If You Are Curious Why the Presidential Race Is So Close Then This Article Is for You

Online, I see a lot of people asking questions like, “The MSM is in Hillary’s court and Trump is really unpopular. Why isn’t Hillary crushing him?” “Everyone knows the media is corrupt and for Hillary. No one likes her anyway, so why is Trump still behind?” or, “With so many advantages in her favor, how is Trump keeping it so close?” There’s a truth in all of these framings, but the presentation of the polling really boils down to 3 things:

  1. Strong Democratic partisans like Hillary more than strong Republican partisans like Trump. This is compounded by the fact that more voters identify as or lean toward Democrats than Republicans, which is probably why she holds an edge.
  2. Usually partisan independents seem to be lukewarm at best on their preferred candidate, so each party’s base likely has some internal polarization or enthusiasm problems. Many independents are undecided or leaning 3rd party.
  3. Trust in media is at an all-time low, particularly among Republicans. I think it is pretty safe to say no one really gives a shit how they frame things, especially not people who are predisposed to support Trump from party affiliation alone.

Taking data from the, as of this writing, most recent YouGov/Economist poll, we see the following overall favorability:

So the electorate mostly hates the candidates, but they hate Clinton slightly less and also like her slightly more. I’m going to break down the electorate into a few categories to show why this is the case. First, here is a chart with party affiliates’ same party candidate favorabilities:

About what you’d expect, I think. Party affiliates are overall very favorable to their party’s candidate, but the overall voter trend still holds: Democrats like Clinton more than Republicans like Trump and dislike her less than Republicans dislike Trump. These numbers might raise some questions, like why are the overall favorability numbers so low since these seem pretty high? The answer is a bit counter-intuitive, but there are more independent voters than voters of either party, and independent voters are still very partisan in terms of actual voting habits. So how do the numbers look for independents? Not favorable:

Same story as the overall group (mostly unfavorable, they like Clinton a bit more and dislike her a bit less than Trump), which isn’t shocking since the sample also combines supporters of both candidates (35% intend to vote Clinton, 36% intend to vote Trump). The most notable trend is that favorable responses skew toward somewhat favorable but the unfavorable responses skew strongly toward very unfavorable, leading me to suspect that weak partisans are mostly voting against their non-preferred candidate and may be unenthusiastic voters. Furthermore, more independent voters indicate 3rd party vote preference and candidate indecision than major party affiliates. More independents indicated indecision in this poll than the figure given in the previously linked article (9% vs. about 5%); this is likely a direct result of low favorability major party candidates.

Finally, let’s look at how party affiliates’ opposition candidate favorabilities look:

I doubt this surprises anyone but I think it merits comparison with the same party favorabilities. Party affiliates are much more likely to hate the opposition candidate (very unfavorable has an 80% supermajority for both parties) than to love their own (very favorable breaks even for Democrats on Clinton at 50% and holds a modest plurality for Republicans on Trump at 37%). This does not however, translate into more negative votes (that is, votes primarily against the opposition candidate than for the preferred candidate)for intended Clinton or Trump voters. Both groups are voting more for their preferred candidate, though intended Trump voters barely break even.

But What About Clinton’s Media Advantage?

I don’t think it’s controversial that Clinton has a big advantage in media coverage so I am not going to bother to substantiate that claim. Why then, are the polls so close if she also has advantages in numbers and enthusiasm? Shouldn’t this push her over into a secure margin? The answer lies in media trust.

Media trust is at an all time low, and Republicans trust the media much less than Democrats. As an extension of these attitudes, media coverage is unlikely to have a big impact since Republican partisans are highly distrustful of the media and unlikely to respond to strongly negative coverage of Trump. It’s harder to know what impact media bias would have on Independents, but I suspect that if the Independent sample was separated out into Democrat-leaning and Republican-leaning the results for each group would be closer to the corresponding party affiliates.

To sum it all up: Clinton is leading because more people identify as or lean Democrat and Democratic partisans favor Clinton more than Republican partisans favor Trump, so Clinton has a slight demographic advantage in the electorate. Weak partisans are more lukewarm on both candidates and many turn to 3rd party candidates or just plain indecision, which could account for depressed turnout for both candidates and narrow the margins. Finally, a strong advantage in media bias is unlikely to help Clinton win over Trump voters (or even just push Trump voters away from him) as Republican partisans, Trump’s firm base, are highly distrustful of the media.