By Alex Knepper
My colleague Cinzia Croce argues that pundits downplaying Trump’s surprisingly strong recent polling numbers are falling into the same trap they did when they underestimated him in the primary season. This is a common argument, and in fact many pundits have been making it. Most of them are those who did not analyze Trump correctly before and now have falsely convinced themselves that Trump is an unpredictable and uniquely skilled nominee. But the bad predictions say more about the pundits than about Trump. Speaking as someone who did not underestimate Trump, I am still convinced he has no more than a 20% chance in the general election. Hillary remains the odds-on favorite not just to win, but to win comfortably. The general election dynamics are very different than the dynamics of the Republican primary, as Trump is about to learn the hard way.
Let’s look at the evidence:
1. Partisan ID Means More Than You Want It To – Even Among Independents
Although Cinzia is right to point out that both Hillary and Trump have started to max out their support among their respective partisans, Trump’s lead among independents is both not particularly meaningful — and precarious.
The RealClearPolitics average in 2008 shows John McCain leading a few national polls around this time by almost exactly the same margins as Trump. Not coincidentally, McCain had recently wrapped up his party’s nomination, while President Obama was still locked in a contentious primary battle with Hillary Clinton, whose resolve to fight on until the bitter end kept Obama from fully coalescing Democrats around his candidacy until the summer. Remember the ‘PUMA’ voters, who vowed to support the experienced and moderate John McCain against the naive and unprepared Barack Obama? Remember how half of Hillary’s voters said they’d never back Obama? Neither do I.
The truth should not be so surprising: few ‘independents’ are actually independents; the vast majority of them have a pronounced party tilt, and right now a disproportionate number of them are Republicans. Democrats outnumber Republicans partially because a disproportionate number of independents nowadays are Republicans embarrassed to call themselves Republicans. Mitt Romney won the independent vote in 2012, yet still lost by a decisive margin in both the popular vote and the electoral college.
More importantly, the RCP polling average shows 13% of voters are undecided. The real electorate will add up to 100%. Given that a disproportionate share of these undecided voters are independents, we can reasonably infer that they are Bernie holdouts, most of whom will recognize the stakes once the general election begins in earnest, Bernie endorses Hillary, President Obama campaigns for her, and the prospect of a Trump presidency becomes nauseatingly real to his voters. There will be a few crossover Trump/Sanders voters, yes — mostly white men under 40 — but those voters will not be decisive.