Donald Trump dropped in the polls following the first presidential debate, allowing Hillary Clinton to open up a significant lead. History suggests that the Republican nominee will not be able to recover.
The first presidential debate usually benefits the candidate who is running against the incumbent president’s party. In the 10 elections from 1976 through 2012, the challenger has risen in the national polls eight times, according to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight and HuffPost Pollster.
That calculation is based on the straight average of polls conducted one week before the debate and one week after the debate.
The two exceptions were Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992. Dukakis dropped by only 0.4 percentage points (and still lost the election).
Clinton fell by 2.4 points, but his opponent, George H.W. Bush, dropped by 3, which gave the Democratic challenger a net gain. In addition, Clinton went into the debate with a nearly 13 point edge.
Neither Dukakis nor Bill Clinton did as badly as Trump.
Heading into their first meeting, Hillary Clinton led Trump by just 1.6 points. That narrow margin meant Trump had a chance to shift the race in his favor. Instead, he slumped by a significant 3 points.
That tumble in the polls put Trump in an especially bad spot: History suggests that the candidate who is ahead in the polls after the first debate will end up winning the election. A week after their meeting, Clinton was ahead by nearly 5 points.
The only recent exception to this trend occurred in 2012 when Mitt Romney gained a boost from the first debate and jumped into the lead. But his lead was just 1.5 points.
All of this could overstate the effect of debates, period. They don’t usually shift the race by much.
But when the race is close, as it was 1980 when Jimmy Carter led Ronald Reagan by just 1.4 points, the first debate offers an opportunity to move voters. Reagan earned himself a 5-point boost ― and won that November.
For Trump, that ship may have sailed. The HuffPost Pollster national chart, which aggregates public polls, finds him now trailing Clinton by 6 points ― 41 percent to 47 percent. And the HuffPost Pollster forecast model places Clinton’s odds of winning the presidency at 81.9 percent and Trump’s at 17.8 percent.
Of course, something dramatic could still happen. But right now, Clinton looks to be on the path to victory.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
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