Cue the panic! Two new national polls are out, and and they show Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in a near tie in a hypothetical general election matchup. That represents a considerable tightening of the survey results from a month ago, when Clinton held double digit leads over Trump in most national polls, as this Huffington Post polling average shows.
Naturally, these latest results provided irresistible fodder for the talking heads on the Sunday talk shows this morning, and they dove into the topic with gusto. The general consensus seemed to be that these latest polls show how vulnerable Clinton is, why Trump has underappreciated strengths, and why Democrats should be ready to panic. You should, of course, ignore most of this chatter – now that the nominating races are essentially over, the chattering class has to talk about something else, and head-to-head polls are a readily available topic, particularly if they help feed the horse-race narrative that drives these shows’ ratings.
The fact is that we should not be surprised the polls have tightened in this way. With the Republican race all but over, Trump is consolidating his support among likely Republican voters, while a significant chunk of Sanders’ voters are refusing to concede the Democratic race to Clinton. That resistance is fueled by results, like this one from the NBC/Wall St. poll, that suggest Sanders will run stronger against Trump than will Clinton.
Sanders and his surrogates are seizing on these results to argue that the Democratic super delegates who initially expressed support for Clinton should reconsider that decision. As I noted in my recent post at U.S. News, I don’t expect Sanderistas to consolidate as quickly behind Clinton as Clinton supporters did for Obama in 2008. Unlike Clinton and Obama in 2008, Sanders represents a more distinct ideological choice from Clinton, as reflected in their different coalitions of support during the current election cycle. Exit polls indicate she’s beating him consistently among self-proclaimed Democrats, while he wins among independents. There’s also a huge generational gap, with younger voters strongly supporting Sanders while the over-45 crowd generally supports her.
The bottom line is that Sanders’ supporters aren’t ready as yet to fall into line behind Clinton despite the fact that she is almost certainly going to be the Democratic nominee. In the NBC poll, only 66% of Sanders supporters say they will back Clinton in a head-to-head matchup against Trump. The ABC poll has a similar result, with 70% of Sanders’ Democratic nomination supporters saying they will back Clinton over Trump. That’s down from 77% in ABC’s March poll, indicating she’s losing support among Sanders’ voters as she gets closer to clinching the nomination. In that same period Trump has gained 10% among Sanders backers. Not surprisingly, the 18-29 year-olds comprise a good chunk of those who are reluctant to vote for Clinton. Back in March, Clinton was winning this age group over Trump by 19% in the ABC poll – that margin is now down to 3%.
Clearly, then, Sanders’ supporters as yet show little inclination to switch over to Clinton. But why should they? Sanders has made it clear he’s in the race to the end of the primary process – and perhaps even beyond, into the convention. He’s laid out a clear, if improbable, strategy for how he could still claim the Democratic nomination. And his backers are unusually idealistic and passionate in their support, and less committed to the Democratic Party than are Hillary’s supporters. So we shouldn’t be surprised by polls that show the general election contest between Trump and Clinton is tightening. One side is consolidating behind their nominee, while the other remains divided. Remember, exit polls in some states at this time in 2008, when the Democratic race also remained contested, indicated that 45-50% of Clinton supporters were telling pollsters they wouldn’t back Obama in the general election race against McCain. Eventually, however, most of them backed their party’s nominee. Sanders’ supporters may be slower to come around this election cycle, for the reasons I’ve suggested above, but it’s too early to take these recent survey results as their final word. Head-to-head polling does not really begin to become a reliable predictor of the general election results until after the nominating conventions are over. This year the Democrats hold theirs in late July – more than two months away. Before we begin explaining why Sanders voters will never back Clinton, let’s revisit the polling results after she’s officially nominated and has begun the process of consolidating her support, as Trump is doing now. My guess is that the great bulk of Sanders’ voters will choose her over Trump.
(Addendum 2:05 P.M.: RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different algorithm for averaging polls, now shows Trump ahead of Clinton in the polling average by .2 – 43.4%-43.2. That should induce additional panic!)
In the meantime, however, I expect two more months of this from the pundits.