Donald Trump is starting to invoke the polls again, and for good reason.
Hillary Clinton’s average lead in national polls has shrunk from eight percentage points to six since the conventions. A Fox News poll showed her lead shrink from 10 points to two, and her support is ticking downward in battlegrounds from Florida to North Carolina to Pennsylvania.
“Poll numbers way up — making big progress!” the Republican nominee tweeted Thursday.
But heading into Labor Day, the traditional kickoff of the general election, the basic contours of the 2016 presidential race remain as they were months ago despite the daily twists and drama that have defined this cycle: Trump is within reach of winning the White House, but the race is Clinton’s to lose.
That may sound absurd given the Democratic nominee’s baggage and wide unpopularity. But much of that is due to the inherent advantages Democrats have with the electoral map, and the plausible paths to winning 270 electoral votes that equal victory.
Let’s assume Trump wins the 22 states that have gone Republican in each of the past four elections and Clinton wins the 18 states that have gone Democratic in each of the past six. (Yes, we know Trump has talked about upending the conventional map and winning solidly Democratic states like New York, but that appears to be a pipe dream.)
Put the reliably red states in Trump’s column and reliably blue in Clinton’s. She starts off with 242 electoral votes to 180 for Trump. That leaves 10 potential battleground states — Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico — with a total of 116 electoral votes.
Trump practically has to sweep those states to win. But Clinton could lose every one of those states except Florida and still win the presidency. Or she could merely win Virginia (where she is heavily favored) and Ohio (where she narrowly leads). In other words, she has multiple paths, Trump doesn’t.
Demographics pose another hurdle to the Republican nominee’s path to 270, and Trump has done little to help himself by broadening his appeal.
“He’s got about an 18-point lead in the demographic of white males who are voting in this election,” Trump’s former campaign manager-turned-pundit Corey Lewandowski saidWednesday on CNN, after Trump delivered a hard-line speech on immigration after hinting he might soften his stance. “They have a high propensity of voting, and so he’s got about an 18-point lead on Hillary Clinton in that particular demographic. This speech is clearly geared at those individuals right now, to make sure they are there, he has locked them in for the election.”
Trump is on track to win an even smaller share of the Hispanic vote than the 30 percent Mitt Romney received nationally in 2012. That poor showing helped deliver states such as Florida, Nevada and Colorado to President Barack Obama, who won re-election with 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206. Polls likewise show Trump with single-digit support among African-American voters.
Even matching Romney’s 59 percent share of white voters could be a stretch, given that polls consistently show Trump struggling to win over college-educated white voters who make up about one-third of the electorate, and women in general.
The Fox News national poll released this week showed Trump leading among white voters by 13 percentage points and among white women by two percentage points. In 2012, Romney narrowly lost to Obama after winning white voters by 20 percentage points, and winning white women by 12 percentage points.
“You keep hearing this explanation from their team that he is going to run up the score with white, male voters and white voters in general,” said political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “No, he’s going to run up the score with white voters without a college education. Yeah, I agree he may set a record there, but he’s losing badly in loads of other categories.”
Susie Wiles, co-chairman of Trump’s Florida campaign and battleground state adviser to the national campaign, sounded utterly upbeat as she ticked off what’s been happening on the ground in Florida: all 67 counties organized with county leaders; an estimated 50,000 people attending Trump events over the past five weeks; 10 percent of rally attendees becoming volunteers; and Republicans outpacing Democrats in new voter registrations.
“Our people are more engaged, more enthusiastic, more plentiful, and more effective. Every metric and every trend is going in our direction,” Wiles said. “The trajectory is all in the right direction, and in some cases moving so quickly you have to look twice. It’s a very, very winnable race — in the state of Florida certainly and nationally as well.”
Looking at the battleground map as it stands now can be misleading. Some polls may show strongly Republican states like Arizona, Missouri, South Carolina and Georgia as tossups, but given the polarized electorate, it’s safe to assume most or all of those states will move back to Trump before long.
The weirdest presidential election in modern history will probably keep us laughing, cringing and shaking our heads constantly over the next two months. But, as former Obama adviser David Plouffe recently noted, the big picture clearly favors Clinton.
“Each day of this campaign seems big and interesting and crazy but ultimately least suspenseful race since 1984,” Plouffe tweeted, referring to Ronald Reagan vs Walter Mondale (525 to 13). “Forest and trees situation.”
The deeply polarized electorate makes the prospect of a landslide election like 1984 or akin to Richard Nixon vs. George McGovern in 1972 (520 to 17) or Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater in 1964 (486 to 52) unlikely.
Clinton may be the clear favorite nine weeks out, but she’s no sure thing. She remains unpopular and widely untrusted, and American voters have usually rejected giving the same party three consecutive terms in the White House. Most Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction, and national polls show Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein are hurting Clinton more than Trump.
The first televised debate on Sept. 26 could be decisive, as could any major news events. But the clock is ticking on Trump’s prospects, with Florida voting set to start in just five weeks.
The longer the billionaire celebrity allows the campaign to be a referendum on his judgment and temperament rather than on Clinton’s, the harder it will be for him to prove wrong the oddsmakers and analysts overwhelmingly expecting Clinton to win.
Contact Adam C. Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @adamsmithtimes.