Image Source: Getty / Al Bello
After Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump swept Super Tuesday to become presidential front runners, many are wondering: which of them would win in a national contest? Present polls indicate Trump would not fare well against Clinton in the national election. However, his tendency to pivot his beliefs according to what his audience wants to hear is a problem for Clinton — Trump will do anything to win. That's where this bizarre-o election get even more complicated.
Before we dive into a Clinton vs. Trump outcome, let's get this out of the way: polls aren't always reliable before the final candidates are chosen. To begin, there are still other candidates in the race — so if you asked a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter whether she would vote for Clinton, Trump, or abstain, it's possible she would abstain given that the matchup isn't confirmed yet. Now imagine the same supporter actually faced the dilemma of voting for Clinton or Trump in November — she might reconsider her allegiance to ensure Trump doesn't win. The same scenario works for Republicans as well. Polls that ask respondents to answer ultimatums understandably illicit unreliable results since the scenarios are imagined.
Polls Project Clinton Beating Trump
Keeping all this in mind (but also awknowledging that polls have been right in the major voting events so far this election), let's assess what polls say about Trump's ability to get elected. According to almost every reliable poll, like this RealClearPolitics one, Clinton beats Trump in a general election. (Refer to this FiveThirtyEight ranking to see how historically accurate a poll is.) Calculating the average of all the polls provides a more accurate understanding of each candidates' chances, and RealClearPolitic's average still indicates Clinton beats Trump with 45.4 percent to his 42 percent of the national electorate. However, Sanders actually has a slighter greater edge over Trump: the average shows Trump losing to Sanders by eight percent. Same with a recent CNN / ORC poll, which shows Clinton beating Trump by eight points but Sanders beating Trump by 12 points. Clinton is the apparent favorite in a Clinton vs. Trump showdown, but that doesn't mean she's going to have an easy time winning.
— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) March 2, 2016
But Clinton Has a Popularity Problem
In the same CNN poll, we see a potential roadblock to Clinton's path to presidency: 55 percent of respondents answered that they had an unfavorable opinion of her. When compared to Donald Trump's unfavorability of 60 percent, Clinton's number is troubling; nearly the same amount of people regard Trump and Clinton negatively. The challenge for Clinton becomes if she can usurp Sanders's supporters in a general election because it's possible their contempt for political institutions combined with their contempt for her would result in his backers not voting. It's unclear if Clinton can surmount this barrier because Sanders is still in the race; but given the current electorate's hostility towards the system itself, Clinton's likability could push people towards Trump's populist message.
Image Source:YouTube user huw parkinson
How Trump Wins
Trump's path to victory ultimately relies on how much people truly dislike or don't trust Clinton. But, he's also got a strategy to get to the White House that he's been employing the entire race: pandering — regardless of his words' validity — and speaking in Tweetable soundbites. As Derek Thompson aptly writes in the Atlantic about his recent investigation of how Trump wins, "He's going to spend the next few weeks figuring out what he needs to say to win, and when he thinks he's found those things, he's going to say them, over and over, with shameless disregard for consistency, accuracy, or morality."
Trump is a brilliant brander and he's selling the product he knows best: himself. It would surprise no one if Trump suddenly became more moderate after winning the Republican nomination to win over more progressive voters because he has a history of switching his positions. The fact that 47 percent of respondents in CNN's poll consider the economy their greatest concern in this election also plays into Trump's favor — voters are not too concerned with his stance on social issues, as long as he can make them more prosperous. It ostensibly doesn't matter to voters that 73 percent of what Trump says is a lie and neither do his xenophobic opinions. Trump, to exploit a tired cliché, is the definition of a talking head.
What Trump's supporters like best about him is that he tells it like it is ... not sure why people think KKK comments are going to hurt him
— Michael Cohen (@speechboy71) February 28, 2016
Ultimately, a Broken GOP Party Could Help Clinton
For now, the polls leave us with little reason to fear Donald Trump. We might even be getting ahead of ourselves by assuming Trump will even be the Republican candidate; it's possible the fissures in the Republican party and lack of cohesive support for one candidate will lead to a brokered convention. The New York Times points out that in Oklahoma and Arkansas — states Trump won with less than 35 percent of the vote — negative attack ads against him were rampant. A combination of disdain for Trump within the Republican party, more negative ads stressing his flaws, and the remaining candidates unwillingess to accept defeat could prove damaging for Trump's trajectory — whether he's the GOP nominee or before he even gets there.
Image Source: ABC
Yet, with such an unpredictable candidate and an increasingly more unpredictable electorate, no one can truly anticipate what will transpire over the next six months — especially considering no one anticipated Trump would actually make it this far in the race.