What those polls showing Trump beating Clinton really mean

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gestures while speaking to more than 3,000 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members at the union's 2016 International Convention, Monday, May 23, 2016, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Republicans concerned that nominating Donald Trump could doom the party's chances of retaking the White House in November may be resting easier this week after several new polls showed Trump beating or nearly tied with Hillary Clinton in a head-to-head matchup.

Trump, who recently trailed likely Democratic nominee Clinton by double digits in some polls, has seen a significant boost in support from Republican voters since he was named the presumptive nominee earlier this month.

The polls provide many warning signs for both candidates, who would be the two least liked major party nominees on record and who are trusted by far less than half of the electorate.

A Fox News poll released last week was the first major poll in months to show Trump leading Clinton, 45 percent to 42 percent. A New York Times/CBS News poll had Clinton ahead by 6 points, down from a 10-point lead in their previous survey.

Two polls released over the weekend provide mixed results. A Washington Post/ABC News poll had Trump leading 46 percent to 44 percent among registered voters, but Clinton up by 6 among all adults. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll gave Clinton a 3-point lead, a big drop from an 11-point margin the previous month.

Both candidates continue to be viewed negatively by most voters and receive low ratings on their honesty, but they are also both now supported by more than 85 percent of their own parties.

Experts and political strategists warn that national polling numbers this far out from the election are not particularly reliable predictors--prior GOP nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney led Barack Obama in some polls around this time in the 2008 and 2012 races--but they can identify trends in public opinion.

"The traditional view is that polls don't really tell you that much until both parties have had their conventions," said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, "but...I think we can start to look at them and make some judgments about November."

The Republican Party has consolidated behind Trump in a matter of weeks, much faster than some expected. There are some prominent holdouts, but the GOP leadership seems to be following the base in supporting Trump.

For a candidate who had a net favorability of -42 among Republicans a year ago, the turnaround to Trump winning nearly 90 percent of the party is striking.

"Who would have thought a month ago the Republicans would be coalescing around Donald Trump faster than Democrats with Hillary Clinton," said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.

According to Republican strategist David Payne, some Republicans were holding out to see if a viable alternative to Trump emerged. After the Indiana primary, it was clear that one would not.

"It's formative polling," he said of the latest data. "It's not definitive polling...What we're seeing here is sentiments, we're seeing sentiments solidify."

Given the margin of Clinton's lead in similar polls two months ago, those sentiments should give the Trump campaign reason for optimism.

"I think this is a great sign for Donald Trump," GOP strategist Ford O'Connell said.

Clinton remains in a struggle to lock down the Democratic nomination against Sen. Bernie Sanders. It may be nearly mathematically impossible for Sanders to win, but he has vowed to keep fighting to the end.

"Right now, for the next 10 weeks, Donald Trump's best asset is Bernie Sanders," O'Connell said. "And what he needs to do during that time is find a way to have more and more Republicans consolidate behind him."

Strategists say these numbers, while not disastrous for Clinton, prove that any Democrats who cheered Trump on in the primaries expecting an easy victory in the fall were sorely mistaken.

Trump still has unique weaknesses compared to his primary opponents, including a lack of support from swing state Hispanic voters, but Democratic strategist Steve Schale said the fight against Trump was never going to be an "easy win" for Clinton.

"We live in a divided country," Schale said. "I don't think anybody should be surprised if it's going to be a close election."

The significance of the latest numbers may only be clear in retrospect once additional polling reveals whether Trump can sustain or build upon this level of support.

"It's the trajectory over time that matters," Payne said. If Trump keeps rising and Clinton keeps falling, it could silence opposition within the GOP and start building real excitement for him.

"That's what the smart poll watchers look for," he added, "and so many of the people watching the polls are not that smart."

Given the tension in the Democratic race in recent weeks, Clinton may not be able to count on as much of a bounce once she secures the party's nomination. In the ABC News poll, 24 percent of liberals said they would choose Trump over Clinton, and her favorability among Sanders supporters is sinking.

"She's got to be very careful the way she plays this," Ferson said.

The progressive activists who are backing Sanders will get behind Clinton to stop Trump in the end, but the disaffected voters who do not trust her could go either way or they could just stay home.

"Will they remain angry enough that Trump can get them, or will they settle down?" Ferson said. He expects many of the nonwhite voters will come around to Clinton.

Much of that will depend on what Sanders does after the last primaries on June 7 and whether he stands down or continues to campaign against Clinton in the hope of winning the nomination at a contested convention.

"It's possible that he will be less than enthusiastic in his endorsement of Clinton," Skelley said.

Beyond partisanship, the polls also show significant rifts between voters of different gender, race, and education. The margins vary but the trends are consistent.

Trump leads among men, while Clinton remains stronger with women. Trump has an advantage with registered white voters, but Clinton gets most racial and ethnic minority voters. Trump has seen gains among college educated voters and young voters, but Clinton still has an edge with those groups.

Dissatisfaction with the two likely candidates manifests most clearly in voters' openness to a potential third party candidate. In the WSJ/NBC poll, 47 percent said they would consider one.

"It really shows you that this is the election between Mr. and Mrs. Unpopular," O'Connell said.

About half of voters supporting each candidate say they are doing so more out of opposition to the other candidate than approval of theirs.

Despite these numbers, the third party candidates who actually will be on the ballot like Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party register far less support.

"Everybody loves a third party candidate until there is a candidate," Schale said.

Strategists are skeptical that any candidate would perform well enough to compete. The ABC News poll threw Romney in as a hypothetical third option and he drew 22 percent, mostly from Republicans.

With Clinton's lead over Trump evaporating, Sanders often points to his strength in a matchup with the GOP candidate as a rationale for his campaign. That trend continues in these polls, but experts say the numbers may be misleading.

Sanders is far more well-liked than Trump or Clinton, but with many voters not following the election closely, he is also much less well known.

"What Sanders ends up being in a lot of these polls is sort of a generic Democrat," Skelley said. Clinton has been under attack on a national level for decades, while even in the primaries, Sanders has faced very little negative advertising.

"There's just a lot of stuff out there that hasn't really been used against Sanders," he said, including the candidate's embrace of "democratic socialism."

Given the importance of retaining the support of Sanders voters in the general election, Clinton has generally been careful in her criticisms of him. As a result, according to O'Connell, Sanders has been treated "with kid gloves" by both sides.

"Sanders has largely remained untouched by Republicans," he said, "and obviously Clinton has to watch how far she goes with attacking Sanders because she's playing with nitroglycerine."

However, Payne argued the numbers may be exactly what they seem.

"I take that for what it looks like," he said.

He pointed to Sanders' consistent performance against Trump in polls since last winter as evidence of the candidate's appeal. A general election campaign would be a much tougher fight, though.

Months of attacks from Trump and the GOP would inevitably drag Sanders' favorability down, but Payne doubts his numbers would fall to "Clintonian levels."

One argument often put forth by #NeverTrump Republicans was that Trump could never beat Clinton. If nothing else, these polls call that criticism into question.

They also help Trump advance his preferred narrative that he is a winner and Clinton is a loser who cannot even beat a 74-year-old socialist.

"It creates a psychological edge with the voter," O'Connell said. "Much of Trump's problems will dissipate if he can consistently show he's competitive with Hillary Clinton."

While Trump and Clinton will likely hammer each other in ads and speeches constantly over the next two months, some experts expect little change in the numbers between now and the conventions. Ferson predicted the race will still be a dead heat going into September, when voters will start to make their final decisions.

"I think millions and millions of dollars will be spent, and after the conventions, we'll be exactly where we are," he said.

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