The Slatest

What the Heck Polls: A Weekly Guide to the Trump-Clinton Numbers

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shake hands after the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The polls—so many polls. They will just keep coming between now and Election Day, making it easy to forget the golden rule of polling: Don’t get distracted by a single survey. With that in mind, Slate will be checking in once a week to see what’s changed—and what hasn’t—in the 2016 presidential polls.

Where Do the Polls Stand Today?

Pretty much where they were this time last week. Hillary Clinton holds a narrow but relatively clear lead on Donald Trump. The available evidence, however, suggests that Clinton is likely to pick up a handful of points over the next couple days as we get the results from more surveys taken entirely after the first debate, which she won handily by pretty much everyone’s account but Trump’s. Add that to the news cycle that followed, during which her rival managed to spend attacking the character and weight of a former Miss Universe who last anyone checked is not on the ballot this November, and I’ll be eager to check back in with you all next week.

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RealClearPolitics:

  • Head-to-head: Clinton +2.9 (Clinton 47.3 percent, Trump 44.4 percent)
  • Four-way race: Clinton + 2.9 (Clinton 43.9, Trump 41.0, Gary Johnson 7.2, Jill Stein 2.3)

Huffington Post:

  • Head-to-head: Clinton +4.6 points (Clinton 47.6 percent, Trump 43.0 percent)
  • Three-way race: Clinton + 3.4 points (Clinton 42.7, Trump 39.3, Johnson 8.0, other 3.6)

Depending on which average you go by, Clinton’s lead either slipped by a tenth of a point during the past seven days (RCP head-to-head) or climbed anywhere between five-tenths (HuffPo head-to-head) to seven-tenths of a point (HuffPo three-way). Those averages, however, are dominated by polls taken entirely before Monday’s debate. Most informed guesses, meanwhile, expect Clinton to extend her lead by somewhere around 2 to 5 points, based both on the results of snap polls that found the debate to be one of the more lop-sided affairs in modern history, and a small batch of recent state surveys that had similar good news for the Democratic nominee.

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Already, the limited post-debate data we have has driven Clinton’s odds of winning upwards slightly in the numbers-centric forecasts. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight now gives Clinton a roughly 67 percent chance of victory in its polls-only forecast and the Princeton Election Consortium pegs her chances at 85 percent. Both of those are up 5 points from where they were last week. The New York Times’ Upshot has been slower to react, but her odds in its forecast still climbed 2 points, to 75 percent, in the past seven days.

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What’s going on?

We can’t say for certain that the debate swung the race in Clinton’s favor; even if her expected bump does materialize, we won’t know how much of that had to do with what happened on stage and what happened afterward. Still, the debates are one of the few set pieces of a campaign, and the on-stage action and the aftermath have been the political story of the week, making it a fair assumption that they will play a major role.

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The early evidence is already there. Debate watchers surveyed by CNN/ORC called the contest for Hillary by a 35-point margin, with 62 percent saying she won compared with only 27 percent who said Donald did. That’s the third most-lopsided result in the survey’s history. The only larger margins of victory since 1984 were Romney’s 42-point defeat of Obama in the first 2012 debate and Bill Clinton’s 42-point win over George H.W. Bush in the second 1992 debate, which also featured Ross Perot. “Winning” is an admittedly amorphous concept when it comes to debates, but Clinton won by any definition I can come up with.

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More important to the polling question: CNN’s debate polling has correlated relatively well with post-debate poll movement in elections past. As a result, Silver suggested earlier this week that Clinton could theoretically see a gain of about 3 to 5 points, which would be on the higher end of post-debate swings and is in line with the results we saw from state surveys in places like Florida, Michigan, and New Hampshire. If that happens, it would more than double her pre-debate advantage in the national averages and restore her lead to where it was in the middle of August during Trump’s post-convention controversy tour.

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How Should Trump Supporters Feel Today?

Frustrated. On Monday, Trump unraveled during a primetime debate that was watched by more people than tuned in for the season finale of Seinfeld. On Tuesday, he and his team wasted valuable time complaining about his microphone and the moderator, which allowed the narrative to shift from Trump bombed to Trump bombed so hard that he’s had to make excuses. On Wednesday, the world learned that the reason the GOP nominee appeared so unprepared on Monday was because he apparently failed to pay attention during his Roger Ailes-led study sessions. And then on Thursday (and into Friday morning), Trump continued his ongoing feud with a former Miss Universe over her weight, a cruel and frankly bizarre decision that is reminiscent of how he devoted so much time and energy after the Democratic convention to attacking the Khan family.

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How Should Clinton Supporters Feel Today?

Relieved. Clinton’s strong debate performance on Monday looks even stronger today. She was the one who brought up Alicia Machado (and the horrible things Trump allegedly said to her when she was Miss Universe) during the debate. In the moment, it was a forceful way for Clinton to highlight Trump’s history of misogyny. But in hindsight it was also rather plainly a trap she set to remind voters of his general inability to allow any slight, real or perceived, to pass without a nuclear response. At this rate, Trump will be forced to address Machado again at the next presidential debate—and nothing he has said over the past four days suggests that conversation will go any better than the first one.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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