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Does A Tightened Race Give Donald Trump A More Open Path?


Brace yourself. We're going to talk about political polling in this presidential race. Now, stay with me because the point is we're not going to just rattle off a bunch of numbers that may or may not mean anything. There is no doubt, though, that the polls in this contest are tightening. So we thought it would be a good time to bring in NPR's Domenico Montanaro to explain to us how we can start to put all of it into context.

Hi, Domenico.


MARTIN: What's happening out there? Things appeared to have - I mean, actually, substantively changed between the short time period of August and September.

MONTANARO: Yes, there's no question about it. I mean, Hillary Clinton had held a broad, shallow but consistent lead, I kept saying, in every battleground state a month ago. But that's really faded. I mean - you know, it's - and it's hard to say why. You know, it's hard to connect news events to polls sometimes. And I don't think Donald Trump had a particularly great month. There were a lot of people who've been looking at the Clinton health scare. There are some polls that show that there was some concern from voters that she wasn't being transparent enough or wasn't forthcoming enough. It seems unlikely to me that that'll last if, you know, Clinton performs well and vigorously on the campaign trail and in the debates.

You know, there's another big mathematical reason for this - and we talk about this sometimes. But the switch from registered voter models to - wait for it - likely voter models (laughter). You know, this is one of those things that can introduce a whole lot more volatility because likely voter models are trying to predict the electorate based on things like enthusiasm and past voting history...


MONTANARO: ...As opposed to being a snapshot in time.

MARTIN: But it can't just be the model, can it?

MONTANARO: No, not completely. I mean, it is responsible for probably most of it. But what affects these models is enthusiasm, like I noted. And you've seen a decline among Democrats and some of these groups that really should be going toward Hillary Clinton in bigger numbers. Maybe they grew complacent over the past months seeing her with a consistent lead. But there are worrying signs for Clinton.

Despite Obama, for example, being at 50 percent approval rating or more. That coalition - his coalition does not appear fired up for her, and she's underperforming them with voters - especially young blacks, Latinos, women - in key places like Nevada. And getting that base out's going to be key for her.

MARTIN: What about other key battleground states - how's that playing out there?

MONTANARO: Well, it certainly made things tighter. At least a dozen battleground states have gotten closer. Clinton still has a slight edge overall. But Trump has drawn even or pulled ahead, looking at the average of the polls, in some eye-popping places, like Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Iowa.

MARTIN: It seems, though, that I keep hearing people say Hillary Clinton, when it comes, though, to the Electoral College, the map is still in her favor. You've said that - no?

MONTANARO: Absolutely. I mean, I tend to say that Republicans have a narrower path, and it's true. And the road is still very narrow. That path is narrow. I mean, a month ago, you could say Donald Trump had, like, a road closed sign (laughter) in front of him. Now, though, it's opened up a bit. You know - I mean, like I said, he's tied or ahead in places like Florida, Ohio, Iowa and Nevada. Suppose you give him those - that's not enough. So where else would he go?

You know, he's also behind by margin of error or slightly, you know, essentially tied in the polls in North Carolina and New Hampshire. Give those to him - guess what happens - it's a tie.


MONTANARO: That would just extend this already-too-long, contentious election.

MARTIN: So - go ahead. Go ahead. Finish your thought.

MONTANARO: No. And - I'll just say there's this one electoral vote in Maine, where right now Trump is ahead. And if he wins there, he'd win 271-268.

MARTIN: So what are we to do in the next few weeks as these polls are, no doubt, going to continue? How do we internalize them?

MONTANARO: Well, I always say it's really important to look at the trends. That's the most important way to look at polls, not one poll to the next. I think we might be at an inflection point in this campaign. I wonder if this is Trump's high-water mark and the waters recede. Or does he make more inroads in places like Michigan or Pennsylvania, where the polls have tightened but Clinton's still ahead? Do Democrats up their enthusiasm and urgency? Do younger voters move more toward her or not? And like I said, always most important to look at those trends overall.

MARTIN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro sorting it all out for us. Thanks so much, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

MARTIN: At least trying. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.