It has always been possible that Donald Trump could become president, in the abstract sense. There are a slew of reasons that the map and the electorate were stacked against him regardless of his campaign, of course, but the past few months of polling seem mostly to have been about determining the margin of his defeat rather than his odds of winning. For Trump to win, an awful lot would have to go right.
On Wednesday, a lot did.
At the national level, the race has followed a broad pattern: a big lead for Hillary Clinton that narrows to a tie and then balloons back out. To some extent, the question was where in that cycle we’d land Nov. 8 — a giant Clinton blowout or a narrow fight to the finish. Recent national polls have suggested the latter, that on Election Day the race would be close.
That the race is tightening appears to be largely because of wavering Republicans deciding they could back Trump after all.
A narrowing national race means necessarily that the race is tightening in battleground states, too. As of this moment, Clinton leads in four of the 10 closest battleground states and Trump leads in six, according to RealClearPolitics averages. It’s enough, if we apply those averages to the electoral college, to bring Trump within eight electoral votes of Clinton.
On Tuesday, we noted that Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes was grim, mostly because he needed to win North Carolina, Florida and Ohio and then more states on top of that. At the moment, the RCP average has Trump leading in North Carolina, a big shift from 24 hours ago. That's why he’s so tantalizingly close to the 270 electoral votes he needs.
A glut of new state polls helped shift those averages to Trump’s benefit. But hidden in the new polls, as bleak as they are in some cases, are reminders of why the race continues to be Clinton’s to lose, as long as she stops the electoral bleeding.
The good news
Pennsylvania: Clinton plus-4 (CNN-ORC), Clinton plus-4 (Monmouth University), Clinton plus-5 (Quinnipiac University)
RealClearPolitics average a week ago: Clinton plus-4.4
These results are consistent — and good news for Clinton. For Trump to pass her in the electoral college, he needs to win either North Carolina or Pennsylvania, plus another state or two. Trump has repeatedly argued that he can win the state, and he’s spending a lot of resources there. A four-point margin with six days to go isn’t unassailable, but given how the national picture has tightened, it’s a good sign for Clinton that she can count on banking the state.
Trump has led in only one poll conducted in the state since May.
North Carolina: Clinton plus-3 (Quinnipiac)
RealClearPolitics average a week ago: Clinton plus-2.3
Clinton’s showing in the state seemed wobbly in RealClearPolitics estimation earlier today, thanks to a poll from SurveyUSA showing Trump with a seven-point lead. That’s an outlier; since the first debate, Trump has led in the state in only two other polls (each from the same Republican-leaning polling firm). RCP hasn’t updated its average in the state since the Quinnipiac poll, but Clinton will probably retake a narrow lead. (Update: It’s a tie.) Again, Trump needs to win either Pennsylvania or North Carolina. If she holds both, Trump’s done.
Wisconsin: Clinton plus-6 (Marquette Law)
RealClearPolitics average a week ago: Clinton plus-6.7
Trump’s argument over the past few days has been that he’s expanding the map into Democratic territory. If he shifted the national poll numbers enough, we would see that, just as Clinton’s big lead a few weeks ago had people talking about whether she might win Texas. There’s no sign, though, that Trump has made inroads into Wisconsin. Thanks in part to continued skepticism about his candidacy from the establishment-friendly Republicans there (it was his last big primary season walloping), Democrats are more supportive of Clinton than Republicans are of Trump. We know that this correlates to bigger margins for Clinton, and so it is here.
Remember: Even if Trump wins Pennsylvania and North Carolina — as per that RCP map as of writing — he needs to pick up at least five more electoral votes. That’s harder than it seems, and a win in Wisconsin would give him that, plus insurance. But it looks as if it’s not to be.
Florida: Clinton plus-1 (Quinnipiac University), Clinton plus-2 (CNN-ORC)
RealClearPolitics average a week ago: Clinton plus-1.6
A Florida win for Clinton next Tuesday, and the race is over. Again, Trump needs it, Ohio and North Carolina or Pennsylvania — plus other states.
The bad news
Ohio: Trump plus-5 (Quinnipiac University)
RealClearPolitics average a week ago: Trump plus-1.1
Trump continues to outperform in Ohio. It has consistently been his strongest of the three must-win states, and Quinnipiac’s poll suggests that it’s pretty safely his. It’s worth noting, though, that while Trump’s lead in Ohio has grown over the past week, it’s still closer than Clinton’s lead in Pennsylvania, which has held steady. In other words, Ohio is not as safe for Trump as Pennsylvania is for Clinton.
Arizona: Trump plus-5 (CNN-ORC)
RealClearPolitics average a week ago: Clinton plus-1.5
Arizona was always a gimme for Clinton, nice to win but unnecessary. It’s a good litmus test for how the race has changed, though, with Clinton’s lead two weeks ago being in part a function of Trump’s sinking poll numbers, which now seem to have reversed. Bad news — but only if Clinton was hoping for a massive blowout on Tuesday.
The ugly news
Nevada: Trump plus-6 (CNN-ORC)
RealClearPolitics average a week ago: Clinton plus-2
Clinton doesn’t need to win Nevada, but it looked as if she was going to. As Aaron Blake noted Wednesday, Clinton has a decent-size lead in the early vote in the state. That data, though, suggests a slight shift to the Republicans over the past few days, which would reinforce polling data showing results moving toward Trump.
Polls, as we say again and again, are snapshots — and belated ones at that. Like a Polaroid of a horse race taken in the home stretch that we would have to wait to see develop. The race has moved on, but we can make guesses about where it’s going from where it was. The short version is that Clinton is still poised to win. The medium-length version is that the race seems as of it will be a lot closer than it looked two weeks ago. The long version, implied above, is that continued movement away from Clinton and toward Trump nationally could solidify those 265 electoral votes for Trump — and maybe open up some options for those other five he needs.
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