Trump has a path, and if the polls are wrong, it’s wider than thought.
Hillary Clinton leads in most national polls and in enough battleground states to put her on pace to surpass the 270 electoral votes she needs Tuesday to become the next president. But not far beneath the surface, as Donald Trump has narrowed the gap following the late-breaking FBI announcement of a renewed review of emails related to her private server, lurks a question making Democrats squirm in these frenzied final days.
What if the polls are wrong?
And more: What if Clinton’s vaunted data operation and ground game don’t deliver? What if there is, in fact, a “silent majority” of Trump fans? What if Clinton’s banked stash of early votes is insufficient? What if, as President Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe not so affectionately describes nervous Democrats, the “bed-wetters” are right?
“Our magnificent, historic movement has surprised the world and defied expectations at every single turn,” Trump told a crowd in Orlando, Florida, this week. “And now, next Tuesday, we will have one more glorious surprise for the pundits, the politicians and the special interests when we win and return the power back to the people.”
It’s an outcome that official Washington — more consumed with potential Clinton Cabinet picks (Biden! Sandberg!), her policy agenda, the battle for the Senate — seems wholly unprepared for.
“I don’t think Washington has ever been in touch with this election,” said longtime Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “I end every speech with the Yogi Berra saying, ‘It ain’t over until it’s over’ and it ain’t over until we get the votes counted.”
While Trump remains decidedly the underdog, his path to 270 is not nonexistent. In the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll, Trump trailed by 3 percentage points, shrunken from 9 points behind only weeks ago.
“The trend lines are clearly going in our direction,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said this week on MSNBC.
As Clinton’s margin has eroded in recent days, the political focus has shifted from Democratic boasts of flipping Texas, Arizona, Georgia and Utah to safeguarding Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
Averages of the public polls in all those latter Democratic states still show Clinton leading — albeit by tighter margins — which would essentially choke off Trump’s path to the White House.
“We’ve seen this a couple times where Hillary Clinton is leading by 3 to 5. Something happens. Her numbers spike to 10. They drop back down. Everyone wets themselves. Rinse. Repeat,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama. “She was never going to win by 10.”
Still, Pfeiffer understood the uneasiness, saying he’s asked about it everywhere he goes. “The consequences of a loss here are much greater than they’d be in a normal year,” he said. “You’re more nervous if you’re playing Russian roulette than flipping a coin.”
Then there is the fact that polls — and polling averages — are not infallible. In 2012, Romney led 20 Florida polls in October and November and Obama led in only seven. Obama won the state. And in 2014, in the battle for the Senate majority, pollsters missed the result in race after race far in excess of the margin of error.
In Virginia, Sen. Mark Warner had led the polling average by nearly 10 percentage points on Election Day. He won by less than 1 point. In Kentucky, Sen. Mitch McConnell won by nearly 15 points, 8 points ahead of the polling average. In Arkansas, Tom Cotton outperformed the polling average by 10 points. In Kansas, Sen. Pat Roberts trailed the polling average on Election Day, and he won by more than 10 points.
Josh Holmes, who served as McConnell’s campaign manager and monitored the map nationwide as Republicans retook the Senate majority that year, heeded caution for those trumpeting the demise of Trump already.
“It’s never over,” he said.
Two years ago, Holmes said, “the environment was improving almost every week as we got closer to Election Day, so what you didn’t know was which way voters would finally break at the polls.