Polls used to tell Donald Trump something. They told him he was winning the Republican primary race, that his message and style were connecting with voters, that he was more popular than any of his rivals.
Trump talked about polls all the time, at his rallies, his news conferences, his interviews with reporters. Day and night, it was polls, polls, polls.
And by the way, the polls were right â?? and Trump was right about the polls. He really was winning the GOP race.
Now the polls are telling Trump something else. He’s not winning. He’s behind Hillary Clinton by a substantial amount in national polls and by smaller amounts in key state polls. The polls tell him he is in deep trouble with major voting groups â?? like Republicans, and women â?? without whose substantial support he can’t win.
Hillary Clinton is 6.8 points ahead of Trump in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Another way of looking at that is Trump is farther behind Clinton now than Mitt Romney ever was at any time after clinching the 2012 Republican nomination. And Romney, as Trump has reminded the world many, many times, lost.
Clinton has led Trump in every single one of the last 21 polls in the RealClearPolitics average.
The polls tell Trump he is not building his base of voters. After the self-inflicted wounds of the Judge Curiel Trump University matter, and the failure to respond effectively to the Orlando shootings, the best the polls can tell Trump now is that he has not fallen as far as he might have.
“Presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump has lost only two percentage points to likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, despite enduring a series of media controversies and the firing of his campaign manager,” the pro-Trump Breitbart News reported Sunday. For Trump, that’s good news.
The Trump campaign probably has a legitimate complaint against one of those last 21 polls showing Clinton leading â?? the Washington Post-ABC poll released Sunday. It showed Clinton leading Trump by 12 points in a head-to-head matchup, resulting in a Post headline blaring that Trump’s support has “plunged.”
The size of the Clinton lead is due to the fact that the Post included a large number of Democrats in its sample â?? 12 percentage points more than Republicans. That’s probably too many (although it conceivably might not be). Looking at other surveys, it’s more likely that when it comes to party identification, the electorate is anywhere between +4 Democrat and +6 Democrat, but not the +12 in the Post survey.
The Wall Street Journal poll, the details of which came out Monday evening, had Clinton leading by five in a sample that was +4 Democrat. On Monday, NBC sought to explain the difference between its poll and ABC’s this way:
Our poll has Democrats with a four-point party ID advantage, while the WaPo/ABC poll has Democrats with a 12-point party ID edge. So when in doubt, average them out â?? and in the latest RealClearPolitics average, Clinton leads Trump by nearly seven points in a head-to-head matchup. And remember, seven points was the final margin of the 2008 Obama-McCain contest.
So the good news for Trump is that he’s somewhere between five points and maybe six or eight points behind Clinton. But not double digits! It’s something to hold on to.
One bit of terrible news in the Post-ABC poll â?? one not affected by its partisan mix â?? is Trump’s weakness among Republicans. Ninety percent of Democrats told Post pollsters they plan to vote for Clinton. Just 77 percent of Republicans said they plan to vote for Trump. Before anything else, the Republican nominee has to win over the Republican party. Eight weeks after clinching the nomination, Trump hasn’t done it.
There is some actual good news for Trump in the polls. For example, the Wall Street Journal pollsters asked which candidate would be better suited to handle a number of presidential responsibilities. Trump trails Clinton on who would be a better commander-in-chief, who would better handle foreign policy, and who would better unite the country â?? three big ones. On the other hand, Trump leads Clinton on who would better deal with the economy, who would better deal with terrorism and national security, who would better stand up for America, and who would better bring change to Washington. Those are big, too.
In addition, those polled believed, by a significant margin â?? 16 points, 41 to 25 â?? that Trump is more honest and trustworthy than Clinton. Given the media coverage of the last couple of months, that’s quite an achievement, even given Clinton’s weaknesses in that area.
In addition, Trump can take some comfort in the fact that Republicans, after all their bad press, are still very much in the running in November. In what is called the generic ballot question, when voters are asked which party they would rather see control Congress after this year’s elections, Republicans and Democrats are tied at 46 percent each in the new Wall Street Journal poll. That’s actually an uptick for the GOP from earlier this year.
“It is encouraging for Republicans that the preference for control of the House is dead even right now between whether voters want Republicans or Democrats in charge in the next Congress,” GOP pollster Bill McInturff, who co-runs the Journal poll, told me in an email exchange. “Between a high percentage of voters saying the country is off on the wrong track and continued significant economic concerns, Republican prospects in House and Senate races look stable-to-positive in today’s poll.”
When faced with new poll results, some Trump defenders have fallen back on their old 2012 habit of “unskewing” the polls. Trump himself seems inclined to do that, too. But that was a disastrous tactic four years ago, and it will be no better this time. The polls, taken together, are telling Donald Trump something. They’re telling him that what he is doing now is not working, that he has to convince voters that he is a plausible president, that he has to present a more coherent message and not obsess on things like a lawsuit against one of his companies or a particularly lovely Scottish golf course. The polls are telling Trump that it is long past time to be presidential. And finally, they’re telling Trump there’s still a chance â?? if he would only listen.