It’s time to take the prospect of him winning outright seriously
No-one has got rich betting against Donald Trump this election campaign and now is unlikely to be the time to start. He’s currently best-priced at 5/2 with Ladbrokes, which in a two-horse race implies a serious weakness on his part.
In many ways, he is a seriously weak candidate. He’s never held any public office before, never mind elected public office. He has very little active support from within his own party’s hierarchy. His favourability ratings remain deep in the red. He has a tendency to speak and act in a way that many find offensive. Certainly, he has a vocal and enthused base but presidential elections are won and lost in the middle two deciles whereas a nomination can be – and in his case was – sealed in the first.
So why do his prospects suddenly look quite rosy? In two words: Hillary Clinton.
Hillary is also a weak candidate. By far her biggest achievement so far was going into the primary campaign with her only serious opposition being an angry septuagenarian self-declared socialist. By far her biggest failure is that at the end of May, she’s still failed to shake him off. True, the nomination is now all but secure but rather than a procession to the convention, Sanders is still winning states. Quite simply, she is not popular.
Not that she necessarily needs to be popular; a sufficiently competent and anodyne opponent would be sufficient to channel Never-Trump anxiety to the Democrat. Unfortunately for her, her ratings are too poor even for that. Hillary’s net favourability rating currently stands at about -14 and has only got worse during 2016.
A little while ago, even that would have been enough. At the beginning of April, Trump’s favourability rating was down at -31.5, with exactly a 2:1 ratio against him. Since then though there’s been a marked improvement and his current net score is -17. That’s still historically very poor but it’s now well within range of Hillary.
Those figures find their parallel in the head-to-heads, where Hillary’s lead has been trimmed to just 2.2%; it was (just) in double figures seven weeks ago. Two of the last four polls released have put Trump ahead. That might just be the coincidence that at least one of the two pollsters, Rasmussen, seems to have a structural bias to Trump but all the same, it’s notable.
Of course, US elections are won in the Electoral College, and hence the states, rather than the nationwide vote shares but the two are closely linked. For the moment, we simply don’t have enough state-level data to form a judgement about whether either candidate is piling up votes in the wrong places. Of the six most marginal states in 2012, two (Colorado and Virginia) haven’t had any Trump v Clinton polling conducted this year, and the other four (Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania), polling is sporadic and erratic: the range of results in the last three polls in each state varies by at least 9%, and we have to go back to February for some of those.
One thing we should bear in mind, however, is that ten of the eleven most marginal states were won by Obama last time. Given Trump’s unusual political background, UNS may not be as relevant as usual but the fact remains that there’s quite a lot of low-hanging Democrat fruit with only North Carolina’s fifteen votes particularly vulnerable the other way.
There are still over five months between now and election day and a lot can and will happen in that time. The end of the Democrat race, the vice-presidential picks, the conventions, the debates, the campaigns, the interviews, the off-the-cuff comments, attack ads, media investigations; all could have an effect. Hillary remains the professional in the race and has the patience and experience to handle all that; that should favour her. Yet Trump has had a knack of exploiting his opponents’ weak spots and with Clinton he has a long record to work with, while Hillary has noticeably twice failed to do likewise: first losing to Obama and then taking far longer than should have been the case to see off Sanders.
Clinton is rightly favourite. The numbers still just about favour her and the momentum running the other way may be as much about Trump fading from TV screens now the Republic race is run; she’s also less likely to make serious mistakes. But for all that, she’s a dull Washington insider and a poor campaigner; Trump is not. The best odds suggest he has a 29% chance. I reckon it should be topside of forty.