If you tune into the news these days it would be easy to conclude that the presidential race is too close to call and that it’s all going to come down to what happens in the debates that start Monday. But that would be missing the point. The fact is that the likely outcome of this election was set in the spring and nothing major has changed since then to alter it.
It’s true that the debates will be significant, if for no other reason because they are the only “main events” left in the campaign. But it’s also true that they aren’t likely to substantially impact the presidential election outcome. The last time a presidential debate tipped an election was in 1976 when President Ford mistakenly asserted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. That mistake stalled the momentum that he had been building up until that point against Jimmy Carter. And even when candidates have dominated presidential debates — like Mitt Romney did in 2012 — it hasn’t translated into much on Election Day. Romney still lost by four points.
Heading into the first debate, even Hillary Clinton’s most ardent supporters would admit that she has had a rough couple of weeks with the polls tightening. However, the basic structure and fundamentals of the race haven’t changed since early spring, and they are unlikely to do so in the remaining 43 days of the election. The fact remains that an overwhelming number of Americans don’t think Donald Trump is qualified to become president of the United States.
Throughout the campaign Clinton has maintained a narrow but consistent lead in national polls and in key swing states. Clinton’s lead widened following her nearly flawless political convention and Trump’s chaotic August. Her recent drop in the polls is merely a return to the previous levels established earlier in the year.
Clinton also continues to enjoy an even bigger advantage in amassing the 270 electoral votes necessary to win the election. Since 1992, Democrats have had a significant structural advantage in the Electoral College and 2016 looks to be no different.
While Clinton enjoys a wide variety of paths to get to 270, Trump has almost no margin of error and really has only two plausible routes to victory. Both paths run through Florida, Ohio and North Carolina; winning those would get Trump to 253 electoral votes. From there, he would need Pennsylvania or a combination of smaller states, such as Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire and Maine’s second congressional district.
The tight race reflected in the national polls is symptomatic of the deep divisions in our country that run along ideological, generational and racial lines. In this kind of polarized environment, it’s an uphill battle for any candidate to open up a sizable lead and maintain it over an extended period of time. These divisions have been reflected in Obama’s job approval ratings for the past seven years. Since the summer of 2009, Obama’s job approval has consistently remained within a very narrow band — never dropping below 40% or rising above 53%.
The enduring coalition of anti-Obama voters has formed the basis for Trump’s support. And, as Trump has shown, with that built-in base of support, there’s very little he can say or do that will drop his support below 40% in a two-way race.
His recent rise in the polls is due largely to his consolidation of Republican support. The down-ballot impact of this consolidation is clear as the GOP’s chances of holding the Senate have increased significantly since Labor Day.
Despite Trump’s relatively high floor, he also has a low ceiling. That’s due to the changing demographics of the electorate (particularly in a presidential year) and Trump’s unrelenting attacks and slurs targeted to many of these voter groups.
Trump’s failure to capture significant support from African-American, Hispanic and Asian voters has essentially kept his ceiling from budging. Whenever there has been tightening in the race it has been largely attributable to a drop in the Clinton vote, rather than a Trump surge.
At this point in the race Trump is unlikely to alter the fundamental structure of the campaign.
His best chance of winning is based on a low-turnout electorate that doesn’t reflect the views of a majority of Americans who don’t want to see him in the White House.
As we enter the final stretch of what seems like an endless campaign, if the “Never Trump” coalition wants to truly keep Trump out of the White House, it’s time they shift their attention away from criticizing Clinton and toward ensuring that Election Day turnout reflects the will of the majority that holds Donald Trump in complete disdain and repudiates all that he represents.