Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton John Locher/AP

The Trump-Clinton Race Is Not As Close As It Looks

With its nomination settled, the GOP has been healing its wounds, but Democratic feelings are still raw because of the ongoing fight between Clinton and Sanders.

The latest round of polls re­leased pri­or to Me­mori­al Day week­end, which showed Hil­lary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump in a vir­tu­al tie, set off in­tense hand-wringing among Demo­crats, Clin­ton back­ers, and Trump de­tract­ors alike. They much pre­ferred the polls from a month earli­er giv­ing the former sec­ret­ary of State a double-di­git lead over the real-es­tate mogul.  

What’s lost on many people is that any tri­al heat between Trump and Clin­ton today is like com­par­ing apples and or­anges. Trump’s nom­in­a­tion fight is over while Clin­ton’s con­test is still at a messy stage. Re­pub­lic­ans who backed one of the 16 oth­er GOP can­did­ates have co­alesced to a sig­ni­fic­ant de­gree, pain­fully pro­gress­ing through Eliza­beth Kü­bler-Ross’s five stages of grief: deni­al, an­ger, bar­gain­ing, de­pres­sion, and ac­cept­ance.

Many es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures, who I nev­er thought would come to terms with Trump as the GOP nom­in­ee, have now moved to heal­ing and clos­ure, if some­what re­luct­antly. They are quick to point out that Trump wasn’t their first choice, but, when the bugle soun­ded, they and oth­er party war horses got in line. Some­times it was more a mat­ter of lin­ing up against Clin­ton rather than be­hind Trump, and some even found it dif­fi­cult to en­dorse Trump by name. One former Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or com­pared Trump to the vil­lain­ous Harry Pot­ter char­ac­ter Lord Vol­de­mort, “he who must not be named.” Even so, most par­tis­ans ul­ti­mately get be­hind their can­did­ate, for bet­ter or worse, and so it is with today’s Re­pub­lic­ans.  

By con­trast, many of Bernie Sanders’s sup­port­ers still seem be in the deni­al and an­ger stages. Feel­ings are still raw, and the heal­ing pro­cess has not yet be­gun. But after the last round of primar­ies on June 7, most of them will also move from de­pres­sion to ac­cept­ance.  

On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, the al­ways-pres­ci­ent mod­er­at­or Chuck Todd said much the same thing but ap­proached it in an­oth­er way.  First Todd poin­ted to the May 15-19 NBC News/Wall Street Journ­alpoll, not­ing that Sanders bested Trump in the sur­vey by 15 points, 54 to 39 per­cent, while Clin­ton had a scant 3-point edge over Trump, 46 to 43 per­cent. Todd then cal­cu­lated that if 70 per­cent of the voters who sup­por­ted Sanders against Trump sub­sequently moved in­to Clin­ton’s corner, she would then have an 8-point lead, 51 to 43 per­cent.

Shift­ing 70 per­cent of Sanders’s sup­port­ers in­to the Clin­ton column in the May 13-17 CBS News/New York Times poll would en­large her lead over Trump from 6 points, 47 to 41 per­cent, to 9 points, 50 to 41 per­cent. Do­ing the same thing us­ing the May 14-17 Fox News sur­vey, which showed Trump ahead by 3 points, 45 to 42 per­cent, would pro­duce a tie, 45 to 45 per­cent. Todd poin­ted out that in the first 2008 NBC/WSJ poll after Clin­ton dropped out against Barack Obama, Obama moved up 3 points, a sign that Clin­ton sup­port­ers were get­ting in line. This is a nat­ur­al de­vel­op­ment after con­tested nom­in­a­tions are settled.

Keep­ing in mind that there are more Demo­crats than Re­pub­lic­ans, and that 90 per­cent of par­tis­ans end up vot­ing for their re­spect­ive party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, it’s not sur­pris­ing that Demo­crats have had party iden­ti­fic­a­tion ad­vant­ages in four of the five most re­cent na­tion­al polls: 2 points in CBS/NYT (33 to 31 per­cent), 5 points in NBC/WSJ (34 to 29 per­cent), 6 points in Gal­lup (31 to 25 per­cent), and 8 points in ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post (33 to 25 per­cent); only the Fox News poll gave the GOP an edge in party af­fil­i­ation, 41 to 40 per­cent.  

So it is lo­gic­al that Demo­crats have an ad­vant­age of a few points once the nom­in­a­tions are truly settled and par­tis­ans have had time to make peace with their can­did­ates. In the NBC/WSJ poll, a gen­er­ic pres­id­en­tial race showed 47 per­cent pre­fer­ring a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent to 43 per­cent opt­ing for a Re­pub­lic­an. Like­wise, when poll­sters meas­ure fa­vor­able-un­fa­vor­able or pos­it­ive-neg­at­ive rat­ings, Demo­crats main­tain a steady ad­vant­age over Re­pub­lic­ans.

In short, the parties have not evolved at the same rate. Trump has had the Re­pub­lic­an field to him­self and has be­gun heal­ing party wounds, such as he can, while Clin­ton has not yet been af­forded that op­por­tun­ity be­cause she has been busy fight­ing off Sanders.

It is ex­ceed­ingly un­likely that Clin­ton will beat Trump by a wide mar­gin be­cause of her high neg­at­ives and the in­tense par­tis­an­ship that has gripped the na­tion, but the prob­ab­il­it­ies still are in her fa­vor. We are ap­proach­ing a mo­ment sim­il­ar to the one in The Wiz­ard of Oz when Dorothy told her dog Toto that “we’re not in Kan­sas any­more.” No longer are we look­ing at a Re­pub­lic­an nom­in­a­tion fight with an elect­or­ate dom­in­ated by the tea party. We are be­gin­ning to fo­cus on a Novem­ber elect­or­ate that is broad­er, more di­verse, and con­sid­er­ably more mod­er­ate, in both ideo­logy and tem­pera­ment, than the one that se­lec­ted Don­ald Trump. Chances are high that these voters will be­have much dif­fer­ently than the ones in the GOP primar­ies.