Where the Race Stands -- Post-RNC Edition

Where the Race Stands -- Post-RNC Edition
Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times via AP
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Back in the summer of 2015, when Donald Trump rode down the escalator in Trump Tower, the debate was not about whether he would win the Republican nomination, much less the presidency. It was about whether he would even file his papers. He did.

The debate quickly coalesced around how many weeks he would last. Weeks turned into months, as he quickly took the lead in the polls. The debate then shifted to how soon he would become this cycle’s Herman Cain, who led in the polls briefly in 2011 before collapsing, followed by confident predictions about why his insensitive comments about Megyn Kelly, John McCain and a variety of minority groups would lead to his downfall. At the end of 2015, he had led in the polls for months. In December, I gave him a 25 percent chance of becoming the nominee, and remember questioning whether I really wanted to be that far out of step with the overall punditry’s view of his candidacy.

As we moved into the primary season, we debated just how low the ceiling on his poll numbers would be, why he would begin to lose as candidates dropped out, why his continued losses in debates (in the eyes of pundits) would tank his chances of winning, why his followers wouldn’t show up to vote, how various states wouldn’t prove to be well-suited for him, and so forth. I know. I made some of these arguments myself. Yet he managed to outlast 16 other candidates and clinched the Republican nomination in May.

We – by we, I mean online commentators – seem to have learned nothing from all of this. Since Trump’s nomination, we’ve heard that Hillary Clinton would wrap up the race after Trump’s comment about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, or after Sanders endorsed Clinton, or after Trump’s supposedly disastrous convention. We’ve heard about how he is effectively stuck at 40 percent in the polls and would have a hard time pulling ahead.

Now we are in the post-convention phase of the campaign. Trump leads by .2 percent in the RCP Average and has cleared 44 percent of the vote. FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a 46.1 percent chance of winning overall and a 54.5 percent chance of winning on Election Day, if things look then the way they do today. Yet we continue to hear arguments as to why he just won’t win: She’ll move into the lead after her convention, or after the debates, or when people go into the polls and have a final soul-searching moment.

At a certain point, the goalposts have got to stop moving. It should be obvious by this point that, yes, there really is a winning Trump coalition with a non-trivial chance of coming together. I don’t think the evidence compels a conclusion that Trump is going to win, but the fact that he really might do so strikes me as undeniable.

Nevertheless, echoing the commentary about the Brexit vote in England, there seems to be vehement resistance to serious suggestions that Trump might emerge victorious. Even among analysts who concede there’s a real chance Trump can win, almost all of them seem to think Clinton will eventually pull it out. This is the equivalent of everyone concluding that the opening possession in a game is determined by a coin toss, but then unanimously declaring that the coin will come up heads.

I think there are two factors at work here. First, as I noted back in June, there’s a real tendency toward groupthink among the pundits. This most likely stems from the fact that both liberal and conservative intellectuals dislike Trump. For many, the prospect of a Trump presidency remains unthinkable. Given this, many go looking for arguments to confirm their pre-existing biases that Trump won’t win. Since no one actually has a crystal ball, it is unsurprising that people are able to find those arguments.

To really do this well, though, people should be looking for arguments as to why the outcome they dislike will happen – a quest that is, admittedly, made more difficult by the fact that no one, right or left, is actually making such arguments. The bottom line here is that when people say, “I don’t think Trump will win,” what they often mean is, “God, I sure hope he doesn’t.”

Second, I don’t think people fully appreciate just how damaged Clinton is as a candidate. It is true, I think, that Republicans have nominated the one candidate whose flaws can neutralize Clinton’s downsides. I think Republicans get this. But I don’t think Democrats realize that they have a candidate whose flaws neutralize Trump’s.

For example, pages have been written about Trump’s atrocious favorable ratings, which currently sit at 36.3 percent positive, 56.6 percent negative. But Clinton’s favorable ratings are not much better: She has a 38.4 percent positive rating and a 55.4 percent negative rating. That difference isn’t exactly meaningless, but it comes close.

What’s happened is that, amazingly, this race has been transformed into a race between a generic Republican and a generic Democrat. Right now, the so-called “fundamentals” of economic growth, presidential approval and incumbency point toward a slight Republican advantage. The polls simply reflect this.

The point here is not that Trump is guaranteed to win. Clinton maintains a large advertising and organizational advantage over Trump. But she has already dumped $50 million in unanswered advertising on his head, with little movement in the polls.

It is also 100 percent true that this is the middle of a convention bounce. I completely agree that the polls aren’t predictive right now, and that we should check back in September, see who is leading then, and by how much. To use a morbid analogy I’m fond of, if I were in a car wreck, woke up from a coma in December, and found out that Clinton had won by eight points, I would not be at all shocked. She may well emerge from her convention strong and jump out to a lead, and not look back. At the same time, however, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if she gets no bounce, and Trump doesn’t look back.

Trump’s bounce is a sign that his campaign is getting some things right. It wasn’t guaranteed he would get one – see John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Likewise, it isn’t guaranteed that Clinton will get one – see George H.W. Bush in 1992.

All it means is that people who thought he was such a bad candidate that he could never get a bounce – or that he was forever stuck at 40 percent – were off, once again. It doesn’t mean that the naysayers will continue to be off, nor does it mean that Trump has some sort of magical powers that we mere mortals can’t understand. It simply suggests that our internalized biases continue to skew our analysis, and that we have to come up with some way to correct for these.

No one really knows where the race is going to be in a week, to say nothing of where it will be in November. What I do know is that if you still don’t believe Trump has a very real chance of winning this, you are deeply in denial.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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