In the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s unseemly medical episode at a 9/11 commemoration ceremony last week, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has surged in the polls, drawing the race to a dead heat for the first time since the Republican National Convention in July. But the new numbers belie Mr. Trump’s struggle to repair his image, tarnished by months of campaign missteps, and to prove that he has the discipline and self-restraint to hold the highest office in the land.
A battery of new national polls shows a tight presidential race, with neither candidate holding a clear edge. Of the six national polls which were conducted in the last week, none gives either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton a lead greater than two points. The most recent, a Fox News poll, has the Democratic nominee ahead by just one point—well within the margin of error for that survey.
In Florida, Mr. Trump has spiked, erasing a longtime Clinton edge, and two new polls from Ohio give the Republican a 5-point lead there. Mrs. Clinton still leads in several crucial swing states, however, including Pennsylvania and Michigan, where she holds a distinct advantage. Other surveys show the race tightening in states long thought to be Clinton strongholds. In Colorado, one of the most diverse and well-educated states in the nation, a new Emerson poll has Mr. Trump up four points, and in New Mexico, a strong third party candidate could tilt that traditionally liberal state in the Republicans’ favor or even take it out of play entirely with a surprise victory.
Likability, however, is still more of a problem for Donald Trump than for his opponent, and as I have 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 prefer?”). Voters are more likely to cast their ballots for a candidate they like and prefer than for a candidate whom they dislike but prefer over the alternative.
Even relative to Mrs. Clinton, who has not managed to earn a positive favorability rating once over the course of the general election race so far, Mr. Trump has struggled on this front. Only slightly more than a third of respondents in a YouGov/Economist poll taken this week said that they viewed the Republican nominee favorably, while nearly half said the same about Hillary Clinton. To close this gap, Mr. Trump will need to counter a growing sentiment among college-educated voters that he is too impulsive and brash to be a steady commander-in-chief, and his best—and perhaps only—opportunity to do so will be at the first presidential debate on September 26th.
Donald Trump is still an underdog. A plurality of voters expects Mrs. Clinton to outdo him at the first debate, and if the Republican’s primary debate performances are any indication, these voters will be spot-on. Mr. Trump will need to demonstrate composure and deep knowledge of the issues at the debates, even as he grapples with his material disadvantage against Mrs. Clinton, who has spent her entire career in politics and knows most of the issues of this election cover-to-cover.
Mr. Trump’s polling gains over the past few weeks will prove fleeting if he cannot win the debate on the 26th. Fortunately, expectations are low for the Republican nominee, and a strong showing could set the stage for an unprecedented comeback in what had looked only weeks ago to be one of the most lopsided presidential contests in modern history.