There Is No Horse Race

It’s Clinton by a mile, with Trump praying for black swans.

US Presidential Candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

They may look like they’re fighting hard, but it’s not even close.

Alex Wong/Getty Images and Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

To anyone not following the ins and outs of the election, the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has all the trappings of a close-fought, competitive election. Both candidates dominate the news media; both have held massive rallies and events; both are on the airwaves with ads on television and radio; and both are maneuvering on the ground in an effort to reach broad and diverse constituencies. Turn to CNN or MSNBC, and you’ll see breathless coverage of each development in the race, reinforcing the sense that this a tight contest between two formidable campaigns—one horse hitting the quarter pole half a length ahead of the other.

But of course it’s nothing like that. Hillary Clinton isn’t just leading—she’s dominant. And her odds of winning get stronger each day she holds that dominant position.

Take the polling averages, which aggregate public polls to provide a comprehensive view of the race, with various weights and adjustments for methodology. As of Wednesday, Clinton leads in the Talking Points Memo average by a margin of 3.3 percentage points; according to the Real Clear Politics method for averaging polls, she leads by a margin of 6 points. And in the Huffington Post’s average of national public polls, she leads by 7 points. A 3-point margin is within the realm of a typical, close contest. But in modern presidential elections—where parties vie for votes in a hyperpolarized electorate—6 or 7 points is something close to a landslide, comparable to Barack Obama’s win over John McCain in the 2008 race.

More critical than the size of the lead is its place on the calendar. Polls are at their least predictive in the first half of an election year, before the national conventions. It’s a volatile time, as candidates compete in primaries and parties struggle for a semblance of unity. The conventions act as a reset button, a way to restore that unity and present the parties and their nominees to the public at large. And it’s after the conventions that polls become far more predictive, as the volatility of the primary season dies down and pollsters begin to screen for likely voters.

“Although the convention season is the time for multiple bounces in the polls, one party ends up with an advantage when the dust clears,” write political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien in their book The Timeline of Presidential Elections. “This gain is a net convention bump rather than a bounce.” The polls we see after the conventions, in other words, tend to reflect a genuine change in the state of the race. And that change is durable. In their analysis of presidential polling, going back to 1952, the candidate leading at this stage of the race always won the popular vote. The margin might differ, but the outcome was on target. It’s why the various polling models from FiveThirtyEight, the New York Times, and the Princeton Election Consortium all give Clinton a high likelihood of winning in November, from 85 percent in the FiveThirtyEight polls-only forecast, to 89 percent in the Times calculator, to 96 percent in the Princeton measure of the race.*

In other words, Clinton’s odds of losing this election amount to the general chance of an unimaginable black-swan event that transforms the political landscape. If you think there’s a 10 percent chance that the American economy collapses before November, then that is roughly the chance that Donald Trump wins this election.

On top of all of this is the fact that one side is running a campaign, and the other side isn’t. Hillary Clinton is raising and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on ads (saturating swing states in television spots aimed at disqualifying Trump), organizing, and “get out the vote” efforts. She has hundreds more employees than Trump and far more offices in far more states, including traditionally Republican territory like Georgia and Utah. Trump has none of this: no infrastructure to find and mobilize supporters, an anemic budget for advertising, and little staff to manage volunteers. He is so thinly staffed that for a moment it seemed plausible that Trump’s main organizer in a key Colorado county was a 12-year-old boy.

For Trump, a stronger organization would not be enough to overcome his deficit. But it would minimize the size of the loss. That he’s so outmatched on the ground bodes poorly for how he’ll perform when the voting starts. Unlike Clinton, he won’t “bank” early votes and absentee votes from supporters who could cast them, freeing resources for more marginal voters. He won’t have people to mobilize the least enthusiastic Republicans and bring them to the polls. And he won’t have resources to counter Democratic efforts to demoralize Republican voters through advertising and targeted appeals. At the same time, he’s wasting the resources he has by spending them in deep-red states like Mississippi and deep-blue ones like New York.

If states like Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, and South Carolina are on the edge—thanks to overwhelming nonwhite support for Clinton, third-party candidates, and profound ambivalence for Trump among Republicans—then his weakness and her strength increase the chances those states flip away from the Republican Party.

Of course, if we’re at the point where South Carolina—one of the most conservative states in the union—is vulnerable to a Democratic campaign, then the election is already too far gone for the Republican Party. And there’s little chance that Democrats will lose their lead to complacency. If there’s a bandwagon effect in politics, it’s for winners. In presidential elections, at least, voters seem to want to cast a ballot for the winner. It’s the losing “side” that stays home.

There is no horse race here. Clinton is far enough ahead, at a late enough stage in the election, that what we have is a horse running by itself, unperturbed but for the faint possibility of a comet hitting the track. Place your bets accordingly.

*Correction, Aug. 25, 2016: This article originally misstated that FiveThirtyEight’s 85 percent likelihood Clinton would win was from its nowcast. It was from its polls-only forecast. (Return.)