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On A Scale From 1 To 10, How Much Should Democrats Panic?

In this week’s politics chat, we wonder how safe Hillary Clinton’s lead is. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Clinton’s lead has shrunk to a hair above 4 percentage points in our polls-only model, down from about 7 points two weeks ago. So we find ourselves in an odd position where Clinton still holds a clear lead, but it’s shrinking by the day. I’ve been getting questions from Clinton supporters wondering how panicked they should be, and while we advise everyone of all political stripes to always remain calm, let’s try to answer that question today.

How safe is Clinton’s lead/how panicked should Democrats be? As tacky as it is to cite your own tweet, I’m going to do it anyway — here’s a handy scale:

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): I would say that Democrats should strike a 5-6 note of panic.

micah: Interesting! I’d say 4-5.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): A 5 or 6 sounds about right. And Republicans should be at a 7 or 8.

clare.malone: Who knows how that FBI stuff is going to strike people over the next week, right? I’d also like to note for the record that our Chia Pet Model gives Clinton a slight edge:

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I don’t even know what that scale means … but I’ll say “unease” for Democrats and “fear” for Republicans.

micah: So, Harry, that would seem to suggest you don’t think the race will continue to tighten?

harry: All I’m doing is taking the win probabilities from our models and matching them to this 1 to 10 scale.

natesilver: Yeah, I think that’s a mistake, Harry. Because that doesn’t consider the impact of the election. If there’s a 95 percent chance that the bagel shop is closed, I’m not panicked, but if there’s a 0.2 percent chance a meteor strikes me, I am.

A 25 percent or 30 percent chance of Donald Trump winning is pretty high to begin with, and considering the consequences of his winning the election from a Democrat’s POV — actually, maybe I should revise the Democratic panic upward from a 6.

harry: I don’t care for the scale. What I think should be said is that yes, Democrats should worry about a Clinton loss. But Republicans should be more worried because Trump will probably lose.

clare.malone: The closeness of this race — i.e., many people acting as they might if there were a generic Republican nominee — is, I think, a reason for Democrats to be worried.

natesilver: If I can be a bit pedantic, the race isn’t that close. But it’s highly uncertain.

clare.malone: Pedant away.

natesilver: It’s uncertain, in part, because of the risk of a popular vote-Electoral College split. And, in part, because there are various reasons to think polling error could be high this year, such as the number of undecided voters.

You can see those forces at play in the recent tightening. Clinton hasn’t really declined very much in these latest polls. But she was at only 46 percent in national polls, and that left a little bit of wiggle room for Trump.

If we start to see Clinton creep up to 47 percent or 48 percent, Democrats can begin to panic less.

harry: Can we get into this a little here, Nathaniel? I know we’ve discussed this a bit before. Clinton is holding onto fairly strong leads in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and I’m not seeing a “path” for Trump despite some of the national polls looking really close. Yet our model has Clinton with a MUCH higher chance of winning the popular vote and losing the Electoral College than vice versa. What the heck is going on?

natesilver: Well, if she wins the national popular vote by 4 percentage points (her current margin), she wins the Electoral College almost for sure. The problem is that her path is fragile. Subtract 2-3 points from her margin, and a lot of states get awfully close. If she underperforms the polls because Trump gets a big white working-class turnout and Clinton gets a weak black turnout, then Michigan becomes competitive, for instance.

We also don’t have a lot of good polls lately in Michigan, Colorado or Wisconsin. If there are a bunch of ’em showing an 8-point lead for Clinton or whatever, obviously she’ll gain in our forecast.

harry: So what you’re saying is that there is uncertainty, but the race isn’t THAT close.

natesilver: I’m saying the polls only have to be 2-3 points off to make the Electoral College hairy for Clinton.

harry: But not harry for Clinton.

natesilver: Thanks — you’ll be here all night.

clare.malone: So we’ve been talking a lot about how low black turnout is a worry for the Clinton campaign, or Trump getting more non-college-educated whites than expected. But are there other groups that are making her path “fragile,” as you say? Like, any other groups they’re worried about weak turnout-wise?

micah: I’d maybe worry if I were Clinton that college-educated whites won’t be quite as pro-Dem as the polls suggest? Just in the sense that that’s a break with history.

clare.malone: Yeah. That seems right.

natesilver: Ohhh, I think that’s the last thing Clinton has to worry about.

clare.malone: Why? You wouldn’t worry at all?

natesilver: She’s going to get the educated white vote in big numbers. And she’s going to do well with Hispanics. The question is about African-Americans, young voters and how much turnout Trump can get among the white working class.

clare.malone: But couldn’t more conservative college-educated whites who had made peace with Clinton be turned off by the latest iteration of emails and say, “Hey, I’m not all that motivated to get out there”?

natesilver: They’re clearly coming out in big numbers in early voting. And, generally, highly educated voters are going to be more locked into their choices at an earlier point in the campaign.

clare.malone: Ok. Fair ’nuff.

micah: Most of that early voting happened before the latest FBI news.

