The latest battleground state polls show the presidential race is much tighter than the mainstream media and some prognosticators would have you believe. And there is still room for it to flip either way in the closing days.
4 state polls by Axiom Strategies-Remington Research Group conducted Oct. 20 to 22 find Donald Trump ahead of Hillary Clinton in North Carolina 47 to 44 percent and in Ohio 46 to 42 percent. Clinton is ahead in Pennsylvania 45 to 42 percent. And in Florida things are all tied up at 46 percent apiece.
Another poll by Bloomberg in Florida conducted Oct. 21 to 24 shows Trump ahead 45 to 43 percent.
Meaning, things could not be any closer. And there is room to pick up the margin of victory in each state. In the Remington polls, in North Carolina, 5 percent remain undecided. In Ohio, 6 percent are undecided. In Florida, 5 percent are undecided. And in Pennsylvania, a whopping 7 percent are undecided.
As for Bloomberg’s Florida poll, 2 percent are unsure and a curious 4 percent would not say who they preferred.
That means there are still millions of votes up for grabs, more than enough to tilt the race one way or another. And then there’s turnout and enthusiasm. Turn out a higher percentage of your supporters than your opponent, and that changes the complexion of the race, too.
It is fair to say whichever candidate banks the undecideds and channels the enthusiasm of their supporters via turnout in these key states could wind up being the next president when one considers the electoral map.
If Trump wins everything Mitt Romney won in 2012, plus Ohio and Florida, that puts him at 253 electoral college votes. Pennsylvania with its 20 electoral college votes, then, could put Trump over the top of the 270 electoral college votes needed to win.
But to get there he needs the light bulb to go off among late deciders. Take Pittsburgh, where Trump is down by just 2 points in the Remington poll, but 6 points are up for grabs as undecided. Other cities like Harrisburg, Johnstown and Philadelphia remain 8 percent undecided.
In 1989, an analysis by Nick Panagakis that appeared in the Polling Report found that 80 percent of the time, most or all undecideds tend to break for the challenger over the incumbent. Another troubling sign for incumbents is if they poll less than 50 percent consistently. As Panagakis noted, “The overwhelming evidence is that an incumbent won’t share the undecideds equally with the challenger. To suggest otherwise by emphasizing point spread or to say that an incumbent is ahead when his or her percentage is well under 50 percent leads to election day surprises.”
Keep that in mind as we head into the closing days. In these battlegrounds states, Hillary Clinton has hardly been breaking above 45 percent, let alone 50 percent. That could prove extremely problematic for her come election day if the incumbent rule applies to her. If it does, that could mean the current polls may be telling us a lot more about how the public feels about Clinton than they do about Trump.
This year in the race for the White House, President Barack Obama is not running, so the incumbent is not running per se. But Democrats do hold the White House nonetheless and remain the incumbent party. Hillary Clinton served as Obama’s Secretary of State for 4 years. She, therefore, takes on the characteristics of an incumbent.
Donald Trump on the other hand, has never held elective office — although he was very well known as a celebrity and businessman prior to running, with high name recognition — but nonetheless may take on the characteristics of the challenger.
In 2008, a similar pattern played out, where Barack Obama, the challenger, overperformed what polls said on a state-by-state basis. For example, the last few batches of polls had Obama either slightly ahead or practically tied with McCain in Ohio. Almost no one had him over 50 percent. But on election day, Obama actually won 51.5 percent of the vote in Ohio, winning by 263,000 votes. Same story in Florida, Obama, the challenger did not poll above 50 percent there — some only had him at 47 or 49 percent — but he won 51 percent of the vote there. Nowhere was McCain over 50 percent in the polls, nor was he ever leading. It didn’t bode well for McCain, who represented the incumbent Republicans.
Which is the difference here. There are plenty of polls that show Clinton ahead, and a few outliers that show Trump winning or competitive in key battleground states. While 2008 had things pretty well in hand for Obama, it’s a far more mixed bag this time around.
Still, key races remain close, so the ultimate question may be if the public views Trump as a challenger, or if based on his notoriety he’s taken on the characteristics of an incumbent. Enthusiasm also looms as a key question.
If Trump gets the challenger treatment and his supporters remain fired up, he could overperform what he’s showing in the polls right now. That is certainly what happened in the Republican primaries while they were still competitive. In state after state leading up to Ted Cruz’ last stand in Indiana, Trump overperformed his polling averages, in some cases by as much as 10 points.
To do it again, in the closing days, assuming Trump sticks his leads in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina, watch for Trump to be spending the final week barnstorming Pennsylvania making closing arguments about how it’s time for a changing of the guard. If that message resonates, then things could get very interesting come Nov. 8. Then, it becomes a turnout affair, where if Trump gets the people who say they support him plus those who remain wary of Clinton, he could win.