Hillary Clinton supporters have been grinding their teeth lately, and for good reason: As the former Secretary of State’s lead has evaporated in recent days following an unfavorable news cycle, Donald Trump’s chances of winning 270 electoral votes come November seem better than ever.
Yet before either party begins celebrating its impending triumph (or tearing its hair out over defeat), it’s important to recall that elections naturally ebb and flow — and this race is far from over. Indeed, some of the most defining factors of the campaign, such as the debates, are yet to come.
This is not to mitigate Mr. Trump’s gaining in the polls; for a candidate with such historically high unfavorability and a tendency to ignite scandal wherever he goes, narrowing the polling average is a positive development toward winning the race. Understanding that this race is a marathon rather than a sprint, however, is vital. Getting excited over weekly developments often leads to disappointment later.
While Clinton has maintained a lead over Trump for most of the race, a recent sag in support for her candidacy, particularly among millennials, has led to some nail biting on the left and jubilation on the right. This is in spite of Clinton’s massive fundraising advantage and her advantage on the ground in swing states such as Ohio and Florida, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us the full story.
It’s natural for presidential races to tighten, though voters may think otherwise given the media’s tendency to scream and shout about minor changes in the race. Understanding this tightening, and knowing in general not to overreact to any particularly positive or negative event for candidates of either party is pivotal for being an informed voter.
The upcoming debate on Sept. 26 has pundits and voters alike holding their breaths in anticipation. Will we see a new, policy-focused exchange of ideas or savor a cage-match fight between two of America’s most reviled politicians? We won’t know until the candidates take to the stage at Hofstra University, nor will we know the impact on the polls until days, or even weeks, later.
It is this debate — which is likely to break both ratings records and any remaining decency in this campaign — and its subsequent media coverage that will set the tone for the remainder of the 2016 election. The “winner” is not guaranteed to be propelled forward toward an assured victory, nor is the loser assuredly damned if he/she commits a gaffe, but the message to America the candidates offer on that first stage will likely be that which defines this election, and our political future.
So, is the race over? Hell no. We’ve still yet to see the full impact of many facets of this campaign — having the sitting president, vice president and first lady campaign on Clinton’s behalf, and her rigid ground game, will surely impact voter turnout. On the other hand, Donald Trump may benefit from further terrorist attacks that drive xenophobia, or international news that caters to his nationalistic campaign, such as Brexit.
Understanding the normal fluctuations of a competitive race helps us ultimately predict who will win. Mistakes such as thinking a temporary bounce or lull in the polls spells victory or defeat hampers our ability to make an effective choice for commander in chief, and drives useless horse race coverage that distracts voters. Instead, look for long-term trends in opinion polls of both candidates, and ignore outliers that launch any candidate leaps and bounds ahead of suddenly. Just as important is ignoring the media that often puts those outliers in a spotlight.
In summary, don’t believe everything the people who want your immediate attention tell you. Remember the days, weeks, and months that still have to pass before voters make their final decision — and all of the scandal and outrage that’ll come with them.