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What Do the Presidential Polls Really Show?

by Bruce Haring

Back when the presidential candidates were still competing with members of their own party to become the nominee, Republican contender Donald Trump held a runaway lead — by a landslide.  He managed to mention this in every speech, at every rally and in every interview — no matter what the question was — and of course, in each and every one of his tweets and re-tweets.

But times have changed since those days when he blew his Republican rivals out of the water.  This is the general election, and with only one other major party contender, and plenty of recent gaffes on the campaign trail, Trump is not finding the going so easy.  In fact, since a brief bump from the GOP convention, the Republican nominee is currently losing in almost every poll.

It’s gotten so bad that several times in the last few months Trump’s triumphantly tweeted that he’s only losing by a small percentage.  “It’s just a 2-point race, Clinton 38%, Trump 36%,” he tweeted on August 16 from a campaign stop in Milwaukee.  A far cry from the “yuge” numbers he was touting last winter.

Of course, poll numbers depend on whom you ask and when you ask them.  Trump continues to lose among women and non-white voters, and an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed only one percent of black voters backing him.  Clinton, on the other hand, is trailing among white men — especially Trump’s base demographic of working class white men; his staunchest supporters. In this category, Trump leads 49% to Clinton’s 36%.

But overall?  The nod goes to Clinton.  The Democratic nominee has found herself leading the polls by double digits several times recently — especially when Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip style gets him in hot water.  Examples of self-dealt wounds include his assertion that President Obama founded ISIS; his public feud with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq; and his implied suggestion that the “Second Amendment people” could keep Hillary Clinton from appointing liberal judges.  After several failed attempts to be “more presidential” there’s no reason to think Trump will change his style now.

In an August 9 NBC News/Survey Monkey poll Clinton was leading overall 51% to Trump’s 41%.  That lead dropped to a 6%, however, when third-party candidates were included in the poll. As both candidates focus on key swing states, an August 17 Quinnipiac University poll showed Clinton with a double-digit lead in Virginia and Colorado but just three points ahead in Iowa.

Monthly Gallup polls from 1936 to 2012 have shown that historically candidates leading in the polls in September “usually” went on to win the election.  Notable exceptions are Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman.   And in elections since 1952, Gallup shows that the candidate with the lead before the August conventions has won 12 of the last 15 presidential elections.  This year that would be Hillary Clinton.

Gallup didn’t conduct their poll this year, but a New York Times polling model by The Upshot gives Hillary Clinton an 87% chance of becoming president.  To put those odds in perspective, The Upshot says Clinton’s probability of losing is roughly the same as the chances of an NFL kicker missing a field goal from the 20-yard line.

Trump meanwhile has latched on to the polls that show him in the best light, denouncing a recent CNN poll as “phony.”  And the media reporting these results?  They’re “crooked,” “disgusting,” and “corrupt” according to the beleaguered candidate.

With less than three months left to go in the presidential race, a lot of things could happen to swing the results in favor of either candidate.  And with disapproval ratings high for both candidates (34% for Clinton and 51% for Trump), the biggest factor may come down to voter turnout — and whether those poll respondents of today feel strongly enough to show up and cast their ballots in November.


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