Why the Poll Tightening?

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May 17, 2016 9:52 a.m.

National horse race numbers are easy to over-interpret this early in the cycle. A few polls shouldn’t affect our sense of the race too much. But there’s no question that there’s been a small but significant tightening of the Clinton v Trump polls over the last week or so. So why is that?

I think the reason is pretty clear. But before we get to that: one key caveat. We’re in a period of changing polling technologies and methodologies. All the polls to date which show this tightening have been various kinds of Internet polls. I’m pretty pro-Internet polls. They’ve had a strong track record over recent elections. But we’ve yet to see a major media poll during this period of tightening. The last, as far as I can see, was the CNN/ORC poll from more than two weeks ago which showed a pretty massive Clinton lead: Clinton 54% to Trump 41%.

Still, here’s what I think we’re seeing. Once the primary contests end, both candidates get a bump when their parties start to consolidate around them. But only one primary cycle is over. Hillary supporters and math supporters may say, well, c’mon, it’s definitely over. The math is the math. But that’s not really the standard. It’s really over when all the candidates agree that it’s over. The Sanders campaign does not see it as over and neither do their supporters. That shows up even in general election polls and in Clinton’s favorability numbers.

In other words, the consolidation phase – at least for now – is disproportionately helping one side: Trump. Trump, meanwhile, is doing better than I think many would have expected in unifying the GOP. He’s still doing pretty poorly at the elected official level where he’s getting grudging or something like coerced support. But with Republican voters? They’re getting on board.

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