Can Donald Trump actually win this thing?
When the billionaire real estate mogul first threw his hat in the ring, some news outlets confined him to their entertainment section. Eleven months and hundreds of front pages later, he is running neck and neck with the once heavily favored Hillary Clinton — and may even be ahead.
Real Clear Politics' average of recent polls this week showed Trump ahead by 0.2 percentage points — 43.4% to 43.2%. NBC’s recent poll shows Trump down by 3 points, while ABC’s newest poll showed Trump up by 2 points. All are well within the margin of error.
Republicans are now supporting Trump over Clinton by an 86% to 6% margin, up from 72% to 13% just a month ago. The shift was to be expected after Trump this week formally acquired the number of delegates he needs to win the Republican primary, a mere formality since his challengers had already dropped out.
With leftist candidate Bernie Sanders still in the race, Democrats are having a tougher time uniting. They back Clinton 83% to 9%, but only 66% of Democratic primary voters who prefer Sanders say they support Clinton in a matchup against Trump.
Further muddying the waters are the record numbers of people who dislike both presumptive nominees. Both Clinton and Trump are viewed more negatively by voters than any other nominee of a major party in the history of polling.
Some 34% of registered voters have a positive opinion of Clinton, versus 54% who have a negative opinion (minus 20 net). That’s a slight improvement over her minus 24 score last month.
Trump's rating is even worse than Clinton's: 29% have a positive opinion of him, while 58% have a negative opinion (minus 29 net). That’s also an improvement from his minus 41 score in April.
Will voters’ intense dislike for either candidate drive them in droves to support the alternative, however flawed? Or will record numbers simply sit out the election?
By comparison, at this point in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was seen favorably by 62% of voters and unfavorably by just 33%. In March 2000, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) was viewed favorably by 63% of respondents in one Gallup poll and unfavorably by 32%.
Still, history shows us that a lot can change between now and Election Day.
In May of 1968, Republican nominee Richard Nixon was polling at 36%, while Democrat Hubert Humphrey was at 42%. American Independent Party candidate George Wallace was polling at 14%. The race was always close, but after the riotous 1968 Democratic National Convention Nixon was able to establish a lead that he never relinquished. Humphrey, the then-vice president, began catching up only late in the race but ran out of time, and Nixon won a narrow victory.
And in 1980, Republican nominee Ronald Reagan was polling at 32% in May, while incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter was at 39%. Independent candidate John B. Anderson was polling at 21%. Carter initially had a huge lead, but the Iran hostage crisis and the economic recession clobbered him. Carter would never recover. The race remained close until almost the very end, when Reagan asked Americans if they were better off than they had been four years earlier. Reagan received 51% of the vote to Carter’s 41%.
The vagaries of fate cannot be discounted today.
Already struggling with widespread concerns about her trustworthiness, Clinton's image suffered another blow this week when a long-awaited State Department Inspector General (IG) report skewered her for not getting — or even seeking — approval before setting up a private server for her emails when she was the nation's top diplomat. With the FBI and the Justice Department yet to decide whether to pursue legal action over the matter, the IG report was a timely reminder that candidates remain at the mercy of a devastating development right to Election Day.
In Trump's case, there is always a chance that the former reality TV star will blurt out something so shocking that it will spell his doom. His ability so far to survive — and even benefit from — comments offensive to many women, Muslims and Hispanics, however, suggests that may prove a tall order.
Beyond their personal foibles, the candidates are always at the mercy of outside events — a terrorist attack, economic downturn or other calamity, for instance. Any such development may well hurt Clinton and help Trump, since she is irrevocably tied to the sitting president.
A lot can and will happen before this year’s general election. We have two conventions this summer, vice presidential candidates to pick and plenty of debates and policy discussions. Expect a negative campaign with lots of twists and turns before Nov. 8.