September 9, 2016

Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump in the latest RCP poll average is less than 3 points, well within the margin of error; and polls in the all-important battleground states are now essentially tied. Former George W. Bush aide Scott Jennings analyzed the latest data for Fox News and made some interesting observations:

First, Hillary has outspent Trump by a “crushing amount” in the swing states, yet they’re basically tied. That shows that for all the talk of big money buying elections (something Hillary routinely decries even while practicing it), it appears that wall-to-wall ads can’t force voters to swallow a candidate they don’t like or trust any more than ads could sway them to order a sardine chalupa at Taco Bell.

Second, Trump’s rebound isn’t due so much to him rising as her falling. I’ve pointed out for years that Hillary has a natural ceiling of around 47% support, and that’s exactly where she’s stuck in the RCP poll average (even her husband never got more than 49%, owing his presidency to Ross Perot twice splitting the vote). Despite all her money, ads and celebrity endorsements; the media’s 24/7 promotion of her and attacks on her opponent; and a quarter-century in the public eye (or perhaps because of that last thing), 53% of voters remain steadfastly averse to trusting her with the most powerful office in the world.

Third, Jennings noted the unusually high number of undecideds, voters who say they’ll support a third party candidate, and Republicans who’ve yet to come around to supporting Trump. They all currently total 6%, enough to turn a tie into a decisive 53-47% win if they break either way. Jennings says that shows how many people are still looking for a “door out of the box” of having to vote for Hillary or Trump. But they'll eventually have to face the fact that in practical terms, there is no such door.

The good news for Trump is that he is the lesser-known quantity. Democrats have tried to use that to paint him as a scary, risky unknown. But there are no undecideds who don’t know exactly what they’ll get with Hillary, and that’s why they still can't commit to support her even after having 25 years to think it over. Voters may put off the inevitable or flirt with spoiler third parties, but when they get into the privacy of the voting booth, they’ll be faced with only one real alternative if they don’t want four more years of Obama policies and Clinton scandals.

We saw this before in 1980. September’s polls had Independent John Anderson with around 15% support, but when it came down to casting a vote for him and dooming themselves to four more years of Jimmy Carter, many voters just couldn’t do it. Anderson pulled less than 7% in the election, and Reagan won in a landslide. That’s not to suggest that Trump is another Reagan, just that the prospect of four years of Hillary Clinton is about as appealing to most people as four more years of Jimmy Carter.

Bottom line: it’s hard to scare people with fear of the unknown when the worst thing they can possibly imagine is more of the known.

Here’s some more on the polls with some theories of why people support the candidates they do.

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