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Hillary Clinton & Donald Trump's Poll Numbers Will Remain Close

Jeffrey H. Anderson

For all of the recent talk about inevitability, the presidential race is still very much up for grabs. As of Sunday afternoon, the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls shows Hillary Clinton with just 48 percent support in a two-way race (to Donald Trump’s 42 percent). In a four-way race, RCP shows her with 45 percent support (to Trump’s 39 percent). The website FiveThirtyEight‘s “polls-plus forecast” gives Clinton an 83 percent chance of winning — so roll a die, and one side comes up Trump.

Moreover, post-debate polls find the candidates running neckandneck in Ohio. They find Clinton leading by only 3 points in New Hampshire and 5 points in Colorado. (Clinton is ahead by double-digits, however, in post-debate polling in Michigan.) Rasmussen’s post-debate polling finds Trump up by 2 points, whereas he was down by 5 points in Rasmussen’s (mostly) pre-debate polling. Rasmussen is only rated as a C+ poll by FiveThirtyEight, but the 7-point swing from pre- to post-debate is notable.

If the outcome of the race were truly inevitable, one would expect Clinton to be well into the 50s in the national polls at this point. (When running against John McCain, Barack Obama surpassed 50 percent in the RCP average on October 13 and spent most of the remainder of that race above that mark.) The reason she’s not is partly because of her well-known problems related to integrity, law-abidingness, and likability. But mostly they stem from this simple fact: It’s hard to point to a single political issue that favors her.

During last Sunday’s debate, issues were the focus (at least beyond the first half-hour). The ones brought up and discussed at length were, in order, Obamacare, American Muslims, the ongoing threat of Islamic terrorism, the related matter of Muslim immigration (and specifically the immigration of Syrian refugees), tax policy, Syria’s humanitarian crisis, the Supreme Court, and energy policy.

Of these, the one that seems perhaps most likely to favor Clinton is the Syrian humanitarian crisis, a pet issue of moderator Martha Raddatz (who somewhat bizarrely ended up debating the issue with Trump as if she were the Democratic nominee). Trump seemed not to have given the issue more than a moment’s thought, but then again, neither have most voters. Moreover, Clinton could easily be accused of having played a lead role in spawning it.

Beyond that, tax policy appears to be something of a draw. It certainly isn’t a slam-dunk win for either candidate (particularly since it invites discussion of Trump’s tax returns).

Every other issue seems to favor Trump, either by a clear margin (Islamic terrorism, energy policy) or a huge margin (Obamacare, Syrian immigration). Even the Supreme Court, which isn’t always an advantageous issue for Republican nominees, clearly favors Trump.

That’s because the justice to be replaced was the Court’s most prominent textualist, a Reagan appointee and a reliable vote against liberal judicial activism: Justice Antonin Scalia. This puts Trump in the politically enviable position of wanting to maintain the Court’s current balance (that is, the balance before Scalia’s death), while Clinton wants to alter it and shift it dramatically leftward. (Given all of the 5–4 rulings in recent years in which Scalia was among the 5, there can be little doubt that such a shift of balance is in play.)

That’s why, barring the release of disqualifying evidence regarding either candidate’s character, this race is likely to stay competitive — and to get closer from here. Clinton is the seasoned pol with the résumé and experience. Trump is the rough amateur with all of the issues on his side. That’s the recipe for a tight race — unless another bombshell October (or early November) surprise alters that dynamic.

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