Does Trump Have a Ceiling at 42%?

A slew of new national polls are out today showing Clinton with a modest but substantial lead over Donald Trump going into the conventions. It’s important, of course, not to put too much emphasis on national polling right now even in the aggregate. But the new numbers do make an interesting suggestion about the state of the race.

It’s obvious that Clinton has an advantage somewhere in the mid-single digits. We also know that regardless of the national numbers, Trump faces a steep uphill climb in the electoral college. But the upper bound number that demands attention in the latest three polls.

First is the ABC/Washington Post poll showing Clinton ahead of Trump by four: 47% to 43%

Second is the CNN/ORC poll giving Clinton a 7-point edge: 49% to 42%.

Third is the NBC/WSJ poll with Clinton beating Trump by 5: 46% to 41%.

On election day one of the candidates will reach 50% barring an unusually high number of third party votes. Both candidates will see their numbers rise as disaffected and undecided voters come home.

The problem for Trump is that with an apparent upper bound of around 42%, there likely aren’t enough of those undecideds and disaffecteds to put him over the top unless something dramatic occurs to change the state of the race. Even the ugly CBS/NYT poll that showed a 39-39 was more bad news for Clinton than good news for Trump.

There is a decent chunk of data out there suggesting that many Sanders voters are still having trouble warming up to Clinton, but it’s still very early yet. Trump has been the certain nominee for a long time now, and it doesn’t appear that anti-Trump voters are any likelier to back him now than they were before. And besides, Clinton doesn’t many very many disaffected voters to come into the fold to win; Trump needs a lot of them.

That’s part of why, unlike Nate Silver, I didn’t see the Mike Pence pick for VP as the best of Trump’s options. Pence is too boring to give Trump the sort of excitement boost he will need to win, and if Trump can’t count on the GOP base coming home to him in November he’s finished anyway.

No matter what happens with Clinton’s numbers, the figures to watch will be Trump’s. If he can’t manage to crest above that 42% number, he doesn’t really stand a chance no matter how many people dislike Clinton.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.