Can Trump Come Back?
Last week was a bad week for Donald Trump, to put it mildly. Most of the problems he had, from declining to endorse John McCain and Paul Ryan to asking that a baby be removed from his rally (while many believe he was joking, that isn’t how the story played in the media), were made worse by the fight in which he engaged with the parents of a slain U.S. soldier. The war of words with Khizr and Ghazala Khan acted as an accelerant, turning events that would have been dismissed as “Trump being Trump” into a raging inferno.
Can Trump come back? We should remember that it is only August, and the media will move on from the Khans. We should also recall that for all of Trump’s problems, Hillary Clinton has many of her own. But for her opponent’s missteps, the past week would have been dominated by an awful news cycle for Clinton, potentially stepping on her convention bounce (you can read Amy Walter’s excellent piece on this subject here). The two daily trackers this cycle – Reuters and the Los Angeles Times – have both shown Clinton’s lead either leveling off or declining, while the RCP polling average has been fairly steady for the past few days, so a regression to mean may be forthcoming.
But perhaps it is best to once again distinguish between the typical race and the Trump-Clinton one. Could a typical candidate overcome Trump’s current seven-point deficit in the polls? The answer is yes. In 2012, Nate Silver looked at the state of the race two weeks post-convention, compared it to the result on Election Day, and found that the median shift in the polls was three points toward the challenger. This makes some sense, as the incumbent party always holds its convention second, and we would expect the post-convention bounce to gradually fade. A similar shift this year would produce a result roughly similar to 2012, with Clinton winning by four points.
Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. First, there aren’t many observations for this comparison – it is always dicey to generalize from 11 cases, which is more akin to a collection of anecdotes than data. This is especially true when the polls actually shifted toward the incumbent party in four instances – 1968, 1976, 1988 and 1992. Nevertheless, there are four examples where the polls shifted at least seven points toward the challenging party: 1972, 1980, 1996 and 2008. Moreover, we’re not even two weeks out from the incumbent party convention; the better comparison point is probably the polls a week from now, which may be closer (of course, given how this year has gone so far, the polls may be farther apart).
So as a general matter, we wouldn’t count out a challenging candidate who is down seven points this soon after the incumbent party’s convention. It’s certainly possible to come back from such a disadvantage. With that said, a normal challenger would surely be disfavored at this point, especially since many of the above races involved blowouts, where we would expect some type of regression to mean.
To say that this is an abnormal year is a bit of an understatement, however. We don’t have a lot of data for challengers who have such strong self-destructive tendencies. Google “Donald Trump’s bad week,” and the first three results actually come from three different months, illustrating the ongoing problems he has had with his campaign (as well as his multiple comebacks). At the same time, we don’t have a lot of data for incumbents that have difficulty getting a simple story straight on one of the key issues of the race. Regardless of your view of how this contest will go, there’s little doubt that Clinton is in a strong electoral position right now, and that it is Trump who needs a significant shift in the playing field if he is to win.