Trump Closes In, But Clinton Has Four Structural Advantages

The Democrat has a superior ground operation, more cash, more Hispanic support and a lead in early voting.

Hillary Clinton Barack Obama
American secretary of state Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama attend a summit of Pacific nations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 20, 2012 (State Department/William Ng)

The week before election day is always nerve-wracking, this year’s near-apocalyptic feel notwithstanding.

So perhaps it’s fate that in the most contested election in decades, the gap between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is narrowing.

According to FiveThirtyEight, the Democrat enjoyed a 6.8-percent lead in the popular vote projection on October 18. As of November 2, it’s a 3.5-percent lead. The race is tightening.

Not that 3.5 percent is an insubstantial margin: FiveThirtyEight — the most Trump-favorable of the election models — projects that Clinton retains a seven-in-ten chance of victory. Those are solid (albeit not certain) betting odds.

Even the “Dewey Defeats Truman” beat-the-polls trope rings hollow. Yes, Harry Truman won reelection by a margin of 4.5 percent despite trailing by 3.5 percent in the polls (an 8-point swing). But as FiveThirtyEight points out, the fact that there are now exponentially more polls in the field — and almost seventy years of methodology improvement since then — we can’t reasonably expect such a monumental error to take place.

Clinton’s advantages

That being said, for many Democrats (including me), a 3.5-percent race is far too close for comfort. Yet while Donald Trump could actually pull this off, there are four data points which give me comfort.

  1. Clinton’s ground game is superior to Trump’s. Not only did she inherit the know-how from Barack Obama’s technologically groundbreaking 2012 run; she has significant on-the-ground staffing advantages in key states.
  2. Clinton has spent far more than Trump on advertisements. While ads don’t mean as much in a presidential race as in a local election, this metric remains a significant Clinton advantage. And notably, Clinton still has more than twice as much cash on hand as her opponent.
  3. Polling in 2012 was troubled by a lack of Spanish-speaking polling in the field, which led to an underestimation of Hispanic turnout for President Obama. This election cycle has been dogged by issues involving Spanish speakers, including low response rates and other language barriers. Given the fact that Trump is probably the most anti-Hispanic candidate in American history, it’s safe to assume that most amateur pollsters are not properly taking this into account. (Presumably, the Spanish-only speakers which these pollsters are leaving out are not huge Trump fans.)
  4. Democrats usually have an advantage in early voting — and it’s usually counterbalanced by Republican voting on election day. But the fact that Clinton enjoys an advantage in early voting points to two crucial advantages: she got the vote out while she was leading in the polls and Republican voter suppression efforts and possible logistical snags on November 8 will matter less.

None of these data points indicate that Clinton is assured to win next week. What they do point to, however, is that Trump has few avenues by which to beat the polls. Democrats should emotionally prepare for the possibility of a Trump victory, but it’s nowhere near time to break out the cyanide.