For the first time, Republican front-runner Donald Trump seems to have edged ahead of Democrat Hillary Clinton in presidential polling.
The polling data site RealClearPolitics (RCP) takes an average of national polls that ask Americans who they would choose in a contest between the two candidates (a scenario that now looks inevitable).
On Sunday, RCP updated their numbers to show that Trump is now, on average, 0.2 percentage points ahead of Clinton, The Guardian reported.
That gap might be narrow, but it has still led some (including a senior elections analyst at RCP) to conclude “it’s probably time to panic”. However, for those concerned about the prospect of a Trump victory, it’s been time to panic for a while — zooming out from a single statistic shows it.
Trump, for the first time, has come out on top in the RCP polling average, he has come very close to doing so on two prior occasions — in September and December of last year.
Since September, Clinton’s lead has fluctuated significantly from being as large as 11 percentage points to as narrow as 0.6.
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Just as it took pundits a while to wake up to the fact that Trump was a sufficiently popular candidate to win the Republican nomination, it seems that they have also been slow to switch focus to his chances of winning the White House.
Part of the reason why they did not panic before was a belief that measuring American public opinion a long time before a national election is a bad predictor of voting patterns.
Looking backward, rather than forward, results from the last six presidential elections suggest that 31 states are “safe” — based on the fact that the same party has consistently won them.
Unsurprisingly, polling companies are investing their time and resources in states they think might “swing” and, therefore, determine electoral outcomes nationally — states like Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia.
Polling suggests neither candidate has a significant lead in those states which could provide extra cause for concern for those worrying about a Trump win.
In 2008, US President Barack Obama won 68 percent of the electoral college vote with only 53 percent of the popular vote.
Clinton may be buoyed in the 2016 election cycle by traditional Democratic strength in populous states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California.
There is another, much bigger problem with the RCP average, though: it’s only as good as the individual polls that make it up. RCP always takes a straight average of the five most recent polls that were conducted. Once you peek under the hood, you’ll see that an average of 0.2 percentage points flattens out some very different findings.
These are the five latest polls RCP used to calculate Trump’s narrow lead:
ABC News/Washington Post showed Trump leads by two percentage points.
NBC News/Wall Street Journal said Clinton leads by three percentage points.
Rasmussen Reports that Trump leads by five percentage points.
FOX News said Trump leads by three percentage points.
CBS News/New York Times showed that Clinton leads by six percentage points.
These polls have different results in part because they use different methodologies for assessing public opinion.