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Election Update: Clinton’s Lead Keeps Shrinking

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I, for one, welcome the unofficial end of summer. I’ll miss the Olympics and fancy tomato salads. But it’s an election year, and Labor Day is usually accompanied by a return to more substantive news cycles — along with a significant increase in the amount of polling.

That was certainly true Tuesday morning, which brought a bevy of new data, including about a half-dozen new national polls and a 50-state poll from SurveyMonkey (conducted in conjunction with The Washington Post). People are focusing on the flashier results among these polls: that CNN’s poll shows Donald Trump narrowly ahead among likely voters, for instance, while SurveyMonkey has Hillary Clinton tied with Trump in Texas. At times like these, though, it’s especially useful to zoom out and take a more holistic approach.

The clearest pattern is simply that Trump has regained ground since Clinton’s post-convention peak. He now has a 31 percent chance of winning the election according to our polls-only model, and a 33 percent chance according to polls-plus. For a deeper look, let’s run through our set of 10 framing questions about the election1 in light of the most recent polling:

1. Who’s ahead in the polls right now?

Clinton’s ahead, by a margin of about 3 percentage points in an average of national polls, or 4 points in our popular vote composite, which is based on both national polls and state polls. While the race has tightened, be wary of claims that the election is too close to call — that isn’t where the preponderance of the evidence lies, at least for the moment. If one candidate is ahead by 3 or 4 percentage points, there will be occasional polls showing a tied race or her opponent narrowly ahead, along with others showing the candidate with a mid- to high single-digit lead. We’ve seen multiple examples of both of those recently.

In swing states, the race ranges from showing Trump up by 1 point in Iowa to a Clinton lead of about 6 points in her best states, such as Virginia. That’s a reasonably good position for Clinton, but it isn’t quite as safe as it might sound. That’s because the swing states tend to rise and fall together. A further shift of a few points in Trump’s favor, or a polling error of that magnitude, would make the Electoral College highly competitive.

2. What’s the degree of uncertainty?

Higher than people might assume. Between the unusually early conventions and the late election — Nov. 8 is the latest possible date on which Election Day can occur — it’s a long campaign this year. But just as important, many voters — close to 20 percent — either say they’re undecided or that they plan to vote for third-party candidates. At a comparable point four years ago, only 5 to 10 percent of voters fell into those categories.

High numbers of undecided and third-party voters are associated with higher volatility and larger polling errors. Put another way, elections are harder to predict when fewer people have made up their minds. Because FiveThirtyEight’s models account for this property, we show a relatively wide range of possible outcomes, giving Trump better odds of winning than most other statistically based models, but also a significant chance of a Clinton landslide if those undecideds break in her favor.

3. What’s the short-term trend in the polls?

It’s been toward Trump over the past few weeks. Clinton’s lead peaked at about 8.5 percentage points in early August, according to our models, and Trump has since sliced that figure roughly in half. Of Trump’s roughly 4-point gain since then, about 2 points come from Trump’s having gained ground, while the other 2 points come from Clinton’s having lost ground — possibly a sign that her lofty numbers in early August were inflated by a convention bounce.

One slight caveat: If you’re talking about the very short term, it’s not quite as clear who’s gaining, as the most recent daily and weekly tracking polls have been flat lately instead of showing continued gains for Trump. By late this week, we should have a better sense of whether Trump’s position is still improving.

4. What’s the medium-term trend in the polls?

It depends on where you measure it from. Clinton had a lead of 6 to 7 percentage points when we launched our forecast in June. That dwindled to about 3 percentage points just before the conventions got underway, and then a tie once Trump got a modest bounce after the Republican convention. Clinton then got a comparatively large bounce after her convention, bringing her lead to about 8 points, but it’s receded some. Overall, her current lead of 4 percentage points is close to or slightly below where the race has been on average throughout the campaign.

