Some Thoughts on the Polls For Dems in Mid-Freak-Out

The first perspective to have on the polls is that the polls have been slowly trending in Trump’s direction for a few weeks. That is happening. There are various sources of noisiness in the data. But when you step way back the trend in Trump’s direction is real and indisputable.

It’s particularly disquieting from a Democratic perspective to see Trump now holding apparent leads, albeit small ones, in Florida and Ohio. As we know, from sad history, winning Florida and Ohio (by whatever means) made George W. Bush president twice.

But there are some significant differences between then and now. In the intervening years, there have been significant changes in the electoral map which gave Democrats very plausible paths to victory even if they did lose both Florida and Ohio. The key is their upper south beachhead in Virginia and North Carolina as well as a strong hold on Colorado. There are other states that are in the mix too. But those are the big three. The upshot is that Democrats can very plausibly lose those two states and still win the election. That said, it would create a dramatically closer race. And it’s a very big deal if Trump opens up real leads there.

Scared yet?

Let’s talk a little more.

There’s another part of the story. As I noted in my other post, another national poll, from another premium pollster (Quinnipiac) came out today showing Clinton up 5 points nationwide. And Quinnipiac has tended to have a moderate GOP ‘house effect’, which means their results have been friendlier to Republicans. (Quinnipiac’s previous poll from the third week of August had Clinton +10 in a two person race. That’s a substantial move in Trump’s direction but still a significant Clinton lead.) That comes a few days after the WaPo/ABC poll – another premium phone poll – showing Clinton +5 in a four way race and Clinton +8 in a two way race.

Here’s the trend chart of the national horse race numbers going back to the beginning of July. They actually show a mild Clinton uptick.

It’s possible that those polls of Ohio and Florida, also by premium phone pollers, are going to show up in tighter national numbers. It’s also possible that Clinton had a really bad weekend which either temporarily depressed her numbers or shifted something substantial in the race. There’s another possibility. To date we’ve seen lots of oscillations in the polls over months. In the national horse race numbers Clinton has had as much as a 10 point lead and as little as a 1 point or sub-1 point lead. But Trump has never moved even into a tie, let alone an actual lead.

Note the pattern here going back to last year. Call it the Clinton Wall …

That’s been the most consistent fact of the cycle. We may simply be at the upper end of that oscillation. Indeed, going by the absolute numbers, we’re not even that close. Clinton’s margin is currently 3.4 points.

One thing to keep in mind. It is possible but not at all likely that the results of the national popular vote and the electoral college vote will diverge. It’s obviously possible. It happened 16 years ago. But it is not at all likely. So if you’re thinking the electoral vote will hold out against the popular vote or vice versa, you’re fooling yourself. If you think the Dems have an ‘electoral lock’ that will defy the popular vote, you’re fooling yourself.

The truth is I don’t think we have enough data to know whether this is another pro-Trump oscillation or the beginning of a real shift that makes a Trump victory substantially more likely. The polls tell us clearly that Trump has closed a substantial part of the gap that opened up in August. It’s not clear he’s made headway on breaking through the wall he’s been locked under all year. It is also important to note that as of now, even with the states he’s doing well in, he still has to essentially run the electoral board to win the presidency. I continue to believe that there are structural factors with voting blocs that makes a Trump victory unlikely. But theories always need to give way to data. I will be watching the numbers over the next week to see if that calculus changes and whether Clinton seems to have sustained either temporary or longerstanding damage from her rough weekend and being off the campaign trail for a few days.

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