Republican front-runner Donald Trump is asked repeatedly about polls showing him trailing Hillary Clinton badly in the general election. He always says the same thing: other polls show him winning, and Clinton will be very easy to defeat.
Is Trump merely blowing smoke, or could he re-draw the partisan landscape and win in November? Could he carry Michigan, or even New York, as he has started to assert?
Trump’s national general election poll numbers are remarkably consistent. He trailed Clinton in 19 of the last 20 polls, all of which were conducted in February or March. His average deficit in those surveys was slightly over 7 points. His median deficit was 8 points.
Of the five major media polls conducted since the beginning of March – for ABC News/Washington Post; Fox News; CNN and two for NBC News/Wall Street Journal – Trump trailed Clinton by 5 points to 13 points, with the average margin at 9 points.
Of course, polls can and do change, and the national conventions, the fall debates and the general election dynamic could scramble the electorate, producing new and different polls. Nobody should assume that today’s polls predict November’s results.
But acknowledging that doesn’t change the current numbers or obscure the current reality, which shows Trump drawing anywhere from the mid-30s to the low 40s against Clinton, who generally draws anywhere from the mid-40s to the low 50s in hypothetical ballot tests against him.
Given Trump’s “favorable/unfavorable” poll numbers, those ballot test results should not surprise anyone.
The March 3-6 Washington Post/ABC News poll found Trump’s unfavorable rating among all adults at 67 percent, with a clear majority of respondents, 56 percent, saying they had a strongly unfavorable opinion of him. In contrast, Clinton’s unfavorable rating was 52 percent – a high number but not close to Trump’s. Clinton’s “strongly unfavorable” number was 41 percent.
The same survey showed only one-quarter of respondents believed that Trump was “honest and trustworthy,” “understands the problems of people like you,” or “has the right kind of personality and temperament” to be an effective president.
In a battle of “who do I dislike less,” Clinton starts with a considerable advantage.
CNN/ORC’s Feb. 24-27 survey found Clinton’s favorability rating among all Americans at 42 percent to Trump’s 37 percent. One out of three Republicans had an unfavorable view of Trump, while Clinton’s numbers among Democrats were strong at 83 percent favorable/14 percent unfavorable.
Clinton’s popularity among Democrats limits Trump’s ability to attract Democratic voters. Though Trump has some appeal among working-class whites, many of them left the Democratic Party years ago. His overall image and his performance so far in suburban counties suggest that, if he is the GOP nominee, he will lose at least as many normally Republican voters as he will gain in new Democratic adherents or previous non-voters.
Of course, presidential elections are won or lost in the Electoral College. Based on the results of 2012 and previous elections, Trump would seem to be able to count on a core of 20 reliably Republican states that were Mitt Romney’s best performers. McCain also carried those states, which have 191 electoral votes. (See here.)
Romney’s next three best states were Indiana, Missouri and Georgia, which he won with between 8 and 10.5 points. That’s still a considerable margin, so Trump might be able to carry them. But Indiana went for Obama in 2008, and while the other two states certainly prefer Republicans in presidential politics, they could become competitive. McCain won Missouri in 2008 by about 4,000 votes.
Romney’s closest win, by a margin just over 2 points, was in North Carolina. Obama won the Tar Heel State four years earlier, and Trump could cause many GOP defections in the state’s large, upscale suburban population around Charlotte and in the Triad. The state definitely would be in play for Clinton.
In the unlikely case that all those states fell into place for Trump, he would have two possible paths to the remaining electoral votes he would need. The first would require him to carry all or most of the four closest Obama states in 2012: Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado.
Virginia and Colorado have large, upscale suburban electorates unlikely to vote for Trump, and three of the four states have large Hispanic populations, Florida, Colorado and Virginia.
In spite of Trump’s assertion that Hispanics love him, he is unlikely to do well in states with large Hispanic populations. A September NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed almost three in four Hispanics had a negative view of Trump.
Trump’s other — and only real – path toward 270 electoral votes would be though states with substantial white working-class voters. Unfortunately for him, those states have traditionally performed much worse for Republicans than the country as a whole.
But it is Trump’s claim that he can carry New York that most clearly undermines his promises of victory.
Obama won New York in 2012 with 63 percent of the vote, just about the same percentage he received four years earlier. Al Gore drew 60.2 percent in 2000, and John Kerry received 58.4 percent in 2004, when he was winning only 48.3 percent nationally. (See New York State Board of Elections data.)
In other words, New York State performs at least 10 points more Democratic than the country does, which means Trump would need to win the popular vote nationally by close to 60 percent to have a chance of carrying New York. And that, of course, will never happen.
Trump makes plenty of wild, unsupported claims, so it shouldn’t be surprising that his promise to defeat Clinton appears to lack substance. At this point in the cycle, Trump starts off in a weak position even against Clinton, who herself has plenty of problems as a general election nominee. He would need to improve his own image and further destroy Clinton’s, and even then, he would need to overcome 2016’s increasingly minority electorate and the Electoral College’s Democratic tilt.
It’s early and anything can happen in politics these days, apparently. But Trump’s ability to win a multi-candidate GOP primary should not be confused with his general election appeal. There are already signs of substantial Republican defections should Trump become his party’s nominee, and the chances of a 1964-style blowout are much greater than a stunning Trump November victory.