A few national polls showing Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton in the general election have many on the Left in full panic mode. To be sure, Trump presidency is an alarming possibility, but, for a number of reasons, they ought to be concerned, but not panicked. At the same time, there are some reasons for concern. I discuss each.
Reasons not to worry
1. Trump isn’t really winning. It’s just a few polls out of many. Most poll aggregators including Huffington Post and FiveThirtyEight have Clinton up by 1 or 2% (RealClearPolitics is an exception, showing Trump with a slight lead). And while national polls on Election Day are fairly predictive of Electoral College results, these polls aren’t aggregated state-level polls that would allow us to build a full-fledged model. We just don’t have enough polls yet. Moreover, candidates almost always get a short-lived bump after wrapping up the nomination.
2. It’s too early to matter. The NYT Upshot has a great piece this morning showing that it’s too early for the polls to even be meaningfully predictive. Punchline: “Since 1980, the polling average 167 days before the general election has been off by about 8.8 percentage points.”
3. The party will unite. We’re probably looking at Clinton’s low point. Four weeks ago, the Republican Party looked to be in disorder compared to the relatively united Democrats who were having a love-in primary. Now, the GOP is slowly coalescing around Trump and the primary between Hillary and Bernie has turned pissy. But several things will likely happen once Hillary wraps up the nomination formally and accepts the nomination at the Democratic convention. First, Obama, who has high favorables with Dems and independents, will endorse and campaign for Clinton. Second, the Bernie supporters will come around. Not all of them, but most. Right now, depending on the poll, 55-60% of them say they will support Clinton. According to Nate Silver, if that number increased to 75%, Clinton would immediately be up by 4-5% in the national polls. That 75% figure is well below the comparable figure in the past. The Dean supporters came around, the Clinton supporters came around. It happens every time.
4. Most people aren’t paying attention. Do you know that 18% of independents have never heard of Bernie Sanders and another 12% have no opinion of him? If you’re reading this post, you are a weirdo. Normal voters aren’t paying attention to Trump’s outrageous comments. They don’t know about Bernie Bros or the Nevada convention. They’re not paying attention. So, sorry, journalists and their political junkie readers who need a new dose of drama every day, you just have to wait.
Reasons to worry
1. A third is still a lot. The betting markets have Clinton’s implied probability of winning at 66.67%. In other words, if this election played out three times, we’d expect Trump to win once. There’s a one in three chance that a major earthquake with hit the Pacific Northwest in the next 45 years. If I lived there, I’d be worried and buy insurance or move.
2. Republican dominance. I’m fairly confident that Clinton will win, but if she does, she will still probably face an obstinate and extremist Republican House, majority Republican governors, and Republican control of most state legislatures. GOP control ain’t going away.
3. A real fissure. Trump is the candidate who launched a thousand thinkpieces about the breaking up of the Republican Party. Some have suggested that the same is happening with the Bernie contingent and the Democratic Party. That’s wrong. Bernie – whatever he may say about socialism – is a conventional Democrat, just further left. Most Hillary supporters say they’d vote for Bernie. By contrast, Trump breaks the conventional spectrum on the Right. Is he a moderate? A radical? He’s disavowed by some party elites (e.g., the Bushes) in a way that Bernie just isn’t (despite his seeming death feud with Debbie Wasserman-Schultz).
So, who would break the spectrum on the Left? Ross Douthat told Ezra Klein that he thinks it would be someone like a BlackLivesMatter candidate. Identity politics have already demonstrated their capacity to divide traditional liberals and activists who use more radical rhetoric and approaches to addressing racial and gender inequality. The debate about P.C. culture on campus represents this divide in microcosm. What if there were a candidate who could tap into not only the youth vote (like Bernie has), but also draw people of color and women in mass numbers away from an establishment Democrat like Clinton? What if that candidate talked about race injustice in language that the Chuck Schumers of the party felt compelled to condemn? For those invested in the Democratic Party, a candidate who took a more radical approach to race and gender could produce a real fissure. Depending on one’s orientation, that might be a cause for concern or a reason to celebrate. However, I suspect such a candidate would have about the same odds with the general voting public as Trump.
To summarize, worry about the big picture and what it means for policy. Don’t sweat the polls for at least two months.