Clinton's polling quagmire

Clinton's polling quagmire

- in Election 2016

From Bernie Sanders’ primary victories to the State Department inspector general’s report on her email, the month of May hasn’t been kind to Hillary Clinton — or her poll numbers.

Her lead over Donald Trump has shrunk to the low-single digits. State polls tell a similar story: Clinton and Trump have run neck-and-neck in two separate polls in each of these four key electoral battlegrounds — New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida and Ohio. The two candidates even ran close in a New Jersey poll released Tuesday.

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Clinton’s favorable ratings — currently 41 percent favorable and 55 percent unfavorable, according to HuffPost Pollster — are virtually unchanged over the past month. But that was before State Department inspector general’s report that Clinton didn’t comply with department policies when she used a private email account for government business and didn’t immediately turn over records of her correspondence.

Clinton’s ratings on trustworthiness were already woeful: A Fox News poll two weeks ago found just 31 percent of voters thought Clinton is honest and trustworthy, while nearly two-thirds said they don’t think she is. And overall, her numbers are significantly worse than Trump’s scores on the same question. Among independents, nearly 80 percent don’t think she’s honest and trustworthy. Even among Democrats, a third don’t find her trustworthy.

It’s too soon to tell how much — or if — the flap will exacerbate those already worrisome numbers. There hasn’t been any new polling on Clinton’s favorability or honesty since the report was released, but it’s also unclear whether Clinton’s honesty issues can get much worse. In any case, Clinton allies insist she will unite Democrats — and receive a corresponding bump in the polls — once she has dispatched Bernie Sanders. Sanders is running ahead of Clinton in match-ups with Trump, in large part because some of his supporters would choose Trump over Clinton.

Bringing those Sanders voters into the fold will be a complex process. The Clinton-Sanders protracted primary fight is lurching toward an ambiguous denouement, even if the ultimate conclusion — Clinton’s nomination — is mostly assured. The results of the final slate of primaries and caucuses — the Virgin Islands (Saturday), Puerto Rico (June 5), California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota (all on June 7) and the District of Columbia (June 14) — are likely to be a mixed-bag, with California and New Mexico the most hotly contested.

With less than eight weeks until the start of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia, the closing weeks of the primary process loom large for Clinton if she hopes to regain the commanding lead she enjoyed before Trump’s rise in the polls.

That rise has coincided with a rough period for Clinton. Aside from the email issue, she has lost three of the four binding primaries over the course of the past four weeks — Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon — and her only victory was a narrow, 1,911-vote win in Kentucky. (Clinton also won non-binding, “beauty-contest” primaries in Nebraska and Washington State, and the caucus in Guam.)

At the same time, Trump was locking down the GOP presidential nomination and consolidating the support of rank-and-file Republican voters — erasing most of Clinton’s lead in general-election polling.

General-election polls at this stage of the campaign — especially when one party’s nominating process has, for all intents and purposes, concluded while the other’s endures — aren’t necessarily predictive of November results. But they are instructive in terms of Trump’s May rise, and Clinton’s slump.

Clinton led Trump by roughly 7 points at the end of April, but her advantage now is in the low-single-digits (RealClearPolitics has Clinton ahead by 1 point, a 6-point difference, while HuffPost Pollster gives her a more-generous 4-point cushion). Those numbers aren’t the whole story, however. Even as Trump has closed in on the former secretary of state, he hasn’t gained the same kind of ground on Sanders in hypothetical matchups: RCP shows Sanders’ lead declining three points, from 14 to 11, while HuffPost Pollster shows it only declining by 1 point.

Moreover, there are signs that Americans now see a Clinton-Trump campaign differently — and Trump as a more plausible president. New data from web pollster SurveyMonkey, commissioned by NBC News, shows voters divided evenly on which candidate would win the general election, after weeks of significant Clinton advantages on this question.

There is some good news for Clinton: The Trump bump that began when the real-estate mogul went on a winning streak in late April that would culminate with his rivals ending their campaigns appears to have crested. Clinton has now led Trump in the six most-recent public surveys — albeit by small margins of between 1 and 5 points — after Trump claimed a slight edge in a handful of national polls in mid-May.

And even if Sanders insists on taking his candidacy all the way to the national party convention in late July — and regardless of what the first post-IG report polls reveal about the impact — most major news organizations will declare Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee on the evening of June 7. That’s because Clinton — factoring in the nearly 1,800 pledged delegates she’s won and the almost 550 superdelegates who are publicly backing her — needs only 71 delegates to secure a majority.

Beyond that, Clinton’s trajectory isn’t completely clear. Polling is sparse around Memorial Day, with many Americans away from home, so it will be a week or two until it can be determined if the State Department report has affected the way voters feel about Clinton.

That only adds to Clinton’s high-stakes June: when the likely Democratic nominee will either regain her footing, or the data will portend a long slog to the November general election.

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