With about 10 weeks left until the election, the race is nowhere near over. Hillary Clinton is currently far ahead of Donald Trump in the polls; however, the fact that Trump has so much room to improve and has recently shown gains in some notable polls may suggest that the race will be closer than people expect it to be.
Even in his worst weeks Trump has averaged 38 percent to 40 percent support in national polls. That probably means his floor of support is around 38 percent, and, at his current estimate of 40 percent, he has more room to grow upward than to drop.
Trump is seeing gains in some polls already. A YouGov/Economist poll late last week showed the Republican nominee gaining ground within his own party. He was only getting 75 percent of Republicans’ support in the prior YouGov/Economist poll, but has come up to 84 percent. A new Morning Consult poll from this weekend put Clinton only 3 points ahead of Trump, down from their previous poll that gave the former secretary of state a 6-point lead.
Most of last week’s polls showed Clinton still hanging on to a strong lead. However, the gap between Clinton and Trump narrowed a little throughout August, and Trump’s low support means he has plenty of room to grow.
At this point in 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama were locked in a tighter race with fewer undecided and third-party voters, but the poll averages still moved a lot in September and October. The combination of unpopular candidates and high undecideds could bring even more polling volatility to the fall of 2016.
What a Trump increase would mean: Trump’s rebounding a little. That’s not terribly surprising ― the Democratic convention bump has faded a bit, and another campaign revamp has seemed to result in fewer horrible Trump moments (although they are still happening). The divided Republicans might just be coming back together a little after a rocky summer.
There are also considerable discrepancies in how far behind Trump is based on how the poll was conducted ― Clinton has higher levels of support in live telephone polls ― and we currently don’t have any way of knowing which numbers are closer to reality.
What a Trump increase wouldn’t mean: “OMG Trump is going to win!” No, don’t go there yet. Trump has a long and difficult path to winning the presidency. It could happen, but these relatively small increases in his numbers would have to come up a lot ― and in key states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania ― before the race becomes close.
However, if Trump can have a couple of quiet weeks ― by not committing any major gaffes or insulting entire races and classes of Americans ― he will likely be in a close race with Clinton by the first debate on Sept. 26. Clinton is also highly disliked, and after eight years of a Democrat in the White House, the incumbent party would normally be at more of a disadvantage than we’ve seen this year.
Of course, predicating anything on Trump behaving according to normal electoral standards is a really big “if.”