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Why Is Trump Gaining On Clinton?

In this week’s politics chat, we talk about why the presidential race has tightened. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone, to our first post-Labor Day politics chat. Things are afoot! And we’re here to talk about them. Our question for today: Why is Donald Trump gaining on Hillary Clinton in the polls?

To set us up, Harry, briefly describe how the race has shifted since the conventions.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I hope no one is wearing linen and/or white to this chat.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Clinton got a large convention bounce. In our polls-only model, for example, Clinton got as high as an 89 percent chance of winning and was projected to win the national vote by 8.6 percentage points. But since mid-August, her chances have fallen steadily. Right now, she’s at a 69 percent chance of winning and only is projected to win the national vote by 3.9 percentage points.

micah: So, let’s talk causes, then we can talk about where Trump’s gains have come from. Can we point to any one or two things to explain the race tightening?

clare.malone: I think it’s not so much what Trump has been doing, so much as Clinton has been the top story in most news cycles these last couple of weeks, and she’s not being portrayed in a flattering light, generally speaking.

Trump had a rough go after the conventions, and Clinton just sorta laid back and let him run his mouth for a while. But now, the Clinton Foundation stuff is raising itself as a specter in her campaign — whodathunk a charitable foundation would prove to have such nefarious connotations! But things like the AP story that went viral about her supposed “pay to play” with people at the State Department didn’t play well.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I don’t think there’s any one cause — and if you look at the data, it suggests both some gains for Trump and some decline for Clinton.

harry: To Clare’s point, I think it’s what we’ve spoken about before: Both of these candidates are flawed. The American public isn’t in love with either one. When they are reminded of a candidate’s flaws, they seem to oscillate back to undecided or towards the other candidate. In this case, we’re back to where we were pre-conventions. But I haven’t seen Trump breakthrough yet in ways he hasn’t before.

clare.malone: Is the number of undecideds right now on-track historically? Or is it out of the norm?

natesilver: No, it’s way higher, at least compared to recent elections. You have 18-20 percent of the electorate that’s either undecided or voting for one of the (largely anonymous) third-party candidates. That figure was like 5-10 percent at a comparable point four years ago. People largely ignore that, because they get focused on the margin between Clinton and Trump, when it’s maybe like the most important thing right now.

micah: So, this seems like a good point to bring up the Gary Johnson gaffe…

clare.malone: Mitt Romney tweeted this yesterday:

And then….

Gary Johnson asked “What is Aleppo?” in an interview … and not in response to a “Jeopardy!” question. I also think we should be fair to him, though — he released this statement earlier this morning where he basically said his brain had been in a space where he thought “Aleppo” was an acronym. That kind of brain fart seems pretty plausible to me, especially since he’s not engaging in a full-court press campaign, where he’s constantly guarded — it’s a much more laid-back operation.

harry: According to Huffington Post/, 53 percent of Americans are undecided when asked whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of Johnson. The Aleppo “gaffe” probably doesn’t help. But the third-party stuff at this point seems as much about the major party candidates than anything Johnson or Jill Stein has done themselves.

natesilver: Trump’s whole strategy in the primaries was basically to make gaffes like that and then get more media coverage as a result. So maybe it will help Johnson? I’m being flip, but he and Stein are basically getting votes as no-name alternatives right now, and not because people like their policies per se.

micah: So, let’s put a bow on the Johnson thing: Any predictions on whether it will affect the horse race? Or if so, how?

natesilver: It’s plausible that some Johnson/Stein voters could begin to drift back into the Clinton camp if the race looks like it’s tightened up and she might need their votes. I’m not sure it will have that much to do with Aleppo-gate, though.

harry: I tend to think it won’t impact the race.

clare.malone: I will third that. I think people don’t know that much about Johnson yet, and they won’t really unless he gets on the debate stage.

micah: OK, so back to Trump-Clinton: As Harry said, Clinton’s margin is essentially back to where it was before the conventions — do you think this is where the natural equilibrium of the race is? (Clinton up 3-4 points.)

natesilver: I don’t make a lot of presumptions about where the equilibrium is, although it’s worth noting that over the very long term, Clinton’s lead is a bit larger than it is now — it has been about 5 points, on average, throughout the campaign.

clare.malone: I think she’s at a low ebb right now… I kinda feel like the debates could be good for her. In the same way that the convention was good for her. She’s the kind of person who preps like crazy for those sorts of things and I think she, unlike Matt Lauer, will certainly be calling BS on a lot of Trump statements.

micah: The Lauer stuff was ridic.

I’ll be the presumptuous one though: The fundamentals of this race, as Harry wrote yesterday, suggest a Clinton edge of about 1 point. Then I think you add 3-4 points because Trump is a historically awful candidate. So, all else being equal, I think the race oscillates around a +4-5 Clinton edge.

natesilver: Well, maybe. I think you start at Clinton +1, add 10 points for Trump being a really awful candidate, then subtract 7 for Clinton being a bad candidate too.

