For months, Republican rivals to Donald Trump were proclaiming that nominating him would be an electoral disaster, given the assumption he could not win a general election. Pundits have been saying the same thing, noting that Trump’s historically high unfavorable ratings, especially among women and Hispanics, would doom his general election candidacy. But recent polls show that these assessments may need dramatic revision.
There were some early signs several weeks ago that suggested Trump might be more competitive in a general election than some soothsayers were predicting. There was a George Washington University Battleground poll that had shown Clinton with a statistically insignificant three-point lead over Trump, a Quinnipiac poll taken in early May that showed Clinton and Trump running dead even in the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and an earlier Rasmussen poll—later widely dismissed—that showed Clinton and Trump in a dead heat. But for months, most national polls have shown Trump trailing by anywhere from 8 to 12 points among registered voters, a margin confirmed by the Real Clear Politics (RCP) polling average, and which, for a stretch from February to April, had Clinton leading in every head-to-head matchup.
That appears to have changed—and changed dramatically. Within the last 10 days, five polls have shown the race essentially a dead heat, with Trump actually leading by statistically insignificant margins in three of these polls.
- The Wall Street Journal-NBC News: Clinton 46-Trump 43
- The Washington Post—ABC News: Clinton 44-Trump 46
- Fox News: Clinton 42-Trump 45
- Rasmussen: Clinton 37-Trump 42
- The New York Times—CBS News: Clinton 47-Trump 41
Taken together, the average for the five polls is a dead-even 43-43.
So what is going on? Simply put, the 2016 campaign illustrates the risk of paying too much attention to very early polls in an election year as volatile as this one. This is not to say that polls taken early in an election year are never a harbinger of the final outcome, though. After all, the polls taken in 1984 (Ronald Reagan-Walter Mondale), 1996 (Bill Clinton-Bob Dole), and, with a couple of exceptions, 2012 (Barack Obama-Mitt Romney), showed a very stable race—for the most part—from beginning to end. Voters tended to make up their minds early, and didn’t waver in their support. In some cases, such as 1984, Reagan was leading narrowly over Mondale early in the year, was tied with Mondale immediately following the Democratic Convention (the traditional convention bounce), then began to pull away in September and October, winning eventually by 18 points. The 2000 election for the most part saw the polls indicating a competitive election pretty much from beginning to end.
In contrast, Gerald Ford trailed badly against Jimmy Carter as late as September of 1976, but ended up barely losing. Had he carried Ohio, which he lost by a few thousand votes, he would have won. Reagan trailed Carter by as much as 25 points at one time early in the 1980 election cycle, and trailed by double digits at this point in 1980, but went on to win by 10 points. George H.W. Bush trailed Michael Dukakis consistently in the early matchups during the 1988 race, yet won easily over him.
What appears to be happening is that the end of the bitter Republican primary battle has allowed Trump the opportunity to solidify his support among Republicans, and in doing so, his favorability ratings have risen, while Clinton’s unfavorable ratings have remained relatively constant, or in some polls, her favorability has deteriorated. The Fox News Poll shows 61% with an unfavorable view of Clinton vs. 56% unfavorable for Trump. The Washington Post-ABC poll shows that 60% of voters view Trump unfavorably, while 53% view Clinton unfavorably, which are nonetheless astronomically high for both candidates. In some respects, it is remarkable that, given the personal nature of the attacks directed by Trump at his rivals, and in some cases by Trump’s rivals against him, the GOP has come together so quickly, although there are still wounds that will take month—if not years—to heal. Clinton, on the other hand, is suffering from the continuation of a long primary struggle against an opponent unwilling to concede and who gives every indication of being willing to fight all the way to the convention.
Trump still has his work cut out for him, though. The Washington Post-ABC News poll had a staggering 58% of respondents saying Trump is unqualified to be president. So, the same poll that gives Trump a slight—albeit statistically insignificant—lead also has a solid majority saying he should not set foot in the Oval Office (at least as president). Indeed, the unfavorable ratings for both candidates are breathtaking. Never has there been a presidential election since the advent of modern polling (although the favorability question has only been asked for about 20 years) where both major candidates were so disliked.
Something few observers have mentioned, however, is that most of these surveys are still polling registered—as opposed to likely—voters (Rasmussen being the exception). This is important because Republican candidates tend to do better, historically, in surveys that are limited to those whom pollsters deem most likely to actually vote. If past experience holds true, Trump’s position may be even stronger than the top-line numbers would suggest. Now, there may be some reason to think this year is different, to the extent that some of Trump’s support might be coming from those who have never participated in the political process, or participate only fitfully. At this point, however, that seems to be a highly speculative assertion. And, Trump, who just might have a bit more upside potential than Clinton, could benefit substantially from a successful convention and a well-received vice-presidential selection.
Given the dissatisfaction with Trump and Clinton, this would be the ideal year for a third-party or well-funded independent candidate, but at this point, the window of opportunity for someone to jump into the race is closing. Even Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson just might be able to get more than the usual 1% or 2% of the vote nationwide, as disgruntled voters look around for an alternative (though his ceiling is probably 4% to 5%, tops). While Johnson has absolutely no chance of winning, he just might pull enough of the vote in key states like Florida or elsewhere to make a difference.
Barring a dramatic turn of events, however, the 2016 race is shaping up as highly competitive, and those saying Trump had no chance of winning really need to reevaluate their position. It is shaping up as an incredibly interesting campaign.
Dr. Euel Elliott is a professor of public policy and political economy and the associate dean in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. He is the author of the soon-to-be published books,Paths not Taken: The What Ifs of American History from theWar for Independence to the Bush-Gore Election andAdventures of Maia Neeri of the 24th Century.