Little more than a week ago, Democrat Hillary Clinton seemed a solid favorite to be the next president of the United States.
But the polls have moved to within a hair’s breadth of each other in the final week of the 2016 campaign. While Clinton still holds a small lead in most polls, the election is now a real nail-biter between Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
The race has tightened nationally and in several crucial swing states since news broke Oct. 28 – 11 days before the election – that FBI Director James Comey had sent a message to congressional leaders that agents were investigating a new batch of emails related to Clinton’s private email server.
That announcement refocused the campaign on a sore spot for Clinton, sure to inflame media attention. And that was before it was known the emails were found during an investigation into Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s estranged husband, former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, and his alleged sexting with a teenaged girl.
Then on Sunday, Comey sent congressional leaders another letter saying the agency had reviewed the new emails and determined not to change its recommendation from July that Clinton not face any charges over the matter.
When 2-to-1 isn’t all that lopsided
As of the Monday before the election, Clinton had nearly 2-to-1 odds of winning, 63.6 percent to 36.3 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast.
That sounds good for the Democrat. But a week earlier, before the email news broke, she had better than a 80 percent chance of winning. Clinton’s odds of winning have declined precipitously in FiveThirtyEight’s projections since she hit 88 percent heading into her third debate with Trump in mid-October.
The forecasters also have Clinton trailing in several crucial swing states; Trump has a 51.1 percent chance of winning Nevada, 53.3 percent odds of winning Florida and a 53 percent chance of carrying North Carolina. Trump has stronger odds in other battleground states: 66.7 percent in Ohio, 73.5 percent in Iowa and 74.9 percent in Arizona.
A loss in Florida, Nevada and North Carolina could push Clinton to a tipping point with 272 electoral votes – 270 are needed to win.
A Florida-sized flip
Real Clear Politics gave Clinton a national polling lead of 1.9 percent on Monday morning.
Clinton’s lead in the average was 49 percent to 41.9 percent on Oct. 18, but now her lead is only 46.3 percent to 44.4 percent for Trump.
While Clinton has trended down gradually, Trump jumped 3 percentage points in a week after polling at 42.2 percent on Oct. 27, as more Republican voters “come home” to the GOP nominee.
However, an average of polls that include third party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein gave Clinton a larger lead, of 2.2 percent.
Clinton also dropped to 216 “safe” or “leaning” electoral votes in Real Clear’s projection map, the lowest in a month, to 164 for Trump. Four states – Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia and Pennsylvania – have moved from Clinton’s column to “tossup” since Oct. 30, while Trump has reclaimed Georgia and Texas and consolidated his hold on other states.
When tossup states are assigned, Clinton has a narrower 297 to 241 win. Real Clear’s map awards Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina to Trump. Its math is only a flip the size of Florida away from a Trump victory.
The ‘Comey Effect’
Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has dubbed Clinton’s decline “the Comey Effect” – and credits it with moving Arizona, Florida and Ohio into the “tossup” category. Also post-Comey, Arizona completed its transition to the Trump column, along with Iowa, Ohio and Utah.
“We also need to remember something that has defined this race: The candidate in the spotlight, except for the convention period, has generally suffered in the polls,” Sabato’s Crystal Ball blog writes. “After the conclusion of the third debate, the focus seemed to move back to Clinton, as negative headlines about the Affordable Care Act and the daily trickle of sometimes embarrassing emails from WikiLeaks’ John Podesta treasure trove accumulated. This took the focus off of Donald Trump and put it on Clinton – and the Comey Effect has kept the spotlight on her.”
Despite the Comey Effect, Sabato still rates Clinton as a favorite, with strong numbers in her most needed states.
“Her leads in Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin appear durable, although Trump’s team is arguing that it can put these states into play,” according to Crystal Ball, “but at this point there’s precious little indication from polling that he can win them. ...
“Clinton also seems to have a small but clear edge in North Carolina, a state that Trump almost certainly needs to have a credible path to 270 electoral votes. And while polls are also close in Nevada, shrewd Silver State analyst Jon Ralston has been tracking the state’s early vote and has concluded it looks a lot like 2012, when Barack Obama won the state by nearly seven points. ‘Trump appears to have no path here,’ Ralston wrote about Nevada on Monday morning.”
For Trump to win, Republicans must hope for a breakthrough in at least some of these states. Meanwhile, Democrats will be praying for Clinton’s firewall to hold through Tuesday.