But there’s a margin of uncertainty around all those things, which is why anything from a narrow Trump win to a 10-point Clinton win wouldn’t be that surprising.

micah: Clinton has had some bad news cycles, as Clare said, so she’s a bit below the default now.

clare.malone: This sounds like that “math exercise” about how old or young you’re allowed to date.

micah: What’s that math, Clare?

harry: (28/2) +7 = 21.

clare.malone: That thing.

natesilver: I do think there’s something to the notion that — at least in terms of the media coverage — it’s maybe not the worst thing for the media to have “gotten this out of their system” on Clinton, so they might be ready for a Clinton comeback story by the time of the debate.

clare.malone: Hm. Well, I think that David Axelrod made a legit point on Twitter earlier — he said this Lauer screw up might put the fear of God in the other debate moderators:

The idea that they need to come prepared to fact-check like crazy.

natesilver: Here’s the thing: Historically, the challenging-party candidate (Trump in this case) has gained ground after the first debate. But the first debate is usually held about a month after the incumbent party’s convention. There’s a much bigger gap this year. So maybe the challenging party’s debate bounce is actually the incumbent party’s convention bounce wearing off? And this year, without a debate, the convention bounce wore off gradually instead?

micah: Nate, does that apply when there’s no incumbent running too?

clare.malone: I just don’t see any way how the debate is good for Trump. Does anyone have a theory?

natesilver: THE EXPECTATIONS GAME. Journalists will use phrases like “the expectations game” to basically justify a biased interpretation of the debate.

micah: That, and: The first debate typically hurts the incumbent president because it puts the challenger on the same level as the president — something like that could apply to Trump too, right?

clare.malone: But… the expectations game is usually about the finer points of debating. (Which I know you know about, Nate!) Trump literally lacks a handle on basic facts.

He’s good on his feet, but he’s got cotton-candy talking points, not steak-and-potato ones.

harry: Things happen. In this case, Trump says nothing racist, pronounces the name of a foreign country correctly and boom!

natesilver: I’m just saying, the media could “call” the first debate for Trump even if that’s false.

clare.malone: Doesn’t that become apparent during a two-hour television event?

micah: I’m not sure the debates are that effective at sussing out substance.

clare.malone: But I think general election debates are very different from primary season ones, especially this primary season’s. Ted Cruz was drafting off Trump for most of the primary and not calling him out.

micah: Sarah Palin and Joe Biden tied in their debate in 2008, according to the media.

natesilver: Actually, I think the media was ready to declare Palin the winner of that debate, until polls started saying otherwise.

micah: We have to save this debate talk though.

clare.malone: lol, like it’s cake and ice cream for a very special occasion.

micah: Back to the tightening polls! Nate, you said earlier that Clinton’s support has dipped a little and Trump’s support has risen a little. Can we say anything about which types of voters they’re losing and gaining, respectively?

natesilver: Perhaps not a lot. There’s some evidence that Trump is regaining ground with Republicans more than with other groups.

harry: Trump’s doing a little better with Republicans, while Clinton is doing a little worse among Democrats if you look at the aggregates.

clare.malone: Is this the whole people tuning in after the summer thing? I feel like I’ve heard countless people say, “We just have to wait until voters get their kids back to school and then they’ll pay attention to the election.” Once they see what they’ve been missing, it might turn into “tune in, drop out, man.”

natesilver: I can tell you from looking at FiveThirtyEight’s traffic over the years that interest usually takes a big step up as of the conventions, and then steadily increases from there. But again, maybe the timing has been a bit thrown off by the early conventions.

clare.malone: And the Olympics.

harry: Freaking Olympics.

clare.malone: And Taylor Swift breaking up AGAIN.

natesilver: What is Taylor Swift? I’m just kidding. I know who she is.

harry: That was the 49ers’ secret weapon. The John Taylor swift.

natesilver: I did at one point think Zephyr Teachout was a thing and not a person.

clare.malone: hah! The best name in politics, hands down.

natesilver: Like: Let’s go to the Zephyr Teachout in Park Slope tonight! It’ll be groovy.

clare.malone: It’s even better than a kid who went to my high school whose name was “Cleveland Brown.”

harry: One thing I’ll point out is we’re after Labor Day now. We’re after the conventions now. And Clinton still holds the lead and a significant one at that. Trump still has work to do. He’s got room to improve among Republicans, but he’s a very unpopular politician. He also has no real ground game compared to Clinton. He can win, but I wonder how he would win.

clare.malone: PBS NewsHour had a thing on his ground game a little while back. She has 291 campaign offices in battleground states; he has 88.

natesilver: Well, if Trump only has to get 44 percent of the vote to win, instead of 50 percent, because there’s a big third-party vote, that makes it a lot easier.

How does Trump win? It’s on the margin rather than with some brilliant strategy, I think. Stay relatively gaffe-free and you’ll probably get a few reluctant Republicans to come home to you. Keep that trust question about Clinton forefront in voters’ minds. Maybe you both go into Election Day with a 40-ish percent favorability rating. And then the third-party voters and the swing states break in a way that’s favorable for you.

Now, that marginal strategy would work a lot better if Trump had a better ground game. But still — it’s not that hard to imagine how he could win.

clare.malone: Yeah, that about tracks.

harry: Trump has only a 4 percent chance of getting a majority of the vote right now, according to the polls-only forecast.

natesilver: And Clinton has only a 21 percent chance. We’re probably not going to see anyone hit 50 percent this year.

harry: You’re always 💯 in my heart though.

micah: Any other burning thoughts?

clare.malone: I think Harry’s brown nosing is as good a place as any to end. Can’t wait for the debates!

September 26!

natesilver: I’m semi-tempted to go on a rant about how Democrats are abusing the “Look at the state polls!” argument incorrectly, as a way to deny that the race has tightened.

micah: Save that. Or write 400 words on it real quick and I’ll publish it.

natesilver: I will, but let’s just leave that there in the chat so people know we’re keeping an eye on them.

clare.malone: “I’m watching you”

natesilver: 👀

clare.malone: Nate Silver to internet.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.