Despite Donald Trump’s disastrous post-convention performance, the presidential race is closer than it appears. While polls show he has decidedly and deservedly lost ground to Hillary Clinton, they tell only half the story. The other half is turnout. Looking at both, it becomes clear why Mrs. Clinton wants this race over before Nov. 8.
National polling following the conventions showed Hillary moving ahead. Rasmussen’s recent survey of 1,000 likely voters found Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. Trump 44 percent to 40 percent, up from her previous week’s 43-42 percent advantage.
Mr. Trump’s drop is seemingly even larger considering the large turnout discrepancy in the party primaries earlier this year. As Mr. Trump noted in his nomination acceptance speech, Republican primary turnout was way up, while Democratic turnout was way down.
Simplistically, we could take the approach of “that was then, this is now” and dismiss the earlier turnout data and focus only on current polling. However, that would be a mistake.
Both methods of voter measurement have their strengths and weaknesses.
Primary voting is a proactive response — gauging the preferences of individuals motivated enough to act and likely do so again — in a wide number of states. However, those results are now months old. Opinion polls are more timely, but provide reactive responses — individuals may switch or never actually show up to vote — and usually only on a national basis (a drawback in an election determined state-by-state).
However, applying today’s polling averages to this year’s primary election figures gives an illustration of where this year’s presidential election could go. This view is far less rosy for Mrs. Clinton.
In 2016, both parties held presidential primaries in 35 states. In 12 of those, Mr. Trump outpolled Mrs. Clinton. In 20 states, Republicans outpolled Democrats.
In the Rasmussen poll, 72 percent of Republicans and 11 percent of Democrats supported Mr. Trump. Mrs. Clinton had 82 percent of Democrats’ support and 14 percent of Republicans’. By adjusting the primary voting results in the 35 states by these percentages, we see Mrs. Clinton’s state-by-state danger, which is hidden in conventional national polling.
Multiplying 2016 primary voting results by the Rasmussen polling of Democratic and Republican voter preferences shows Mr. Trump winning 16 of the 35 primary states. Among those 16 are three crucial battleground states — Florida, Ohio and Virginia — comprising 60 electoral votes. President Obama won all three in 2012.
While the popular vote difference between Mr. Obama and Mitt Romney — 3.8 percent — was far closer than most recall, the electoral vote margin was a lopsided 332 to 206. In our presidential election zero-sum contests, those three states shown potentially flipping to Mr. Trump would dramatically change those totals: Mrs. Clinton would have 272 and Mr. Trump 266.
Such a change in 2012 would made the election a tossup, because the magic electoral vote number is 270.
Mr. Obama’s average popular vote margin of victory in those three battleground states was just 2.8 percent — a full percentage point below his 2012 national popular vote margin of victory.
The possibility that Mr. Trump will poll ahead of Mr. Romney, and the virtual certainty that Mrs. Clinton will poll behind Mr. Obama, reveals this scenario’s plausibility.
But what about those voters missed by this analysis — Independents, who may not have participated in either party’s primary and may only vote in November? According to the Rasmussen polling, Mr. Trump held a 41 percent to 29 percent lead.
There are other factors to consider, too.
First, Mrs. Clinton has found it difficult to draw Democrats to her. It happened when she failed to win the 2008 Democratic nomination and reoccurred this year when Bernie Sanders took her the distance, continuing to hold 40 percent of the vote throughout the primaries. It is hardly unthinkable that she could lose significant Democrats to Mr. Trump.
And Mr. Trump doesn’t need that many Democrats. He would gain by trading equal percentages of Republicans for Democrats with Mrs. Clinton. The reason is simple: There are more Democrats. Exiting polling in 2012 showed Democrats made up 38 percent of voters to Republicans’ 32 percent.
Mr. Trump can also win through a decline in Democrats’ turnout. Again, the primaries showed this happening — despite the increased energy coming from Mr. Sanders’ insurgency.
Second, Mrs. Clinton remains in a close race despite massively outspending Mr. Trump and benefiting from almost universally negative coverage of the Republican by the mainstream media. What happens if these advantages dissipate? Money will equalize as November approaches. Media coverage will be less filtered in venues such as the debates — the forum where Mr. Trump dispatched 17 Republican rivals.
The question is not whether Mr. Trump can win in November. Below the media radar, he already had been doing quite well. The questions are whether he can keep doing what he has done, and whether Mrs. Clinton can reverse what she has been failing to do. So far the answers appear to be “no” and “yes” — hence Mrs. Clinton’s recent bump in the polls.
However, polls are ephemeral and they are only half of the story. There is still a lot of campaign left — particularly if Mr. Trump ends the distractions. This is why Mrs. Clinton’s campaign is so anxious for the story to end quickly. The race remains closer than it appears.
• J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.