The Gravis poll from a few days ago putting him within two of Hillary at 51/49 was also good news, but let’s be real. There’s no way either of them are that high. The last time Hillary saw 50 head-to-head against Trump was in a CNN poll from May 1, when he was still a few days away from clinching the nomination. The last time Trump saw 49 head-to-head against Clinton was … never. He made it to 48 in one poll last September and hasn’t been back since, except for Gravis.
Quinnipiac’s new numbers seem more plausible. They polled three key battlegrounds over the course of 11 days(!) this month, at a moment when Trump was being battered by the media over the Trump U judge, his fundraising, and his lack of discipline on the stump. “Good news” is a relative term here, as you’ll see, but being dead even in Ohio and a point back in reliably blue Pennsylvania after a month of terrible coverage and having raised and spent next to nothing on the campaign sounds pretty good to me.
A Monmouth poll released yesterday showed Hillary surprisingly ahead of Trump on the question of who would handle threats to the U.S. better. Quinnipiac didn’t ask that, but it did ask who’d be more effective against ISIS. Trump wins that metric in all three states. He also wins when people are asked who’d be better at creating jobs, perennially a top issue for voters:
He’s hitting those numbers without having even begun to campaign in earnest yet.
Now for the caveats. Although Trump is seen as tougher on ISIS, Hillary wins when people are asked who’d do better handling an international crisis. She also wins going away (by 20+ points in each state) on the question of who’d make the right decisions about using nuclear weapons. These are proxy questions for temperament and judgment, while the ISIS question is a proxy for toughness. It’s hard to imagine a candidate winning who’s at that much of a deficit on perceptions about their judgment, but if anyone’s lame enough to fumble away a major advantage, Hillary is. It’s not just judgment, either — she holds large leads in each state on who’s better prepared to be president and who’s more intelligent, and even has an advantage on which candidate has higher moral standards. Put all of those together and, although Trump is close in OH and PA, there are many voters in each state who aren’t convinced that he has the basic personal make-up to be president, exactly what Hillary’s counting on to win a “Trump vs. Not Trump” referendum. His task until November is simply to convince voters that he’s fit for office. If he does, Hillary’s myriad weaknesses may turn the race into a “Hillary vs. Not Hillary” referendum instead and Trump has a real shot.
There’s a bigger caveat, though. Although Trump is tied with Clinton in Ohio, he’s actually lost several points since Quinnipiac last polled the state. He was ahead there, 43/39, on May 10th. He’s also slid significantly in Florida, moving from a one-point deficit in May to an eight-point deficit now. His rough month has taken a toll, even in a “good” poll. As for why Florida’s so much more sour on him than the two Rust Belt states are, Quinnipiac’s pollster has a solid guess: Hispanics. Ohio and Pennsylvania don’t have many Hispanic voters; Florida has a lot. Go figure that the attacks Judge Curiel for being “Mexican” didn’t help him in a state with many Latinos, which is ominous because Florida is practically must-win this fall. Even if Trump wins all of Romney’s states from 2012 plus Ohio plus Pennsylvania plus Virginia plus New Hampshire plus Iowa, Hillary still ekes out a national victory with Florida in her column. Democrats have built a formidable “blue wall” since 1992 and Florida is the cornerstone. If Trump can’t win there, he’d have to win all of the states I just described plus either Michigan or Wisconsin, both of which will be a stretch.
One more caveat. These numbers can be read different ways, one hopeful for Trump and one not so for hopeful:
What should give you pause if you're bullish on Trump or pin your hopes on the Rust Belt numbers is the Bernie comp: pic.twitter.com/QOZFDtL78t
— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) June 21, 2016
Trump’s competitive with Hillary, not so competitive with Sanders. The question is, is that because Sanders’s numbers are artificially inflated or because Hillary’s are momentarily depressed? It could be that Sanders, after a few months of taking shots from Trump on the trail, would quickly sink to Hillary’s levels and into a competitive race. No one’s laid a glove on him since he got in last year. That would change, but in the meantime he gets to enjoy unrealistically lofty numbers in head-to-heads like this. It could also be, though, that there are a bunch of Democrats and left-leaning independents who haven’t reconciled themselves to Clinton yet because they prefer Sanders. If so, then Hillary’s numbers are bound to rise; Bernie’s numbers here may be a preview of the race circa August, with Hillary pulling out to a lead as Democrats come home. I think the first theory’s more likely than the second given the partisan numbers elsewhere in Quinnipiac’s data. In Florida, Democrats are backing Clinton 93/2(!), but in Ohio it’s 80/9 and in Pennsylvania 82/7. There’s room for improvement in the last two states, but there’s room for improvement for Trump as well, as he leads among Republicans in those two 76/6 and 78/8. If partisans on both sides come around to backing their party’s nominees, you wouldn’t expect wildly different margins in OH and PA. Maybe a small gain on balance for Hillary given that America tends to have more Democrats, but nothing insurmountable. It could also be that Bernie’s lead in industrial Ohio and Pennsylvania is due to the fact that protectionism plays better there, which gives Trump an opportunity to gobble up some of Sanders’s lofty numbers at Hillary’s expense. I think he can put some Rust Belt states in play. It’s a simple matter of whether that’s enough.
One last odd note. Hillary leads in all three states on — wait for it — immigration. Yes, even in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Immigration may have been Trump’s golden ticket in the primaries but if that’s not populist magic for him in the general, he’s left pretty much with “trade war” talking points on the economy.