Uh-oh, are those horses on the horizon?!
A new Fox News poll of registered voters—conducted over a four-day stretch that ended on Tuesday—found Donald Trump up three points on Hillary Clinton, 45 percent to 42 percent. The celebrity billionaire’s three-point advantage was within the survey’s margin of error, but it nonetheless marks a pretty drastic reversal from the same poll last month, which found Clinton with a relatively comfortable 7-point lead on her Republican rival.
The bad news for Hillary doesn’t end there, either. The new survey suggests Clinton is seen as “more corrupt,” less “honest and trustworthy,” and more likely to “say anything to get elected” than the Republican reality television star she’ll face off with in the general election. Even more troubling, Hillary’s net-favorability rating in the survey has dipped 5 points in the past two months, from negative-19 to negative-24. Over that same stretch, Trump’s rating has soared 19 points, from negative-34 in March to negative-15 on Thursday. Those numbers would still make Trump and Clinton the most disliked major nominees in modern history, but the “least-popular” superlative would go to Hillary, not Donald. The fancy political science term for that is: not good.
Is it time to freak out? The fact that Trump is where he is now is definitely cause for a certain type of panic, as my colleague Isaac Chotiner notes. But this poll itself should not terrify you.
For starters, this survey looks like an outlier. One potential reason for that, which several pollsters have noted, is that it foresees a 2016 electorate with a considerably higher share of self-identified Republicans than turned out four years ago, something that could be skewing the numbers in Trump’s favor.
More generally, this is a single poll taken six months before the general election. The rule of thumb among the data-first-last-and-always set is that this type of hypothetical polling isn’t all that predictive until after the national conventions, which are still two long months away. To the extent that these types of surveys matter, meanwhile, it’s best to focus on polling averages, not single polls. According to the Huffington Post’s tracker, Clinton’s average lead on Trump in recent national surveys has been 2.7 points, while according to RealClearPolitics, that number is 3.3 points.
Those numbers are about half of what they were before Trump wrapped up the GOP nomination in Indiana two weeks ago, which is obviously not a good sign for those of us who live in constant fear of a Trump administration. But as I noted at the start of this month when I warned such a narrowing could be on the way, at least some of the change can be attributed to a combination of the media’s ongoing attempts to domesticate Trump in the name of political narrative, Trump’s Republican critics finally getting on board (however grudgingly) in the spirit of partisanship, and the fact Bernie Sanders is currently forcing Hillary to campaign on two different fronts. Those last two points could also help explain the shifts in Trump and Clinton’s favorability ratings. Former Ted Cruz or John Kasich voters are now coming to terms with Trump as their nominee, making him more palatable to their particular conservative tastes. Sanders supporters haven’t given up hope, and tensions between them and the Democratic Party are running particularly high, so it’s easy to imagine Bernie fans having a particularly dim view of Clinton right now. Assuming Bernie plays nice at some point, you’d expect Hillary to reap the rewards of party unification down the road.
Of course, the fact that Beltway conservatives and many down-the-middle media outlets have proved willing to pretend Trump is a run-of-the-mill nominee as opposed to an American demagogue is certainly a cause for concern. But there are limits to their ability to make Trump and his brand of belligerent bluster acceptable to the majority of the country. Team Hillary will have plenty of chances to roll the tape of Trump being Trump.
Still shaking? Allow me to wrap you in my trusty blanket that has the word fundamentals embroidered on it. As has been well covered by now, most of the other signs we have point to a clear Hillary advantage come November. The unemployment rate is down from where it was four years ago, President Obama’s job approval and favorability ratings are both above water, and—perhaps most important of all—the electoral map looks particularly friendly to Democrats this cycle. There’s also the not-so-small matter that it’s far from clear where and how Trump can do better than Mitt Romney did four years ago given the shifting demographics of the country.
So, yes, you can put the paper bag down and relax. Today, the preponderance of evidence suggests Clinton will most likely win the White House. But … nothing is guaranteed. While political analysts are much better at predicting the outcomes of general elections than they are of primaries, they are still dealing with a relatively small sample size given a new data point only comes along once every four years. And the fact that Trump and Clinton are so unbelievably unpopular also injects some extra uncertainty into the equation. Both likely nominees are so despised and so distrusted, that for many Americans, voting against the one they like least is more of a motivation than casting a ballot for the one they like best. That’s not how this normally works.
There’s also the matter of party unity. A year’s worth of talk about how Trump was blowing up the GOP clouded the reality that he faces a somewhat different—and in some ways easier—task of putting his party back together than Clinton will with hers once Sanders finally calls it a day. As an insurgent outsider, Trump needs the establishment—the people who care about party above all else—to fall in line, something much of it is already doing. (The GOP nominee’s decision to draft an ultra-conservative Supreme Court wish list will only speed that process along.) As the consummate insider, though, Clinton needs to win over her party’s anti-establishment wing, something that clearly hasn’t happened yet and which poses its own unique challenges. I’d be shocked if the vast majority of Bernie supporters don’t ultimately learn to live with Hillary, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on, particularly among white working-class voters in places like Pennsylvania.
Those are things to monitor, not freak out over. That Trump is even within striking distance of Clinton after the hateful bile he has spewed this past year, not to mention his total lack of knowledge about pretty much every major issue, is troubling, to say the least. If Trump were to continue to climb in the national polls as the conventions get closer, or if there were signs he was making headway with the type of nonwhite voters he’s spent the past year offending, those would be reasons to sound the alarm. But for now, a survey or two taken at a time when Trump is focused on the general while Clinton’s still distracted by the primary aren’t enough reason to panic.
This post has been updated.