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Recent polls suggest Hillary Clinton is still on track to win — but just barely

Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The presidential race is very close both nationally and in swing states, and though Hillary Clinton appears to have a narrow edge, she doesn’t have much room for error, according to the latest polling averages.

The good news for Clinton is that her recent decline in the polls seems to have halted, for now at least. She apparently has a low single-digit national lead over Donald Trump, and still holds consistent poll leads in enough — just enough — states to give her the presidency.

Yet her bad news is that she remains locked in a tight race and has little room for error, particularly in Electoral College math that no longer looks quite so favorable for her as it once did.

So the big picture is that Clinton remains the favorite to win, as she has been all year. But her lead can no longer be considered truly comfortable.

The national outlook

If you’re reading stories about individual polls that you happen to notice on social media, you might get the impression of a wildly swinging race — especially because the most shocking results tend to get the most attention. Trump was up 7 points in the LA Times/USC tracking poll last week! But now Clinton is up 7 in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this week!

So it’s better to look at the averages of polls, to get a broader sense of what’s out there, rather than cherry-picking. Both HuffPost Pollster and RealClearPolitics do a great job with this, though their methodologies somewhat differ. (They have different rules about which polls they’ve chosen to include, and HuffPost’s tends to swing less quickly because it doesn’t drop older polls from its average entirely like RCP does.)

And they both tell a similar story — Clinton has led more polls than Trump in recent weeks, but it’s close. HuffPost’s average puts her ahead by 4 in a one-on-one matchup with Trump; RCP’s has her up by 2.6. But when HuffPost adds Gary Johnson, Clinton’s margin shrinks to 2.2 points, and when RCP adds Johnson and Jill Stein, Clinton is up by just 1.6.

What’s going on in the states

Of course, it’s not the national margin but rather the swing states that really matter. And there, Clinton’s easiest path to top 270 electoral votes appears essentially unchanged from where it was in mid-August.

There are six key swing states Clinton needs to win to get there, and she still appears to be ahead by at least a few points in all of them. Here are her recent polling averages there as of Thursday afternoon:

  1. Michigan HuffPost: Clinton +4.4, RCP: Clinton +5.2
  2. WisconsinHuffPost: Clinton +5.2, RCP: Clinton +4.7
  3. ColoradoHuffPost: Clinton +4.0, RCP: Clinton +3.7
  4. VirginiaHuffPost: Clinton +6.4, RCP: Clinton +6
  5. New HampshireHuffPost: Clinton +5.6, RCP: Clinton +5
  6. Pennsylvania HuffPost: Clinton +5.9, RCP: Clinton +6.6

Now, note that in some of these states, there’s been very little new polling in the past few weeks, so these averages may be a bit out of date. Still, the new polling that has come in recently has overall tended to affirm that Clinton remains ahead in these six states, even though they’ve definitely gotten closer in the past month. (Colorado is perhaps the biggest question mark.)

Clinton would, of course, also need to win the other solidly Democratic states in this scenario to top 270 votes. And the one hitch that’s arisen lately for her there is that there are some polls indicating that Maine, which wasn’t previously a swing state, is actually looking kinda close. But Maine is actually a tad less important, because the state allots two of its four electoral votes to congressional district winners, and Clinton is near certain to win the first district.

So if Clinton shockingly loses Maine but wins that first district, wins those six key states above, and loses the remaining swing states to Trump, that would give her exactly the 270 electoral votes she needs to win — by the skin of her teeth:

To be clear, this does not seem to be the most likely map, as Clinton is leading in most polls of Maine. Furthermore, there are three other close swing states — Florida, North Carolina, and Nevada — that all appear to be total toss-ups at this point, with polling averages showing the differences between Clinton and Trump as 2 points or less. Clinton could well win any or all of these states, and if she does, that would give her a more comfortable margin of victory than the one in this map.

However, the other two traditional swing states — Ohio and Iowa — now seem to be sliding into Trump’s hands, with the GOP nominee leading the vast majority of recent polls in these states, often by sizable margins. These aren’t must-win states for Clinton, but they’re certainly must-win for Trump unless he cracks Clinton’s leads in some of the states where she’s currently solidly ahead.

So Clinton still seems to retain the advantage nationally and in the Electoral College math, but she and Democrats shouldn’t feel too comfortable. There’s ample precedent for polling averages to be a few points off. Plus, we don’t yet know how the debates will turn out, or whether some unforeseen news event could benefit one candidate or another.