How the 2016 Presidential Race Defies all the Rules and Remains Competitive

Until about a year ago when I told people what I do for a living, I got one of two responses – a blank stare or a prediction about the 2016 election. Now, I usually just get a three letter response and I’m pretty sure they don’t stand for “Wow, This is Fascinating!”

Having the advantage of a new set of national data from the latest NBCWSJ poll*, I wanted to share with all my “fascinated” friends, two big picture findings:


1) The traditional rules of presidential politics are not as applicable in 2016.


Many have posited that in 2016 we are operating in uncharted political waters. The July NBCWSJ poll provides some support as the three central figures in this presidential race – the two candidates and the sitting president – are each, in their own unique way, defying the traditional rules of “political gravity.”


Donald Trump, a candidate like no other, won the nomination with more than enough delegates, and yet:

  1. He is most unpopular presidential candidate ever. The July 2016 NBCWSJ poll shows 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters view Trump positively (27{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or are neutral (13{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) while 60{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} view him negatively with 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} saying they have a very negative opinion of him.
  2. In the July NBCWSJ poll, most Republicans (60{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) preferred another candidate be nominated while just 38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said they are satisfied with Trump – which is fairly close to the actual percentage of GOP Primary votes he got (41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) based on exit polls.
  3. Only 33{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters would describe themselves as optimistic and confident (12{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or satisfied and hopeful (21{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) if he were elected president. Some 18{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} are “uncertain and wondering” while 48{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} are “pessimistic and worried.”


Hillary Clinton, a candidate with more baggage than any other, has secured the endorsement of Bernie Sanders after a long, though not especially “competitive” primary season (i.e. she steam-rolled Sanders in terms of popular vote, states won, and delegates won), and yet:

  1. She is the second most unpopular presidential candidate ever – 44{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters view Clinton positively (34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or are neutral (10{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) while 56{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} view her negatively with 43{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} saying they have a very negative opinion of her.
  2. Until recently, she was under investigation by the FBI for her mishandling of classified information, an issue that 55{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters say is important to how they will vote. Half (50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of voters say what they’ve learned is a reason she does not have the right judgment to be president.
  3. In June, before the FBI concluded its investigation, just 25{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters said Secretary Clinton was better than Trump on being honest and straightforward, including fewer than half (49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of all Democrats and just 6{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Independents.


President Obama, is concluding his second term with personal favorability (50{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} positive – 41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} negative) and job approval (51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} approve – 46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} disapprove) ratings at the highest level they’ve been since just after his re-election, and yet:

  1. 73{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
  2. Race relations in this country are at an all-time low with 74{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} saying things are fairly (42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or very (32{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) bad.
  3. Just 49{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Americans say Obama gets credit for the economy improving over the term of his presidency while a majority, 51{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}, either say the economy has NOT improved (36{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or say it has but do not give Obama credit (15{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).


2) The presidential race is and will continue to be very competitive.


Partisans on both sides, I’ve found, react about the same to this, each saying “Who the heck would ever vote for [insert other party’s candidate].” Indeed, NBCWSJ as well as other public polling outlets have found that majorities of both candidates’ voters are voting against the other candidate rather than for their own, another dynamic unique to 2016. And, it’s exactly that deep tension, coupled with the precarious burden of personal negativity both candidates are shouldering, that is helping to stabilize this race. The other factors are:

Recent volatility is having an oddly stabilizing effect on the ballot.  Usually, this is where any smart pollster adds that caveat “barring some very significant event.” But, over the last month the average margin has yo-yoed between a three- and six-point advantage for Clinton and according to the latest NBCWSJ poll the race is 41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} Trump – 46{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} Clinton, exactly same as the June poll. If the shootings, terrorist attacks, protests and rhetoric of the last five weeks haven’t shifted the margins on this race I don’t want to know (or think about) what would.

What we might surmise, though, in the context of this greater tension, is that an individual voter is looking at these events and drawing their own conclusions which fit and deepen their existing beliefs and therefore deepen their partisan leanings. For example, Fox News asked how voters first reacted after the Orlando terrorist attack – 40{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said they felt they needed to get a gun and 33{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} felt that the country had to get rid of guns – but when viewed by partisanship, these attitudes were near mirror images of each other with 62{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Republicans saying they felt they “need to get a gun” and 57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Democrats feeling “the country has got to get rid of guns.”Guns by party

Still, Americans clearly crave change in 2016. In the July NBCWSJ poll, 56{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters said they prefer a candidate that will change how government operates even if that change is unpredictable and 41{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} said they prefer a steady approach to how government operates even if that means fewer changes.

In June, NBCWSJ found that by more than two to one, voters say Trump would be better than Clinton at changing business as usual in Washington.

A July Q-poll [] last week found that over 70{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters in each of three key states – FL, OH, and PA – agreed that “The old way of doing things no longer works and we need radical change.”

But, Trump’s brand of change is too extreme for many. Some 57{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters believe Trump’s general approach to issues is “out of step” with most Americans’ thinking according to the July poll. In June, just 26{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of voters said Trump would be better than Hillary on “Uniting the country.”

What Trump has tapped into is a deep feeling of disconnection with government and also with the media. The July Q-poll [] also found voters in FL, OH, and PA strongly feel disconnected from their political officials and that the news media is out of touch.


Bottom line

2016 will be a presidential race like no other – one where most voters will be voting against the candidate they like the least so the other can run a country voters aren’t especially happy with. That inherent cross-pressure has kept this race very competitive. What else is there to say but, “Wow, This is Fascinating!”


*The NBCWSJ poll is conducted by the firms of Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research Associates. The views expressed in this blog are those of Micah Roberts and not necessarily shared by Hart Research Associates or NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

Public Opinion Strategies