Real Clear Politics analyst David Byler published a timely essay on Wednesday on the growing discrepancy between national polls of a Trump versus Clinton race, which continue to suggest a forthcoming Clinton blowout, and state-level polls that don’t. Byler offered some compelling reasons for why this might be the case but concluded that he didn’t know the answer and neither did anyone else. Uncertainty reigns. But is that uncertainty warranted or is it merely the aftershock from a primary race that unfolded in a way few political observers expected? The latter, more likely. The polls, which have been relatively accurate in 2016, indicate the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will not be a squeaker.
There is one consistent story being told in both national and state-level polling. It is that Donald Trump has won the support of approximately 40 percent of the voting public, and he is having tremendous difficulty winning over a greater share of the electorate. If the election were held today, that would result in a disaster for both Trump and the party he leads. Though Trump is today in a bit of a trough—one which might be fueled by some artless comments on his part and, thus, may not be long-lived—Trump has never crested 45 percent in the Real Clear Politics polling average. The high water mark for Trump—44.3 percent—was reached in December of last year.
When plotted out in a line graph, the pattern looks familiar. It looks very much like the polls in 2012, in which Mitt Romney consistently trailed Barack Obama and only closed the gap in the final month before the general election to create the illusion of a competitive race. In the end, Barack Obama out-performed his final RCP average by 3.2 points. The polls of 2016 also look remarkably like the polls of the race for the White House in 2008. The race to replace George W. Bush was never an especially competitive contest, save for the earliest part of the year when Hillary Clinton was still assumed to be the likely Democratic nominee. Like Romney, John McCain enjoyed a short-lived bounce out of the convention, but his brief and tenuous lead was not to last. The summer of 2004 gave John Kerry a prolonged bounce in the polls that had previously shown the race narrowly favoring President Bush’s reelection. That bounce disappeared after the GOP nominating convention and Bush then enjoyed a resurgence that never dissipated.
No one wants to whistle past any graveyards here, so it must be noted—as some have—that one reason Trump’s state and national-level polls differ so appreciably is that he may be well and truly remaking the map. Trump’s weakness among Hispanic voters has rendered his support soft in the Southwest, for example, while he is likely to perform better than the average Republican in the Rust Belt and New England, due to his support among white voters. Is that enough to pull off an upset? Not at the moment.
Those who want to argue that the polls are simply off or under-sampling the voters that will carry Trump to an unexpected victory must explain then why the polls of the primary race were not wrong. Political analysts who have been performing mea culpas for betting against Donald Trump in the primaries specifically ignored the data in favor of amorphous institutional and structural factors that never materialized.
Barring a paradigm-shifting event, the race for the White House in 2016 between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is shaping up to be a predictable one. For political observers, that might be the most terrifying revelation of all. The 2016 race that began as such a thrill may end as a crushing bore.