World·Analysis

The clock is still ticking, but has time run out for Trump?

Donald Trump cited a bunch of bogus online surveys to declare himself the winner of last week's debate, but there are legitimate reasons to believe his bid for the presidency is in big trouble.

There are several reasons to believe Clinton might be unstoppable come November

Donald Trump's chances of winning the presidency aren't looking good, despite what unscientific online surveys following last week's debate suggest. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

I voted for Donald Trump as the winner in last week's presidential debate. In fact, I voted for him several times, and again this morning.

I did so while experimenting with some polls on websites (Slate, Drudge, and others) where it's fairly easy to vote multiple times. So, if you were fooled into thinking Trump was, in fact, the winner of the debate last week, that's on me.

Those online surveys aside, what most people who watched the debate really think (including me), is that Hillary Clinton won.

Even if you didn't watch, you might have heard the punditry, supported by a couple of legitimate post-debate polls, declare Clinton won the thing hands down.

But the deception of a Trump triumph continues, aided, of course, by Trump as he trumpets the bogus online polls.

That particular part of the deception was enabled by websites such as Conservative Treehouse, which directed web traffic explicitly to skew Trump's numbers in more than a dozen Internet polls.

"Vote for Donald Trump right now," urged a site called TruthFeed, and linked to the websites where you could do so.

No wonder so many Trump supporters seem to believe that 81% of the country (the Drudge poll) agrees with them that Trump won the debate. And many of those supporters will now presumably dismiss legitimate polls that show a post-debate bounce for Clinton.

Never mind that those are probably the same people who swore by the scientific polls when they showed Trump driving a bulldozer through the field of Republican candidates during the primaries earlier this year. 

That's just human nature at work.
Supporters of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump cheer as Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Manheim, Pa., last Saturday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

But there's a real story that polls are telling us: the presidential race has stayed pretty consistent throughout the campaign. Except for a day or two after the Republican convention, Clinton has led Trump in national polls since primary season when both clinched their nominations. The size of her lead has fluctuated, but the overall shape of the race has not. 

The evidence is found in poll aggregation sites such as Éric Grenier's CBC Presidential Poll Tracker and the RealClearPolitics.com polling average. 

A single poll, the LA Times/USC poll, has consistently put Trump ahead of Clinton by about five points. But that's not changed the story of the polling averages and there are reasons to believe that particular poll's methodology is what accounts for its different results. It's likely what pollsters call a "house effect"— a poll that consistently leans in the same measurable way, and doesn't represent the discovery of some warp in the electorate that the rest of the pollsters somehow miss over and over again.

Polling in swing states has been more topsy-turvy and is arguably more important. But when all the data is force-fed into the forecasting models used by FiveThirtyEight.com, Daily Kos, the Princeton Election Consortium and others, Clinton still comes out on top.

Lesser of two evils 

We should consider other data, too.

There is a higher percentage than usual of undecided voters and those who say they support third party candidates this election. 

Their numbers typically shrink by election day and that should be expected this time, too.  After all, voters know that neither Green Party Leader Jill Stein nor Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is going to be president. So if those voters want to make a difference, they might just decide to hold their noses and mark an X for whichever of the top two candidates doesn't make them want to gag.

That means personal popularity matters.

It's true, both Trump and Clinton are historically unpopular party choices, but he wins this dubious honour. Once the choice is seen clearly — it's either chicken or fish, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Trump ally, likes to say — then Clinton probably has an advantage as the lesser of two evils.
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton are both unpopular choices for their parties. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium adds another important point: as exciting as this election has been, it hasn't made voters more excitable. In fact, the electorate has been on a 20-year glide toward stability. The 2016 polling has showed an electorate more stable in its opinions than at any time since the data was collected.

That makes sense when you consider how polarized the electorate has become since the 1990s.

But it's also a fact that argues against sudden and surprising plot twists in the remaining weeks of the campaign.

And there is another bit of data to pile on top of all that: In the past 40 years — 10 presidential elections — the candidate leading in public opinion after the first debate has won the White House every time.

Again, this time that's Clinton, not Trump.

Widening data gap

David Plouffe, back when he was senior adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama in 2012. He's says Clinton is a lock to win this election. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
But maybe we're looking at the wrong data. That's the view of David Plouffe, who figured prominently in Barack Obama's campaigns for the White House in 2008 and 2012.

The president's former senior adviser argues that between what's publicly known and what's privately known, there exists an ever-widening data gap. Democrats especially have new and richly granular detail about voters that polling can never match.

Plouffe rates Clinton's chances of winning in November at 100 per cent. When he says so, it doesn't sound like hubris. 

All of these things taken together are part of Trump's new reality show.

He is trailing Clinton and last week's debate might have been his last best chance to turn things around. He didn't; he knows it. Maybe that explains his wildly self-destructive behaviour since.

And that makes you wonder what's to come. 

About the Author

Keith Boag

Washington Correspondent

One of the CBC's premier political reporters, Keith Boag is currently based in Washington, D.C., following stints in Los Angeles and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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