May 25, 2016

Trump’s Rise in the Polls is Not Complicated


A month ago, Hillary Clinton had a big lead in national and battleground state polls. Today, she has a modest lead at best. A few surveys even show Donald Trump ahead.

What happened? Mr. Trump has made gains in unifying his party’s base, while Mrs. Clinton has not done the same with hers. If anything, her problem with Bernie Sanders’s voters has gotten a bit worse.

To some extent, Mr. Trump’s gains are not surprising. Candidates usually rise in the polls after they win the nomination and consolidate their party’s base. John McCain and Mitt Romney erased Barack Obama’s leads in 2008 and 2012 after they secured their party’s nomination; Mr. Obama reclaimed a clear lead in 2008 after he clinched the Democratic nomination.

But Mr. Trump’s success is an important accomplishment. A month ago, there were serious reasons to question whether the party would ever fully unify behind him. He has made a lot of progress, and has done it without much backing from Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz. The chance of a big win for Mrs. Clinton has appeared to decline as a result. 

Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in California this month. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times
The prospect of another fairly close general election is not what Democrats were hoping for against Mr. Trump, but Mrs. Clinton will have a chance to widen the gap by winning over supporters of Mr. Sanders.

Mr. Trump, despite his gains, now finds himself at around 42 or 43 percent in national polls. He still trails Mrs. Clinton in the balance of recent surveys, even though she is facing a divided Democratic Party. She is in the lead, in no small part, because there are simply more Democratic-leaning voters than Republican-leaning voters in the country. All but one of the most recent surveys show that there are more Democrats than Republicans.

But Mrs. Clinton nonetheless struggles because of her inability to consolidate the independent-leaning, young, liberal supporters of Mr. Sanders. The most recent wave of national surveys shows Mrs. Clinton winning just 55 to 72 percent of Sanders’s supporters. She’s faring far worse among young and liberal voters than one would expect.

The good news for Mrs. Clinton is that there’s a lot of room for improvement. She could make gains after winning the nomination, much as Mr. Trump already has. That could leave her with a considerable advantage.

Mr. Obama’s gains in June 2008 are probably the clearest precedent: He led by a wide margin until Mr. McCain won the nomination; he regained the lead after he was the Democratic Party’s choice.

Clinton Struggling to Unify Democrats
Share of Bernie Sanders supporters who say they would vote for Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump in the general election.

Clinton Struggling to Unify Democrats 

Share of Bernie Sanders supporters who say they would vote for Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump in the general election.
ABC/Washington Post
Mrs. Clinton may find it not so easy to repeat Mr. Obama’s gains. There has been weakening in her support among Mr. Sanders’s supporters over the last month or so. In April, Mrs. Clinton held between 71 and 82 percent of Mr. Sanders’s supporters; today it’s between 55 and 72 percent.

Exactly what’s driving the shift is hard to say. What’s clear is that Mrs. Clinton’s challenge isn’t totally superficial. Just 20 percent of Mr. Sanders’s supporters have a favorable view of Mrs. Clinton in the most recent New York Times/CBS News survey, while 47 percent have an unfavorable one.

These numbers are not too different from the “anyone but Trump” voters in March. Then, The New York Times/CBS News survey found that just 17 percent of Republican primary voters who didn’t support Mr. Trump had a favorable view of him, while 50 percent were unfavorable. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a surprisingly bleak comparison or a favorable precedent, since Mr. Trump has since made gains in the polls. 

Mrs. Clinton could get a lot of help in unifying the party, whether from President Obama, Elizabeth Warren or perhaps even Mr. Sanders himself.

The polls after Mrs. Clinton wins the nomination — and especially after the two party conventions — will provide a somewhat fairer comparison between the two candidates.

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