to see any path to victory for Trump considering how he’s polling elsewhere:
- Ohio: RCP Trump +2.5, HuffPost Clinton +0.7
- Iowa: RCP Trump +1.4, HuffPost Trump +1.1
- Georgia: RCP Trump +4.0, HuffPost Trump +2.1
Some other reminders in this last week of the election
Finally, here are a few more points to keep in mind to inform yourself how the race is going.
First, lots of people have already voted — more than 25 million, of whom more than 13 million are in swing states, according to statistics compiled by Michael McDonald at US Elections Project. In each of Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, and Colorado, ballots equal to at least 40 percent of the final 2012 vote total have already been cast. While it’s difficult to read too much into early vote data, this should definitely be kept in mind when thinking about how the race might swing in the final days.
Second, remember that what the campaigns are seeing in their private numbers may be different from what we’re seeing publicly, for reasons Matt Yglesias explored. So keep an eye out for well-sourced reporters citing what both parties are seeing in their private data, as the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns did Monday night (“Mrs. Clinton’s lead over Mr. Trump appears to have contracted modestly, but not enough to threaten her advantage over all or to make the electoral math less forbidding for Mr. Trump, Republicans and Democrats said”).
Along the same lines, look for revealing things the candidates are doing — for instance, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is now trying to mobilize Clinton-Toomey voters in Pennsylvania, a likely sign that he thinks Trump is headed for defeat there.
And finally, though poll averages are a good indicator, keep in mind that they’re not a perfect one. In the past, they’ve sometimes been spot-on but have also often been off by a few points. So if the race does continue to tighten over the ensuing days, don’t feel too confident about what the outcome will be.
Watch: The bad map we see every presidential election