Wait. Donald Trump is winning?

Here's why polls are suddenly showing a tighter race between Hillary Clinton and Trump

It's not so black and white.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

Take a poll, scare a Democrat. They are fragile creatures.

Could it actually be true that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is leading in the presidential polls? How did he close that 9-point gap so quickly? Is Doomsday descending upon the Democrats?

Before we answer that question, we'll take a small digression into the world of political polling. Its denizens are in one of their perpetual self-flagellator modes. That means they are on tenterhooks about the assumptions that underlie their own work and aren't likely to be in a mood to give definitive answers to anything.

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I'm tempted to direct you to FiveThirtyEight, but then you'd be subject to a discussion of Bayesian priors, and a bit of self-loathing, from Nate Silver, who did not predict the rise of Donald Trump and therefore thinks there is something wrong with him (Nate!), because the whole world expects Nate to predict every major event because…. I don't really know. I can't think of anything Nate and his compadres could have done differently. I don't understand the ruckus. You can jump into that bespectacled rabbit hole if you want.

I won't. I'm ok with pundits. A pundit who asks questions of a lot of people and synthesizes a guestimate about what might happen in the future is called a reporter. There are many great reporters, like Bob Costa, and David Weigel, who got Trump's rise right. There are a good number of scientists and wonks, like Norm Ornstein, who decided that Trump could win the Republican nomination and perhaps even be competitive in the general election because they went out into the world and selected the right trends to pay attention to. These guys (forgive me: There is still a male skew in political science and GOP nominating reporting) guessed right because they've studied politics up close, because they've read widely and skeptically, because they listen to people before making up their minds, and because they are humble enough to realize that "political laws of physics" are not the same thing as the actual laws of physics. The grip that a party has on its nomination process will change during a primary season, even if the rules are static. That's because the tightness of that grip is determined by a bunch of forces, some of which are themselves a product of human decisions. Donald Trump decided to do a lot of things that propelled himself to the nomination.

Having tweaked Nate Silver, let me praise him. He's on to the reasons why the polls are showing a tighter race between Hillary Clinton and Trump. One is that the Republican Party has its nominee. There are many psychological, evolutionary, and cognitive forces at work in persuading anyone who leans to the right to rally around the person who is going to take on Clinton in the fall, but let's just call this one the "party effect," and it's kicking in.

Another is that the Democrats are not fully unified, yet. Bernie Sanders supporters are actively withholding their support for Hillary Clinton in primaries, especially liberal-leaning independents who don't identify as Democrats. (These folks make up about 40 percent of the men and women who've actually voted for him.)

Back to the polls themselves. That Fox poll surveyed people randomly nationwide. A CBS News/New York Times poll of registered voters gives Clinton a 6-point lead, down from 10 points, but still respectable. Trump's slightly increased support comes from Republicans who have accepted him as their nominee; Clinton has not lost her standing among Democrats and is down slightly among independents — Sanders voters, primarily.

The Times write-up of the poll reminds readers that, at this point in 2008, only 60 percent of Clinton supporters said they would vote for Barack Obama. By the election, virtually all of them were on board. Remarkably, the Democratic Party is more unified today than it was at the same point in the last competitive cycle. These three paragraphs are incredibly important and worth quoting in full:

Mr. Trump is hampered by a high level of contempt among important voting blocs. Only 21 percent of female voters view him favorably, while 60 percent view him unfavorably. A mere 14 percent of voters 18 to 29 view him positively, while 65 percent of such young voters have a negative opinion about him. And just 12 percent of nonwhite voters view Mr. Trump favorably, while 68 percent view him unfavorably.

Mrs. Clinton fares little better. Just 23 percent of white voters view her favorably, while 63 percent of whites have an unfavorable view. Men dislike her almost as much as women dislike Mr. Trump: Only 26 percent of men view her favorably, and 58 percent hold an unfavorable perception of her.

One factor working in Mrs. Clinton's favor, though, is that the current Democrat in the White House is enjoying a modest rejuvenation. Fifty percent of Americans now approve of President Obama's job performance, his highest rating in more than three years. [The New York Times]

No, Trump isn't winning. Yes, the election will be competitive. And Nate Silver: You are still worth reading.

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