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It seems like we’re overdue for another round of “is the presidential race tightening?” And the answer isn’t totally clear. Our model thinks Donald Trump has probably narrowed his deficit against Clinton slightly, but the difference is modest enough that we’ve wanted to change our answer with every new round of polls. And in general, we’re reluctant to proclaim any turnaround in the race while we still have to squint to see a shift.
But here’s what we think is a little clearer: Trump’s share of the vote has increased, as he’s picked up undecided and third-party voters, probably as the result of Republicans’ returning home after a disastrous series of weeks for Trump this month. Clinton, however, is at least holding steady and probably also improving her own numbers somewhat.
Consider one of the worst polls of the day for Clinton: Monmouth University’s poll of New Hampshire, which gave Clinton a 4-percentage-point lead, down from a 9-point lead in Monmouth’s previous poll of New Hampshire in mid-September. But the poll didn’t really show Clinton’s vote declining (she fell only from 47 percent of the vote to 46 percent). Instead, the shift was primarily because Trump increased his vote share from 39 percent to 43 percent, having taken his votes from Gary Johnson and the undecided column.
One of Trump’s worst polls, conversely, was a Suffolk University national poll that showed Clinton beating him by 10 points1 — up from a 7-point lead in Suffolk’s previous national poll in late August. And yet, Trump didn’t actually lose any ground in the Suffolk poll, improving to 38 percent of the vote from 35 percent before. It’s just that Clinton zoomed up further, improving to 47 percent from 42 percent.
We can also see this pattern in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average. Clinton’s currently at 46.0 percent, which is her highest number on the year and up by 0.6 percentage points from a week ago, when she was at 45.4 percent just before the third presidential debate. Trump, meanwhile, is at 39.6 percent in national polls. That’s not a great number but is also improved — he was at 38.8 percent a week ago.
|PERIOD||DATE||CLINTON||TRUMP||JOHNSON||UNDECIDED / OTHER|
|Before 1st debate||Sep. 26||42.4||41.0||7.5||9.1|
|Before 2nd debate||Oct. 9||44.8||39.7||6.9||8.6|
|Before 3rd debate||Oct. 19||45.4||38.8||6.5||9.3|
Something else we’re relatively certain about is that Trump’s gains are partly the result of Republicans returning home to his campaign. One piece of evidence comes from Gallup’s tracking of candidate favorables: Trump’s favorable rating among Republicans has improved from 64 percent to 71 percent over the past week. But his favorability numbers with the broader electorate are up only slightly, from 31 percent to 34 percent. That suggests that Trump’s gains have come principally among Republicans.
Another hint is in Trump’s polling over the past week in deeply red states such Arkansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming, where he’s gotten some of his strongest numbers of the year. No, these states were never really in any doubt, but they do contain plenty of Trump base voters, so the trend lines are useful to look at if we want to see how his base is behaving. (Trump’s also pulled back from the brink slightly in Texas, although he still appears to be in trouble in Utah.)
Finally, I’d consider reversion to the mean. Trump’s unpopularity is unprecedented, but even so, the United States is a highly partisan country, and having only 64 percent of your own party’s voters take a favorable view of you — as Gallup found a week ago — is really low. While Trump’s performance during the second and third debates was middling as judged by post-debate polls, he at least tossed his base plenty of red meat. And there’s been less discussion recently of the videotape released on Oct. 8 that showed Trump condoning unwanted sexual contact toward women, or of the many women who came forward to accuse him of sexual assault.
Another potential issue is partisan nonresponse bias, the possible tendency of voters not to respond to surveys during periods of poor news coverage for their candidate, which can potentially exaggerate swings in the polls. I’m personally somewhat agnostic about how serious a problem this is and whether there are good ways to adjust for it. But certainly, when a candidate has several weeks in a row of very negative coverage, you shouldn’t necessarily assume the polls conducted during that period represent the “new normal” in the race.
With all that said, Trump’s chances of winning the election haven’t improved very much in our forecast. His odds are 15 percent in our polls-only forecast, not appreciably changed from 13 percent a week ago, and 16 percent in our polls-plus forecast, as compared with 15 percent last week. That’s because the modest gains Trump has made are partly offset by time running off the clock, and the number of undecided voters declining.
So then: Democrats have nothing to worry about, right? Nope, we wouldn’t say that, either. The race could easily tighten further. And our forecast gives Trump better odds than most other models because it accounts for the possibility of a systemic polling error, a greater risk than people may assume. A 16 percent chance of a Trump presidency isn’t nothing — as we’ve pointed out before, it’s about the same as the chances of losing a “game” of Russian roulette. And 15 percent is about the same chance we gave the San Antonio Spurs of beating the Golden State Warriors last night — the Spurs won by 29 points.