The Historical Perspective

By Jim Ellis

Aug. 31, 2016 — Everyday we see new polls that measure Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s national standing and their status in some states, but how does the 2016 race compare to the others from the past 40 years during this same time point in the election cycle?

The Gallup organization is the only consistent national pollster from the mid-20th Century through the 2012 election. After missing the final result four years ago in which they predicted a Mitt Romney popular vote victory, Gallup now confines their research work to issues and not head-to-head ballot test questions. Therefore, they are not polling the Clinton-Trump race.

Since Aug. 20, seven polls from a combination of professional national pollsters, media outlets, and universities have been publicly released. Six of the seven find Clinton holding the lead. One, the Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California’s continual panel-back tracking program, says Trump is carrying a two-point advantage. Factoring in these recent seven results, Clinton’s average advantage is 3.4 percentage points, usually in the span of 42-38 percent.

Most polls are now adding Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson to their ballot test questionnaires, while only a few include Green Party candidate Jill Stein. On average, Johnson has boosted his support to the nine percent range.

In the past 10 presidential elections, dating back to 1976, Republicans and Democrats have each won five times. From the period on or around Sept. 1 of the particular election year to Election Day, the average net swing between the two major party candidates is 8.6 points — using the Gallup data as a constant, with a range of five (2012: Obama 47, Romney 46 percent on Sept. 1, 2012; actual finish, 51-47 percent Obama) — to 15 points (1980: Carter 39, Reagan 38 percent on Sept. 1, 1980; actual finish, 51-41 percent Reagan).

From this point in 2016, using the Clinton 42-38 percent margin as a beginning mark, we can expect significant movement between now and Election Day. If the general swing is in Trump’s direction, history suggests that the electorate can pitch in enough for him still to win. Favoring Clinton, on the other hand, is that during these last 10 national campaigns, the leader on Sept. 1 has only twice failed to win the election.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter had a bare one-point lead over Ronald Reagan on Sept. 1, and would eventually lose handily. In 2000, then-Vice President Al Gore had a three-point national lead over George W. Bush, 47-44 percent on Sept. 1, 2000, but would lose the Electoral College vote. Even in that year, however, the Sept. 1 leader (Gore) did manage to place first in the popular vote by half a percentage point, despite not being elected president.

Today, the 2016 race shows a low degree of committed support for each major party candidate. This is due to the unusually high negative ratings each contender carries. Still, the third party/undecided/won’t say factor on Sept. 1 is 20 percent, behind only 1980’s 23-point total when comparing 2016 to the past 10 presidential elections.

Just one polling leader registered a lower support number than Hillary Clinton’s current average of 42 percent at the respective point in time: Jimmy Carter (1980) with 39 percent.

The average Sept. 1 support percentage for the polling leader over the past 10 completed presidential elections is 49.4 percent. Therefore, Clinton is running far below that benchmark. On the other hand, the trailing candidate averages 40.8 percent. While Trump is closer to the 38 percent range, he is not far from the average. He has a better Sept. 1 standing than President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996, while being equivalent with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Of course, only Reagan was able to win from this support position as late as Sept. 1.

It is clear that the historical trends favor a Clinton victory, but Trump rebounding to a win from his current polling position is not unprecedented.

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