Inevitability and momentum have spent much of this election cycle in conflict. The Democratic primary showcased this more than once: no matter the wins strung together by insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders—no matter the surprise at some of his successes—Hillary Clinton’s victory was never really in question. If Sanders supporters are any indication, though, not all voters respond well to inevitability; her “coronation” as it was derogatorily called was derided as the primary dragged on, and as her general election post-convention bounce extended throughout August and Trump’s demise came to appear certain, inevitability may have once again soured voters on Clinton despite her momentum.
Hillary Clinton’s odds to win dropped below 70% today according to Fivethirtyeight’s polls-only election forecaster. This is her lowest showing since the Democratic National Convention and the result of poll after poll showing a tightening race both nationally and in battleground states. Clinton’s favorability numbers have reached their lowest point ever, dropping into the doldrums usually reserved for Donald Trump. The good news in all of this for Clinton: her loss of support hasn’t translated into as big an uptick for Trump. In the polls that include Jill Stein and Gary Johnson—the polls where her support has eroded the most—her drop seems to correspond more with an increase in third party support rather than a bump for The Donald (Politico has a fairly comprehensive summary of recent polls with links here). But all this flagging momentum hasn’t dented the expectations for Clinton; regardless of whom they support, the latest CNN poll shows 59 percent of respondents expect Clinton to win the election. So which supporters is Clinton losing even as they remain convinced she will win?
Clinton’s strategy since her speech at the Democratic convention has been to turn the election into a referendum on Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency. To that end she’s made frequent appeals to moderate Republicans, assuring them that they have a home with her and implying borderline apocalyptic consequences if they help elect Trump. With Trump currently commanding a smaller percentage of Republican support than a GOP nominee usually enjoys there’s evidence that Clinton’s strategy is working. Politico compared this strategy to one used by LBJ against Barry Goldwater and cautions that it creates a deceptive appearance of bipartisan support where none exists; LBJ found he lacked a broad popular mandate following Goldwater’s defeat because the moderates on the right never truly supported him. Likewise, no one who has paid attention to Republican politics for the last twenty years would believe that the moderate Republicans Clinton has peeled away from Trump truly support her candidacy or yearn for her success; rather, they’re holding their nose to vote for Clinton because Donald Trump’s proportional response to a tin-plated third-world despot’s suggestion that he has small hands likely involves nuclear codes.
These Republicans (combined with independents feeling Clinton fatigue and progressives who doubt Clinton’s intentions) will give Clinton their vote if they have to; for the good of the country, the planet, and possibly the time-space continuum they will unite in common cause to deny Donald Trump the presidency. However, in a year where the phrase “lesser of two evils” has put all the emphasis on evil, these voters won’t go along quietly. If a voter’s sole reason to vote for Clinton is to deny Trump, then every poll showing Clinton with a commanding lead is one more reason for that voter’s ballot to be cast for a third party or write-in candidate. Trump’s inability to make significant gains in polls as Clinton’s support erodes bears this out.
Even as her near-inevitable victory saps all the energy and momentum from poll results, though, the former secretary of state needn’t worry. The majority of the country’s voters seem both perfectly happy to vote against Donald Trump and largely willing to vote for Clinton in sufficient number to give her the win. But if I were Hillary Clinton, I wouldn’t bank on receiving a commanding popular vote mandate with which to govern. Her win may be the plurality victory that comes with being the least unpopular.