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

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton John Locher/AP

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.

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