Clinton vs. Trump: It's Neck and Neck in Three Key States

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Hillary Clinton in Los Angeles on May 5 and Donald Trump in Eugene, Oregon, on May 6. The two candidates are tied in Florida and Pennsylvania; in Ohio, the New York billionaire holds a small 43-39 lead. It looks like a tough fight. Lucy Nicholson (Clinton) and Jim Urquhart (Trump)/reuters

This article first appeared on the FixGov blog on the Brookings Institution site.

The election is nearly six months from now. And yes, it's risky to place too much weight on any one poll. But the recently released Quinnipiac survey of three key swing states—Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio—challenges complacent assumptions and suggests that the election will be closely contested.

The conventional wisdom is that Donald Trump is massively unpopular among women and minorities. The Quinnipiac poll indicates that this is true.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee trails Hillary Clinton among non-white voters by 43 points in Florida, 60 points in Pennsylvania and 62 points in Ohio. Clinton leads among women by 13 points in Florida, 19 points in Pennsylvania and 7 points in Ohio.

These findings are consistent with another piece of conventional wisdom—that Clinton will comfortably defeat Trump this November. Unfortunately for her, that's not what the survey finds. The two candidates are essentially tied in Florida and Pennsylvania; in Ohio, the New York billionaire holds a small 43-39 lead. It looks like a tough fight.

What's Going On?

In the first place, Trump enjoys a sizable lead among white voters in all three states: 19 points in Florida, 11 points in Pennsylvania and 17 points in Ohio. Not surprisingly, his edge among white men is even larger: 36 points in Florida, 32 in Pennsylvania, 29 in Ohio.

Within the white electorate, gender matters. Clinton does 15 points better among white women than men in Florida and 17 points in Pennsylvania, but notably only 7 points better in Ohio, which helps explain why her overall standing among women is lower there than elsewhere.

This leads straight to the second feature of the electorate that helps Trump challenge the conventional wisdom—men overall, where he leads by 13 points in Florida, 19 in Pennsylvania and 15 in Ohio. There are two large gender gaps this year, and they mostly neutralize each other.

Third, most people think that while Hillary Clinton will lead a united Democratic Party into battle, Trump will head a Republican Party bitterly divided by his candidacy.

If the Quinnipiac results are sound, only the first half of that proposition is true. Yes, Hillary Clinton is supported by 83 percent of Florida Democrats, 82 percent of Pennsylvania Democrats and 81 percent of Democrats in Ohio. But Donald Trump's numbers in these key states are comparable: 79 percent of Republicans in Florida, 82 percent in Pennsylvania and 80 percent in Ohio.

In none of these states do intra-party defections reach double digits—for either candidate. One plausible interpretation is that in an era of intense partisan polarization, members of each party find it harder than before to break ranks and support the other party's nominee.

The two presidential candidates have something important in common: They are both deeply unpopular with the electorate in these key states. In Florida, 37 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton, versus 57 percent unfavorable; Trump's numbers are identical to hers.

Pennsylvania is much the same—37 to 58 for Clinton and 39 to 55 for Trump. In Ohio, she stands at 34-62, compared with his 38-61 rating in the Buckeye State. Neither candidate is rated honest and trustworthy in any of the states surveyed; neither is thought to care about "people like you."

In all three states, however, Clinton is regarded as even less honest and trustworthy than Trump, suggesting that this may prove to be a potent line of attack for the Republican campaign.

Despite the voters' negative evaluations of both candidates, they are perfectly capable of drawing finer distinctions. On the one hand, voters in all three states think that Trump would do a better job than Clinton handling the economy and, by smaller margins, terrorism. On the other hand, she is regarded as being more intelligent than he is and possessing higher moral standards.

It is in the area of temperament that Clinton enjoys her greatest advantage. By large margins, voters in these three large swing states think that Clinton has the right temperament to handle international crises. By even larger margins, they believe that Trump does not.

Indeed, his negative ratings in this respect are eye-poppingly large. Only 34 percent of Florida voters think that his personality will enable him to handle international crises, compared with 62 percent who do not. Matters in Pennsylvania are much the same, with 33 percent in the affirmative column and 62 percent in the negative. In Ohio, it's even worse, with a 29-63 rating.

By underscoring this deficit, an updated version of the "red phone" commercial could do substantial damage to Trump's candidacy.

Voters are flashing warning-lights to both candidates on their signature issues. On the one hand, voters in all three states—minorities as well as white—support requiring photo identification cards to vote. Although many Democratic leaders regard this requirement as an effort to suppress minority votes for their candidates, rank-and-file members of these groups seem to disagree. It is far from clear that emphasizing this issue during the fall campaign would yield net gains for the Democratic nominee.

Matters are more troublesome for Trump, because the survey yields scant evidence for a surge in nativist sentiment in the electorate as a whole.

Building his famous wall splits Florida voters down the middle, while voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio reject it outright. And when voters are asked about how to treat illegal immigrants, the option of allowing them to remain and eventually apply for citizenship is the runaway winner, with 57 percent support in Florida, 58 percent in Pennsylvania and 54 percent in Ohio.

Only small minorities in these three states believe that these immigrants should be required to leave the United States. It will be remarkable if the issue that propelled Trump's remarkable rise during the Republican primary contest turns out to be his Achilles's heel in the general election.

Despite the tumultuous campaigns of the past year, the balance of sentiment in these pivotal states has barely budged. Last August, Trump led Clinton by a statistically insignificant 43 to 41 percent in Florida; now she leads by an equally insignificant margin of 43 to 42 percent. In Pennsylvania, she led by 45 to 40 percent last August and by 43 to 42 percent today. In Ohio, a 43 to 38 Clinton advantage has flipped to a 43 to 39 edge for her opponent.

Now, as the general election begins in earnest, each candidate enjoys universal name recognition, and both have etched clear profiles in the minds of the voters. This suggests that it will not be easy to engineer large shifts in public opinion.

The quality of the respective campaigns could make the difference, and so could events that neither candidate can control.

William A. Galston is senior fellow, governance studies, and the Ezra K. Zilkha chair in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. He is a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and presidential candidates.

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