A Few Deep Breaths

I wanted to make a few comments about the very bad run of polls Hillary Clinton has had over the last week. As I think regular readers know, I try to always remain a poll realist and resist partisan wishful thinking. Particularly I frequently shoot people down who have some explanation of why the latest bad poll isn’t really bad because something in the numbers is wrong. This is why I’ve repeatedly dismissed efforts to look at poll internals and show how they can’t be right because they don’t include enough of this or that group. Dems did that in 2004, Republicans did it in 2008 and 2012 and until about a week ago in 2016.

A lot of this penchant to ‘de-skew’ polls you don’t like is based on a basic misunderstanding of how polls work. You can see things about polls looking at their crosstabs, partisan balance, demographic make up and more. What people often don’t fully realize is that these ‘weights’ of different groups aren’t set in stone or formulas pollsters do or not press onto the data. The data pollsters get from the phone calls can shift the models. Opinions and motivation can change in ways that make the crosstabs and composition of the electorate change too in ways that would surprise us and not seem ‘right’. TL;dr: Heraclitus, things change. In any case, your wishful thinking is going to be a very bad guide to untangling that skein of data. Don’t try to unskew polls. Watch the averages.

I also have another contending imperative: fundamental honesty with readers. This is something I’ve discussed with numerous staffers over many years. And it’s something I’ve tried to apply in running this organization. Obviously reporters should never lie or be dishonest. That’s obvious and not what I’m talking about. This is more than that. To me it means pushing as much information as possible to readers, within the bounds of source confidences, confirmation of basic facts, and so forth. It’s one reason I write in the first person rather than in the disembodied third person. It’s also why we sometimes narrate not just what happened but how we found out what happened, how we did the reporting.

In any case, after looking at all the data over the last few days I’m less freaked that a lot of my friends about the state of the race. In some ways, I’d prefer to just keep my powder dry because if Trump is moving into a lead maybe I’ll have egg on my face since obviously Clinton still being in a good position is very much what I personally want to be the case. But the reality is that this is what I think right now, based on what I think is a reasonable interpretation of poll data, history and demography. So I wanted to share it with you. Maybe I’ll seem prescient or silly. But the reality is this is what I think right now.

So here are three reasons why I’m still fairly confident, though by no means sure, that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States, despite the rapidly closing gap between the two candidates.

News Events Can Dramatically Affect Enthusiasm

Clinton has come off an awful few weeks. She took a bunch of days off the campaign trail for fundraisers. Then she had a media storm with “deplorables”, then she collapses on camera, was diagnosed with pneumonia and then spent three or four days totally off camera and off the campaign trail. These events may hurt Clinton. They may damage her campaign fatally. But a more likely explanation of the rapid shift in the polls is that they sharply demoralized her supporters and shook free her least committed supporters. That shows up in likely voter models; it leads to differential poll response. This does not mean the polls are wrong. It means they are accurately measuring the effect of those events. But there is good reason to think that it may be ephemeral because it is more as much a shift in enthusiasm and engagement than opinion. (We’ve even noticed a significant drop in TPM traffic since Clinton’s fainting spell. We’ve seen this happen before when our readers think the news sucks and some just tune out. No, I’m not basing this theory on TPM’s traffic. I just think it’s part of a common phenomenon.)

We even saw something similar after the notorious first 2012 debate when President Obama forgot to bring his Obama up on stage and was roundly viewed as having a bad night. The subsequent shift in the polls was less a shift in the state of the race as Obama supporters getting very demoralized and Romney supporters getting very pumped.

Third Party Candidates

As I mentioned yesterday, one of the biggest drags on Clinton’s support at the moment is that she’s being disproportionately affected by third party candidates Johnson and Stein. This is not surprising since third party support is being drawn disproportionately from voters under thirty – a key part of the Democratic coalition. Trump is not expanding the Republican coalition. In fact, he’s not holding a lot of voters who voted for Romney. Clinton, at the moment, is failing to unite the Obama coalition. That’s very bad news for Clinton. But there’s a flip side of that equation. By definition, everyone who is supporting Johnson or Stein doesn’t like Clinton or Trump. But in extremis, the most of these voters look more like Hillary voters than Trump voters. We know this anecdotally from interviews and also statistically from polls: Clinton’s margin drops when poll respondents are given the option of all four candidates rather than just the two. What does this mean? It may mean we’re looking at a catastrophic replay of 2000 in which Trump is able to win the election by solidifying the GOP base while the Democratic coalition splinters across three candidates and pulls Clinton just below Trump. (Yikes!). But here’s the thing to remember. All our historical experience shows that third party candidates tend to fade toward the end of the campaign. This was true in 1968, 1980, 1996, 2000, etc.

We are also dealing with two historically unpopular candidates and a very unsettled electorate. This is a fact whether you think it’s fair or not. So I assume we’ll have the largest percentage of votes go to third party candidates since 1996. But it is also likely, though not certain, that a significant number of third party supporters will swing back to major candidates in the final stretch. And there’s good reason to believe more will go to Clinton than Trump.

The Hillary Wall

This is a live updating trend chart of the popular vote polls for the 2016 presidential election contest. (That means it may have changed by the time you read this post – hopefully not in a way that makes me look silly!) As I write, Donald Trump has a .1% lead on Hillary Clinton. This is a trend chart rather than an average. That has a specific technical meaning. The average ‘today’ may change for ‘today’ based on polls tomorrow or the next day. It’s not a true average. It’s a trend estimate created by something a ‘regression analysis.’ PollTracker and Huffpollster use different flavors of the same kind of formula. I’m sure Nate Silver does too. Trump has I believe twice had one or two day leads under 1 percentage point. But they’ve never been sustained. As you can see, Clinton’s lead has ranged from as much as 10 points to a virtual tie. We’ve had several of these oscillations. Trump keeps hitting the same wall. I suspect that wall is made up of large percentages of young voters, non-white voters, non-Christian voters, female voters and to an extent college educated voters (obviously, all overlapping groups) who will not support Donald Trump. It’s the most consistent pattern of the whole presidential cycle.

Now, if Trump moves into a 3 point lead over the next few days and stays there then we’ll know something fundamentally has changed. But we’ve seen him bounce off that wall at least twice so far. So until we do see that I’m going to assume we’re still operating in that framework.

What this all comes down to is that even after a stretch of time when he’s had everything possible going for him, he still hasn’t broken through that wall. With everything running in his favor and against Clinton, he’s still only tied and maybe not even that. He still hasn’t broken through that wall. And I suspect he won’t.

What are some less optimistic scenarios? Trump has become more disciplined on the campaign trail. True, it’s a bar that’s basically level with the floor. But he’s no longer doing a Curiel or Khans blowout every few weeks, though today’s birther thing may end up qualifying. Maybe the constant attacks on Hillary Clinton will break away enough young voters that Trump will be able to win the election with 43% or 44% of the vote. (That’s actually my biggest worry.) Or maybe there’s just something afoot in the electorate that is creating a situation in which unless he does something completely nuts every two or three weeks he’ll move into a plurality lead. Each of these possibilities concern me deeply. Do I think this race is in the bag? Not remotely. You can’t look at the polls and think that. My concern is as much as anything heightened by the belief that the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States could be an extinction level event for our form of government. Likely? No, I don’t think so. But possible? Yes. So anything that makes that looks possible is terrifying. Yet, looking at all the information before me, as I said, I think Hillary Clinton remains in a good position to win in November.

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