Wild Polls Tighten, Then Widen
Throughout September, the polls have gradually pulled closer and closer, to the extent that the election looked almost tied mid September. That was before the first debate.
The FiveThirtyEight predictions have swung dramatically from 85% chance of a Clinton victory down to 55%, now back to roughly 82% in the former Secretary of State’s favour as of October 3rd.
So why the volatility? Partly it’s a result of two distinct media cycles.
The polls in mid September captured a very negative screenshot of Clinton’s campaign, against a backdrop of rumour and controversy over the Democratic nominee’s health, as well as her declaring half of Trump’s supporters to be in the ‘basket of deplorables’ during a fundraiser. Meanwhile, during that period Donald Trump managed to stay on message.
The second cycle kicked off after the debate. While Trump will continue to claim victory, most respectable polling reported a modest, but clear, win for Clinton. The damage for Trump really came afterwards. In the days after the debate he continued to slur former beauty queen Alicia Machado, had tax information leaked showing an almost billion dollar loss in 1995 and potential longstanding tax avoidance since then, and suffered greater controversy around the behaviours of his charitable foundation. Added to which, a number of Apprentice contestants have blasted his misogynistic actions during the TV Series.
However, while the national polls and election forecasts have been particularly volatile this year, the real predictor of the election are the states. Speaking of which…
Gaming Out Winning Scenarios
Clinton’s lead in the battleground states took a hit throughout September. Ohio was showing a consistent 4-5% lead for Trump, Georgia was once again safe territory, and Iowa looked ready to swing Republican.
Come October, some polls are now showing Clinton with a slight edge in Nevada and Ohio, and a tight race in Arizona. Donald Trump’s pathway to the presidency was always a narrow road through the swing states, but how exactly can he get to 270 electoral college votes at this point?
Win the leaning-Trump battlegrounds
The first stage of a Republican win in 2016 would require Trump to win three swing states that have tended to be more favourable to his brash populism: Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa.
Iowa and Nevada don’t command particularly large delegate hauls (6 votes each), but with the sizable Ohio this would bring Trump to 221 votes, based on the above prediction. That’s 49 votes short of the crucial 270 needed to win. The Midwestern states of Ohio and Iowa have been kind to Donald Trump, though Clinton has managed to shave Trump’s Ohio lead to around 1%. Nevada, however, is very much in play, and some post-debate polls have put Hillary ahead by as much as 6% although an average of polls show the race as tied.
Win two big toss up states
The next challenge is to eke out wins in both Florida and North Carolina. Florida, so often seen to be the key swing states in modern politics, is absolutely crucial for Donald Trump, and with North Carolina’s electoral college vote would bring Trump to 265, only 5 measly votes shy of victory.
However winning both is no easy ask. Clinton has enjoyed a decent bounce in Florida at the start of October, and is running on average around 3% higher than the billionaire. North Carolina, similarly, has recently shown a very slight leaning towards Clinton, and she Democratic candidate is spending more of her time in this crucial southern swing state.
Take a leaning Democratic state
The final piece of the puzzle, to finally get past 270 Donald Trump would need to secure five more electoral college votes, most likely from Colorado or Pennsylvania.
Recent polling has been more forgiving to Trump in these states; prior to the debate, some polls had the states virtually tied. However, in October Clinton has reasserted a lead in both states, although both will now be seen as vulnerable given the ebb of Clinton’s numbers in September.
Trump has to be virtually perfect to get to stage three; if he loses Florida, Ohio, or North Carolina – all of which are very tight run – then his route to the Oval Office may be closed. Of course, then there are the wildcards, two for each candidate.
Wisconisn (10 votes) and Michigan (16 votes). Both are Midwestern states that have suffered from industrial decline over recent years, and are therefore receptive to Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric. These two states have been reliably Democratic for years, but if Trump can crack the ‘blue wall’, he will take aim here, where some polls in Wisconsin have shown him closing the game to 4 or 5%.
Arizona (11 votes) and Georgia (16 votes). When Trump bounced back in national polling, Arizona did not follow him. The most recent polling average has the Republican nominee only roughly 1% ahead of Secretary Clinton, a minuscule lead in a formerly solid-red state. Added to which, the Arizona Republic has joined other conservative papers like the Cincinnati Enquirer and Dallas Morning News to endorse their first Democrat for the first time in its history. Trump has rebounded better in Georgia, with an average 4% lead that is equitable with the most generous polls running the opposite way in Wisconsin.
Debates and Fallout
The story following the first debate was of a Clinton win. This was no mean feat, considering how easy it was for Donald Trump to exceed expectations. The real question is whether these debates, and perhaps more importantly their aftermath, will have any effect upon polling on the result itself.
