Trump stabilizes, but his path to victory narrows

Trump needs to contest the Rust Belt to win, but he’s stuck playing defense.

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After a turbulent week of gaffes and relentless negative media coverage, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has righted his campaign and steadied his plummeting poll numbers. But on an electoral map already troublesome for Republicans, Mr. Trump faces monumental challenges as he battles his way back into contention.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s statistically-adjusted polling average, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has opened up a six-point lead over Donald Trump. Fortunately for the Republican candidate, the two national polls last week which showed his opponent with a double-digit advantage have proven to be anomalous. A survey conducted this weekend by highly-regarded Selzer & Company puts Mr. Trump only four points behind Mrs. Clinton, while a YouGov poll from the same time frame shows him down six points, right in line with FiveThirtyEight’s average.

But these surveys also show that Mr. Trump’s path to victory has narrowed substantially. Most voters have already made up their minds about the Republican nominee. Only four percent of respondents in the Selzer poll had not formed an opinion about him, and a whopping 46 percent—nearly a majority—claimed to hold a “strongly unfavorable” view of Mr. Trump. These numbers indicate that Mr. Trump has encountered a relatively low ceiling on his support, as well as a dearth of opportunities to grow his base of support beyond what he already has established.

The only consolation for the Republican nominee is that his opponent is not faring much better. About four-in-ten Americans strongly disapprove of Hillary Clinton, and her favorability ratings are only a bit better than Mr. Trump’s. However, Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are more loyal to her candidacy than Mr. Trump’s are to his; nearly three-fifths of Trump supporters view their votes more as opposition to Mrs. Clinton than as support for their party’s nominee, while the reverse is true for Clinton voters, only two-in-five of whom are voting against Mr. Trump rather than for Mrs. Clinton. And judging from past elections, the candidate with stronger affirmative support—whether expressed in better favorability ratings or by greater loyalty from voters—tends to win.

What matters more than Mr. Trump’s deficit in national polls is his standing in battleground states and Democratic-leaning states in the Rust Belt, which the Republican nominee will need to capture in order to win in November. But his polling there is even more troubling. Not a single state which voted for President Obama in 2012 is under threat from Mr. Trump. In fact, the G.O.P. nominee is on the defensive in states which have been Republican strongholds for decades, and North Carolina—a state which Republican Mitt Romney won narrowly in 2012—is also slipping toward Mrs. Clinton.

To put Donald Trump’s uphill climb in perspective, let’s consider the ten battleground states which are most winnable for him in the fall:

Top 10 Battleground States
  1. Florida
  2. Ohio
  3. North Carolina
  4. New Hampshire
  5. Nevada
  6. Missouri
  7. Colorado
  8. Iowa
  9. Arizona
  10. Georgia

Assuming that the rest of the states fall to the same parties as they did in 2012, Mr. Trump will be in a tough spot. The last ten states may be split 1,024 different ways, but only four of these combinations give the Republican nominee a victory. Mrs. Clinton wins 1,019 of the remaining pathways, while there is one opportunity for a tie.

Mr. Trump only can afford to lose one of three states—Nevada, New Hampshire, and Iowa—while still preserving a path to victory. If he sacrifices any of the other states on this list—even just one—he will have no remaining path to victory. If he picks up the Republican-leaning states of Missouri, North Carolina, and Georgia, Mrs. Clinton still wins 96 percent of the remaining possible outcomes.

Obviously, Donald Trump will have a much better chance of winning the White House if he can capture a traditionally Democratic state like Pennsylvania. But without a rapid improvement in his poll numbers there and in the rest of the Rust Belt, the Republican nominee will have to secure just about every battleground state—even diverse, Democratic-leaning Colorado and Nevada—to become president.

With just about 90 days remaining until the general election on November 8th, there is ample time for the race to change, but Mr. Trump’s opportunities to propel himself ahead of Mrs. Clinton are limited. Short of an unexpected revelation late in the race which deals a critical blow to the Democratic nominee, Donald Trump’s only chance to regain momentum will be the first presidential debate on September 26th, where he will need to counter the mounting perception that he is unfit and unprepared for the presidency.

  1. […] able to recover some lost ground. As I wrote last week, his poll numbers, once in free fall, have stabilized, and there are still some opportunities for him to engineer a stunning comeback. A strong […]

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  2. […] discussed before, favorability ratings—which measure how much voters like each candidate—are more predictive of electoral success than a presidential preference measure (i.e. “which candidate do you […]

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