Donald Trump is climbing in the polls, winnowing his once-gaping deficit to a bare two or three points and leaping ahead in key states like Ohio and Florida.
A month ago, Trump seemed
a doomed candidate, unable to escape daily controversy or secure the support of party insiders. But new discipline from team
Trump and missteps by opponent Hillary Clinton have revitalized his fortunes.
Look past the daily campaign scrum, though, and it makes sense that this would be a tight race. Trump may be an unusual candidate, but he’s the Republican nominee, and in a country as politically divided as modern America, that guarantees him a lot of Republican votes.
So, if you ever find yourself wondering: who are these Trump voters? Mostly, they are the same ones who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012.
How close is the election?
Closer than it’s been since the Republican National Convention. National polling averages now give Clinton a two- to four -point edge, with every indication that the momentum is increasingly on Trump’s side.
Some polls are even narrower than that. A Thursday survey from The New York Times and CBS News found that when you include third-party candidates, Clinton and Trump are essentially tied.
The unusual role played by third-party candidates this year makes it especially hard to pin down the exact contours of the race. Together, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein sometimes touch 10 percent in the polls, thanks largely to support from young voters.
But when pressed, a lot of these third-party voters prefer Clinton to Trump, which suggests a kind of cushion for the Democratic candidate. If Trump gets too close, third-party leaners may shed their quixotic preference and break for Clinton.
Why is the race tightening?
It’s always dangerous to attribute shifting polls to specific events, but recent weeks have undoubtedly seen some important campaign adjustments.
For one thing, Trump hasn’t tripped into any major controversies. That may sound like a low bar, but for a mercurial candidate who has picked fights with Gold Star parents and the Hispanic-heritage judge overseeing a fraud case against Trump University, it’s fairly noteworthy.
Whether this counts as a long-awaited “pivot” to political seriousness for Trump is still unclear, but since picking a new campaign team in mid-August he seems to have found a way to express his views without generating widespread backlash.
But that’s just one part of the polling story. Yes, Trump is up. But Clinton has also been collapsing — sometimes all too literally.
She endured a barrage of recent negative coverage involving her family foundation and her handling of State Department e-mails. And while these investigations did not yield the backhanded activity her opponents hoped for, the PR damage was still done.
Then came lunghazi, the scandal around Hillary Clinton’s undisclosed pneumonia. Even to staunch supporters, it seemed a pointless campaign error, feeding one of the most ingrained anti-Clinton narratives — namely, that she is pathologically averse to transparency, even for trivial things like getting sick.
Can Trump continue to gain, or possibly even win?
The betting markets aren’t convinced, giving Trump a roughly one-in-three shot at victory in November. Fivethirtyeight’s prediction model basically agrees, although election guru Sam Wang at Princeton says it’s more like 10 percent.
Those odds may seem steep, but they’re hardly impossible. Ever come back after losing the first of a best-of-three rock, paper, scissors contest? The probability of that is one in four.
The reason Trump has stuck close — and may stay close right up to the end — is that he can count on Republican voters. That’s easy to forget, amid all the talk of Trump’s unprecedented candidacy and the searing questions about what’s driving the Trump phenomenon.
But just compare Romney’s base of support with Trump’s, in recent polling.
Trump voters look like Romney voters
Note: CBS/NY Times results adjusted to reflect 2-party vote share
In 2012, Romney had the support of 52 percent of men; Trump had the backing of 56 percent of men in polls this month. Romney had the backing of 44 percent of women, and Trump has the support of 43 percent. Just 6 percent of blacks supported both men.
These numbers are admittedly an imperfect comparison; one set comes from Election Day 2012 and another from a single, adjusted poll in September 2016.
Still, the consistency is striking, despite the manifold ideological and temperamental differences between Romney and Trump — to say nothing of Romney’s role as a leading anti-Trump campaigner.
The only big difference is among white college grads, where Romney fared much better. But Trump has a strategy to compensate for that hole: get many more noncollege grads to show up on Election Day.
In the end, Trump can’t just match Romney if he wants to win, he has to best him. But the fact that Trump can count on so many of these Romney-Republican voters is a big advantage. It gives him a solid floor of support that he can stand on as he hones his campaign skills and works to capture additional votes in quest of the presidency.