5. Which states shape up as most important?

It’s still early enough — and we’re lacking recent, high-quality polling in enough states — that I’d discourage you from fixating on any one exact combination of states that Clinton or Trump might win to clinch the Electoral College. Instead, you might think of this election as a battle between the Big Ten states and the ACC states, either of which offer a plausible path to victory for Clinton. If she holds on to most of the Big Ten states that President Obama won four years ago, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, she can afford to lose ACC states such as Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. If she can win either Florida or both Virginia and North Carolina — and certainly if she sweeps all three ACC states — she can sacrifice quite a bit of ground in the Big Ten. The handful of competitive states outside of these groups, such as Nevada and New Hampshire, have few enough electoral votes that they’ll serve as tiebreakers only in the event of an extremely close race.

According to our tipping-point index, however, the single most important state is Florida. That’s because its 29 electoral votes are as much as many combinations of two and three swing states put together.

6. Does one candidate appear to have an overall edge in the Electoral College, relative to his or her position in the popular vote?

Our models, somewhat in contrast to the conventional wisdom, have usually found that Trump is more likely to win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote than the other way around. Some of this is for a quirky reason: Trump is underperforming recent Republican nominees in polls of deeply red states. Last week, for instance, there were new polls of Kansas and Alaska that showed Trump winning by 7 points and 10 points, respectively. By comparison, Mitt Romney won Kansas by 22 points and Alaska by 14. Losing states like those by 10 points instead of 20 would yield a better popular vote margin for Clinton, but wouldn’t help in the Electoral College.

The SurveyMonkey poll showing a tied race in Texas is in line with this theme. The race probably isn’t really tied there, as other recent polls in Texas have Trump ahead. But a close call — Clinton losing Texas by only 5 percentage points — could yield wasted votes for Clinton in terms of their impact on the Electoral College. It’s plausible that Clinton gains among Hispanic voters are contributing to this pattern, since most Hispanics are not concentrated in swing states. (Almost half the Hispanic population is in Texas or California alone.)

7. How do the “fundamentals” look?

Some “fundamentals”-based models, which look at economic data and other nonpolling factors to forecast the election, suggest that a generic Republican candidate should be a slight favorite over a generic Democrat in this election. Our polls-plus model also contains a fundamentals model based on an economic index, and it slightly disagrees, finding that the economy is about average or, based on more recent data, very slightly above average — conveying just the slightest re-election edge to Democrats.

This is literally something of an academic debate, however. Overall, the fundamentals imply that the election ought to be close. If Clinton or Trump win by a significant margin, it probably has more to do with the peculiarities of the candidates than the underlying conditions of the race.

8. How do FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts compare against prediction markets?

Trump’s chances are currently about 30 percent in betting markets, a close match for FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts.

9. What would keep me up late at night if I were Clinton?

My first question would be whether the race has settled into a 4-point Clinton lead, as the polls have it now, or is continuing to trend toward Trump. If I’m still ahead by 4 points or more at the time of the first debate on Sept. 26, I’ll feel reasonably good about my position: A Trump comeback would be toward the outer edges of how much trailing candidates have historically been able to move the polls with the debates. If the race gets much closer, though, my list of concerns gets a lot longer. It would include geopolitical events that could work in Trump’s favor, third-party candidates who seem to be taking more votes from me than from Trump, and the tendency for incumbent candidates (since Clinton is a quasi-incumbent) to lose ground in the polls after the first debate.

10. What would keep me up late at night if I were Trump?

As the polls have ebbed and flowed, I’ve been 8 or 10 points behind Clinton at my worst moments, but only tied with her at my best moments. I’ve also never gotten much above 40 percent in national polls, at least not on a consistent basis, and I’ve alienated a lot of voters who would allow me to climb higher than that. In other words, maybe that dreaded Trump ceiling is there after all, in which case I’ll have to get awfully lucky to win the election, probably needing both a favorable flow of news in the weeks leading up to Nov. 8 and a large third-party vote that works against Clinton.

Footnotes

  1. See previous editions here (July 15) and here (Aug. 15).

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

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