It goes without saying that both Trump and Clinton have a core audience for whom these debates will mean little; they will only confirm their perceptions of the opposition, and they will likely declare their candidate the winner in any case. Where the debates might have an impact is among key swing demographics.
The Clinton campaign will be seeking to persuade three core groups: college educated white Americans, suburban women, and young voters. In election years gone by, the first two demographics have tended to slightly favour Republicans, but Clinton has shown strength with both. With younger voters, Clinton is still seeking to capitalise on the enthusiasm inspired by former rival Bernie Sanders and earn the trust of voters who have thus far been reluctant to embrace the former Secretary of State.
Meanwhile, the post-debate interlude has sent Donald Trump into somewhat of a tailspin. Unable to stay on message during public appearances, and indulging in late-night Twitter warfare, the Republican candidate had a devastating post-debate period. He readily took the bait of Alicia Machado, a hispanic beauty queen he once allegedly referred to as Miss Piggy and Miss Housekeeping, defending himself and slurring Machado when he should have moved on swiftly.
In addition, the furore over his tax returns incited during the debate has been supported by fresh revelations of a massive – almost $1 billion – loss suffered by his businesses in 1995, which through government loopholes may have enabled him to avoid federal tax for 18 years.
That’s not to mention his clumsy, inadvertent suggestion that soldiers with PTSD were not ‘strong’, as well as his wild and unseamly attacks on Clinton’s marriage and health. Or his whining over his debate microphone and the moderator Lester Holt.
Trump is undisciplined, and the reaction of the two candidates to their own negative news cycles should tell the American people who is more suited to the responsibilities of the White House.
The Libertarian Factor
A factor that is likely being under-reported, but that will be carefully examined by historians is that of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, the third and fourth party candidates.
Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, is running with much higher levels of support than Stein, at around 7% nationally to Stein’s 2%. There has been some confusion about who exactly composes Johnson’s supporters: are they Republicans disgusted with Donald Trump’s brand of politics, or are they idealistic younger voters who refuse to embrace the Clinton candidacy?
Polls suggest Clinton benefits from a simple, two-way race, but only slightly. In a head to head with Trump as of late September she leads by 2.4%, compared with 1.6% in a four-way match up.
Steve Schmidt, former Republican campaign strategist for Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, believes this matters because voters are currently ‘parked’ in the Libertarian space. That is, once election day nears, and the reality of the Trump versus Clinton decision becomes immediate, these voters are prone to shifting towards one of the two major candidates. This is part of the reason why both Clinton and Trump need to prepare the ground for voters fleeing Johnson by appearing more trustworthy and competent on the debate stage.
Cruz Re-enters The Fold
The briefest of notes on Ted Cruz: the wily Senator from Texas has emerged from the wilderness with a new fondness for Donald Trump. Cruz made headlines earlier this year by refusing to endorse Trump at the Republican National Convention. Having sat on the sidelines in the interim, planning his own 2020 bid for the presidency, he has decided to link arms with the man who insinuated his father was involved in the JFK murder, oversaw insulting tweets being sent out about his wife, and who ridiculed him as ‘Lyin Ted throughout the Republican primaries.
Good for him.
The Silent Republicans
Yet not all Republicans are making their voices heard.
One minor headline from September than deserved more attention was that former Republican President George H.W. Bush was intending to vote for Hillary Clinton. This raises the question: how will George W., and Jeb Bush vote?
The Bush’s have no love for Donald Trump, a man who mocked and berated Jeb during the Republican primaries and criticised the legacy of George W. during his time in the White House. Added to which, Trump stands in contrast to the Bush’s eagerness to extend Republican appeal to hispanic Americans and build a more inclusive GOP.
It should also be noted that both former Bush presidents will be all too aware of the real dangers and threats facing America, and the real life implications of Donald Trump’s rash approach to diplomacy and ignorance regarding national security affairs.
But will either George W or Jeb Bush speak out before everything is said and done? Or, for that case, will Mitt Romney?
The 2012 Republican candidate is staunchly opposed to Trump and his brand of nativist politics. In the primary season Romney decided to use his platform as former GOP presidential nominee to lambast the billionaire, dubbing him a con man and a cheat unworthy of the Republican mantle. Since then Romney has been relatively quiet in public affairs.
Yet, with the prospect of President Trump looming into plausibility, perhaps these three notable Republicans will speak out against the blonde usurper of the party they hold so dear? It would be presumptuous to assume that any of these three men are intending on voting for Donald Trump; will their outrage at his demagoguery be enough to inspire them to speak out? It’s unlikely, but could be a influence in a tight race.