New poll numbers show tightening presidential race, but Clinton has easier path

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U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign Voter Registration Rally at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, United States September 6, 2016.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder  - RTX2OEG6

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we return to politics and a tightening race for president, both across the nation and in key battleground states.

New polls indicate Hillary Clinton has a small advantage, but Donald Trump is closing the gap in a few places.

Lisa Desjardins has our report.

LISA DESJARDINS: There’s a theme in a this week’s political headlines, different polls with one conclusion: Nationally, the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is getting closer.

The big picture? Clinton leads by three points, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. That is half of her lead a month ago. In other words, her convention bounce is almost gone. She still has some key advantages, leading in states with a bonanza of electoral votes, like California and New York. Clinton also has narrow leads in pivotal battleground states like Colorado and Virginia.

Also in Clinton’s favor, some demographics. She is now far in front with a much-watched group, white college-educated women, that according to The Washington Post. That’s a reverse from 2012, when Republican Mitt Romney won with that group.

But Trump, he has got strengths, too. He is leading in the Midwest overall, and he is in striking distance in Michigan and Wisconsin, which typically vote Democratic at the presidential level. Trump has also widened his lead among older white voters, and among those without college degrees, he now leads Clinton in at least 43 states.

What might be most important here is the timing. These dynamics are in play 60 days out from the election. In the past four elections, this is exactly when breakaway shifts began in the polls.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Lisa Desjardins.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what do all these polls tell us about what’s driving voters? And nine weeks out from Election Day, what do the candidates need to do to drive their message home?

We take a deeper look with Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post, and Carroll Doherty. He’s the director for political research for the Pew Research Center.

And we welcome both of you back to the program.

Dan, I’m going to start with you and your newspaper’s 50-state poll out today. What do these numbers tell you about where the race stands today?

DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Judy, it tells us several important things, first, that the race has tightened from where it was after the conventions. Hillary Clinton got a bigger bounce out of the Democratic Convention than Donald Trump got from the Republican Convention, and that moved the polls in early and mid-August.

But what we have seen since then is a tightening. We have seen a different Donald Trump on the campaign trail. I can’t say what reason it is that it’s tightened, but it has tightened. So that’s the first point.

The second point is that our 50-state poll underscores the degree to which Hillary Clinton still has an easier path to 270 electoral votes than Donald Trump does. Our numbers show that all she would need to do at this point is add Florida, and she would have 270 or more electoral votes.

Donald Trump has a long, long way to go to get there. He has very few options. He has to thread the needle, and she has many choices and many options, both in an effort to block him in the states he has to win, but also to open up the map in some areas where she’s might be able to expand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Carroll Doherty, looking at the polls you look at, which are a lot of them, including your own Pew poll, what do you see there in terms of Hillary Clinton’s path?

CARROLL DOHERTY, Pew Research Center: Well, I mean, we look at the national picture, and what you see is two candidates who just are viewed in extraordinarily negative ways, in different ways, but in negative ways.

In our poll in August, only about three in 10 voters said that Hillary Clinton would make a good or great president, and 27 percent said Donald Trump would make a good or great president. There are more people voting against than for these candidates in some ways. And so negativity is really driving a motivating factor in this election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dan, given that — and we have been hearing about this negativity for some time — given that, how do you explain Hillary Clinton’s advantage?

DAN BALZ: Well, I think that, at this point, she has become less unacceptable than Donald Trump is.

You know, we have — as Carroll said, we have to keep this in negative terms. I mean, one of the things we looked at , we asked a question of, do you think Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would — if they became president, would threaten the well-being of the United States?

Ninety-five percent of the people across the country, when you aggregate it up, believe that one or both would be a threat to the well-being. So there is great concern about these two candidates. But because of many of the things that Donald Trump has said up to now, the record he has established as a candidate has raised more questions about him than Hillary Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Carroll Doherty, it is the case that questions are out there about Donald Trump, but there are also some opportunities for him which show up in the polls.

CARROLL DOHERTY: Absolutely.

I mean, you know, 43 percent say he would make not just a bad, but a terrible president. There’s probably an opportunity to move some of these numbers a little more in his direction. And some of these key groups, such as whites, whites with college degrees, importantly, who have been trending Republican in recent years, I think there is an opportunity for him there possibly to bring some of those voters back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we have already — Dan, we have already seen some movement on his part, as you mentioned, just since the conventions.

DAN BALZ: Well, we have. And in the polling that we did, which we did, the online polling with the firm SurveyMonkey, one of the things we noticed is that he does have strength in the Midwest. There are a number of Midwestern states, some of which have gone Democratic for five or six elections in a row, where he’s doing reasonably well and is within striking distance.

So there’s opportunity in those areas where the electorate is older and whiter. And, as Carroll said, one of the problems he has at this point, not certainly it will be the case on Election Day, but right now, is with white college-educated voters and particularly white women who have college degrees.

Mitt Romney won whites with college educations with 56 percent of the vote, and Hillary Clinton is winning that group at this point. So Donald Trump needs to do that. And the other thing he needs to do, which you would expect over time he will have some success on, and that is consolidating the Republican vote in the way that Hillary Clinton has already consolidated the Democratic vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why has he had a hard time with the white, more educated voter and Republicans?

CARROLL DOHERTY: Well, and Republicans, a bitter primary — people forget that he won a very divided — over a divided field, and didn’t win a majority of all Republican votes in the primary. So some of this is normal consolidation, and then some of it is self-inflicted in terms of some of the things he has said and done since then.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, Carroll Doherty, how undecided are — how many voters out there are undecided? How malleable is voters’ thinking at this point?

CARROLL DOHERTY: The broadest range we have been able to estimate, maybe one in five. It’s probably down from where it’s been.

You have to factor in the third- and fourth-party factor this time and where they might go as well with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, but about one in five or so. And that’s less than in prior elections at this stage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dan, how do you see this question of how malleable, how — how many voters are there out there who still might make up their minds, might change their minds, go in another direction?

DAN BALZ: It’s very hard to estimate. And I think polling doesn’t help us a lot on this.

I mean, as Carroll said, there’s a sizable number who say they haven’t quite made up their mind or might change their mind. But, as we have said, this is such an unhappy electorate. You have to think that most people kind of know where they’re going to end up, but they’re not — they’re just so conflicted about the choice, that they’re not really ready to say with any certainty that they will definitely do that.

And so I think it leaves some uncertainty out there in where these polls might move over the next 60 days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And quick final question to Carroll Doherty about these third-party candidates, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Can you say at this point how much of a factor they can make?

CARROLL DOHERTY: History suggests that August measures of third-party support, that would decline over time, perhaps, but this is a very unusual election. We had Gary Johnson at 10 percent in our most recent national poll.

His profile voter, very young, very young profile voters for Gary Johnson at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, as you say, typically — and, Dan, I will come back to you very quickly on this.

Typically, the third-party candidates lose ground in the final weeks of an election?

DAN BALZ: That’s usually true, but I think that the issue is if Gary Johnson were able to qualify and hit that 15 percent threshold to get into the presidential debates, that would change that, because he would then have national visibility that he doesn’t have at this point.

But, so far, he is not quite at that level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s an election like we have never seen in so many ways.

Thank you, both, Dan Balz, Carroll Doherty.

CARROLL DOHERTY: Thank you.

DAN BALZ: Thank you.

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