natesilver: Contrarian-ly enough, I think the FBI news is somewhat overrated as a source of Democratic panic even though I think Trump’s chances are maybe a little bit underrated by the conventional wisdom overall.

micah: I guess, really, the question for Clinton, though, is: Will the race continue to tighten?

harry: Well, it was tightening before the FBI news.

micah: Right.

clare.malone: I want to ban the word “tighten” after the election. It’s so irritating, and it’s all you hear lately. Can’t we say, “the race is closer”? Or “the gap is closing”?

micah: What have you got against “tighten”?

clare.malone: Bad connotations. Tight pants. Tight squeeze. Getting too tight on a Friday night.

harry: The biggest worry I think for Clinton is whether she’s losing voters. It seems that she is, even if most of Trump’s gains have come from Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and undecided voters.

micah: OK, let’s jump back to that national/state discussion: If you are Clinton and you are worried, is that worry national or state-specific?

harry: For me, it’s national. Her chance of losing if the national popular vote is where it is right now is quite small. It’s only when the national vote becomes tighter that a Clinton loss becomes more likely.

clare.malone: Well, demographically, I guess your worry nationally is black voters, as discussed above.

natesilver: There’s a lot of uncertainty at the state level, especially in states that haven’t gotten much polling. You know what the three most recent polls in Colorado say? Clinton +1, Clinton +3, Clinton +4.

Now, those aren’t great polls. But people are acting like Clinton has leads of 6-8 points everywhere in her firewall. She doesn’t, and there are really only one or two high-quality polls in a lot of these states and basically none in others.

harry: Clinton’s going back into Colorado with ad spending.

natesilver: She should have been spending money in Colorado all along.

harry: Well, I concur.

clare.malone: Can I ask a question about Trump’s spending in New Mexico? What’s the theory there? They sent out a big release today.

harry: It makes perfect sense to me, actually.

micah: Trump’s blue state travels were going to be our chat topic for today, but Nate wanted to do the Election Update on it.

He’s selfish.

clare.malone: EXPLAIN, PLEASE

harry: Here’s why: If Trump has been gaining Johnson voters from Trump, why not go after the state where Johnson is polling the best?

natesilver: I think New Mexico is a stretch, because Clinton really does seem to be doing well with Hispanic voters. But there’s a lot of uncertainty there, and it’s a cheap state to invest in.

Basically people on Twitter are like “HAHA LOSER” whenever Trump campaigns in a state that’s within Clinton’s firewall. But Trump has to win a firewall state or two in order to win the election!

harry: Yes, although the Hispanic voters in New Mexico are somewhat different than in other parts of the nation because they’ve been in the country far longer.

micah: But is he choosing from among Clinton’s firewall states wisely?

natesilver: Sure. Wisconsin and ESPECIALLY Michigan are VASTLY underrated targets for Trump.

micah: And Minnesota, right?

natesilver: Michigan is basically Pennsylvania, but with worse polling (hence more uncertainty) and probably slightly better demographics for Trump.

Minnesota’s more a case where there hasn’t been much polling. So I really don’t know about that one.

clare.malone: Yeah, I thought this map we did was really interesting regarding the possibility that Trump will overperform past GOP nominees in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes.

harry: Speaking of Michigan, a lot of Democrats in my Twitter feed are worried about that state because the primary polling wasn’t good on the Democratic side. Any thoughts on that?

clare.malone: Pure Michigan.

micah: Yeah, how ’bout that: Should Clinton supporters be more worried about the race tightening, the polls being wrong in Trump’s favor or both? (I’d vote the polls being wrong as the chief worry.)

natesilver: It’s the combo, really. With the tightening, we’re NOT at the point where “Clinton can only lose because of a catastrophic polling error.” She could lose given a relatively minor polling error if the race tightens much further.

micah: Wait, we’re already there? Or only after a bit more tightening?

natesilver: Another point or so and we’re within the “margin of Brexit.”

harry: You want to be within 3 points in the average of the final national polls if you want to win because of a polling error that is not out of this world.

natesilver: But … I don’t know that people should necessarily assume that the polls will keep tightening. The way that our model works, I’d guess that it’s more likely than not that Trump will gain a bit further as backlogged polls from the weekend come in. But there’s a world in which the polling over the weekend was a low point for Clinton as the FBI story fades from the news. You already see Google search terms for Clinton returning to normal levels, for instance.

harry: Al Gore was down 3 percentage points to George W. Bush in the final national polls in 2000, for example.

clare.malone: The metrics of this race are so hilarious to me sometimes.

harry: Can I bring up another metric so Clare can laugh herself silly?

micah: Yard signs?

harry: I’ve been following the Gallup favorable ratings. They have large sample sizes. They aren’t about “enthusiasm” (i.e., there’s no likely voter screen), and they’ve tended to track with the horse-race polls in this race. Trump hasn’t really moved up on Clinton. I just think it’s interesting.

natesilver: Closing thought: While the FBI talk has died down, Clinton hasn’t really succeeded in making Trump the center of conversation over the final week of the campaign. And Trump’s done a good job of laying low. But a week is a long time, and there may even be time for one more “momentum” shift.

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

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.