I have a theory as to why Hillary and Trump are essentially tied in the polls right now: Trump is at his ceiling and Hillary is at her floor. 44% is where Hillary is at when she’s having a poor news week, and 46% is where Trump is at when he’s having a strong news week.
I don’t think Trump has any more voters he can really attract. All the low-hanging fruit is picked. The Republican base, the Republican Party as a whole, and conservative leaning independents: that’s Trump’s 46% (max).
So I predict that once Hillary starts to consolidate the Democratic vote, you won’t see many polls–not even Rasmussen–that consistently put her in a dead heat with Trump. She’ll always be in the 44-55% range and Trump will always hover in the 39-46% range. The rest will go to the Libertarian candidate.
This shouldn’t make for complacency. Democrats will need to get out the vote to guarantee a win in November. But I think what we’re seeing is Trump’s high water mark in polling right now, in this very week (the last week of May, 2016). It looks close, like Trump could break out to a new level, peeling off Hillary voters, drawing 50% or more of the vote–but this is illusory. Trump really has nowhere to go from 46%, but down. Every percentage point above 46% is going to be, for him, akin to the dieter knocking down those last few pounds of a goal. They’re the most difficult. Like a dieter, even if Trump were to get closer to his goal (50%+1)–which he won’t–the gain would be brief and unstable–and vulnerable to rapid collapse.
Trump getting between 39-46% of the vote is his natural level. Given the demographics and voting patterns of the country (women are more likely to vote than men; Hispanic voter registration is on the rise, etc.), Trump’s natural level of appeal to the American voting population in 2016 is about 39-46%–and that’s where Trump is likely to land on election day (somewhere below Romney, who got 47% of the vote).
Trump’s fundamental weakness in the polls is why he dodged a debate with Bernie this week. The moment Trump has voters’ full attention on issues that he’s supposedly strong on (protecting blue collar workers, etc.), people will register just how fully he is in the pocket of the rich, Wall Street, and the Republican Party. (Bernie would point out Trump’s hypocrisies forcefully.)
Take the minimum wage, for instance. If Trump commits to raising the minimum wage, he alienates key Republican voters, and if he won’t go as high as Hillary and Bernie on a number (Bernie’s number is $15 an hour), he loses the argument that he’s for the workers anyway.
This will all be absorbed by the electorate when the Super PACs start swift-boating Trump, demonstrating that where Trump is seemingly strong, he’s actually weak. In the Republican primary, the ad war was tepid, but in the general election, it will be fierce and relentless. Trump will have great difficulty maintaining 46% of support from the electorate as a whole, let alone 50%. Hillary will get her swift-boating from pro-Trump PACs as well, but, again, her floor is roughly equal to Trump’s ceiling.
Or, to put it in Emily Dickinson terms, Trump’s cornice is in Hillary’s ground. Because Trump could not stop for demographic death, demographic death will kindly stop for him. This is what the 2016 election is about: demonstrating to Republicans in real time that a party devoted to anxiety politics and blue collar white resentment, even when combined with celebrity (a hyper-confident, TV-familiar con-man), cannot win in America’s fast-evolving demographic environment–and even if Democrats put up a relatively weak candidate like Hillary Clinton.
There’s no substitute, Republicans will discover, for the hard work of adaptation. Donald Trump is the ultimate corner-cutter. That’s what he sells to desperate people. His appeal is akin to the carnival barker who sells a diet pill that (he claims) can lead to weight loss without a change of behavior.
So reality over the next several months will assert itself in the ongoing polls, and on election day itself. That reality is demographic reality. Donald Trump is presiding right now over a cargo cult that imagines its leader has a Reagan-imitative formula for achieving flight: combine the existing Republican constituency with Trump Democrats (the equivalent of the Reagan Democrats of the 1980s). But Trump’s seeming magic in this moment–he’s at parody with Hillary in the most recent polls–does not mean he is on the verge of resurrecting the ghost of Reagan over the 2016 electorate, and casting a populist spell on them. The reality is that Trump is simply not that popular. A minority of Americans will vote for him–and will express support for him in polls–but not a majority.
So what will be shown over the next several months is that there’s nothing really sustaining Trump’s fantasies of everybody loving him, and he will soon leave his devotees–the bulk of the Republican Party–to pick through the wreckage of a devastating electoral loss.
The Republican Party is vulnerable to a cult leader right now because it is not yet able to adjust to the country’s demographic reality. Like an immune system in a novel environment, the Republican Party is susceptible to exotic diseases. Its disease of the moment is Donald Trump. After the election, Republicans will be walking around, saying, “How could I have believed in that guy’s con game? I really got snookered. I got carried off. How embarrassing.”
So here’s the bell curve: (1) Trump shock (that is, the stunned realization over the past month that Trump has truly captured the GOP nomination); (2) fight or flight (the majority of Republicans are choosing right now, to their shame, to go ahead and fight alongside Trump, rather than fly from him); (3) no matter how hard his enthusiasts peddle their bicycle of support going forward, Trump’s poll numbers will remain stalled in the 39-46% range; (4) Trump’s stalled poll numbers will serve to break the Trump spell generally, and that’s when the sharks will really start to circle the corpse of his candidacy; (5) fatigue and demoralization will set in as Republicans realize Trump is almost certainly going to lose; (6) demoralization will turn to panic in some quarters, and anger that Trump has brought the GOP to such an electoral impasse–and perhaps even a cliff; and (7) on election day, Trump will lose badly (as the polling averages predicted he would all along).