Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet Monday night for their first debate in a virtual dead heat in the race for the White House, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, with the Democratic nominee’s August advantage erased after recent difficulties and the GOP nominee still facing doubts about his qualifications and temperament.
Likely voters split 46 percent for Clinton and 44 percent for Trump, with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson at 5 percent and Green Party nominee Jill Stein at 1 percent. Among registered voters, Clinton and Trump are tied at 41 percent, with Johnson at 7 percent and Stein at 2 percent.
In a two-way matchup between the major-party nominees, Clinton tops Trump by 49 percent to 47 percent among likely voters, and the two are tied at 46 percent among all registered voters. Clinton’s two-point edge among likely voters, in both the four-way and two-way ballot tests, is within the survey’s 4.5 percentage-point margin of sampling error.
[Read: Full Post-ABC poll results ]
The findings underscore how much the presidential contest has tightened in recent weeks, after Clinton emerged from the two national conventions with a clear lead and with Trump on the defensive. In early September, Clinton led Trump by five points among likely voters. In early August, she led by eight points.
As Clinton has run into some turbulence, Trump has worked to present himself as a more disciplined candidate in an effort to attract more support from voters who traditionally have supported Republican nominees.
Some other national polls currently show Clinton with a slightly larger lead, but on balance, the pre-debate survey averages show the margin in the race in low single digits. The tightened race is a reminder of how much will be at stake Monday night at Hofstra University when the two meet at 9 p.m. before what could be one of the largest television audiences ever for a presidential debate.
Eight in 10 voters say they plan to watch Monday’s debate, and 44 percent expect Clinton to win vs. 34 percent expecting Trump to come out ahead. Expectations for Clinton are lower than they were for President Obama against Mitt Romney ahead of the 2012 debates, when 56 percent thought Obama would prevail vs. 29 percent for Romney. Although 17 percent of registered voters say the debate could change their minds, only 6 percent say there is a good chance of that occurring.
Most Americans say they are following the campaign diligently, but a higher percentage of Trump supporters appear to be paying close attention than Clinton backers. Also, more Clinton backers say they are not registered to vote, which adds to pressure on her team to get them registered and to the polls.
Another potentially worrying sign for Clinton is that she is getting a smaller share of voters who supported Obama in 2012 than Trump is getting among those who backed Romney.
Obama’s approval rating continues to be a potential boost for Clinton, however. His current approval among all adults is 55 percent, dipping from a high of 58 percent two weeks ago. But Clinton is facing a greater challenge reuniting Obama’s winning coalition. Roughly 8 in 10 likely voters who supported him in 2012 currently back Clinton today, while Trump wins 9 in 10 of those who supported Mitt Romney.
The race between Clinton and Trump continues to be defined along lines of gender, race and education. Men and women are mirror opposites in their preferences, with 54 percent of men backing Trump and 55 percent of women supporting Clinton. The racial gap is far larger. White voters back Trump by 53 percent to 37 percent; nonwhite voters back Clinton by 69 percent to 19 percent.
But educational attainment among white voters continues to be the critical indicator. Trump leads Clinton by more than 4 to 1 among white men without college degrees, and by a smaller ratio among white women without college degrees and among college-educated white men. Clinton leads Trump by 57 percent to 32 percent among college-educated white women.
Trump’s support among white men has increased, and one key to his possible success will be maximizing that support, among college-educated and non-college-educated white men alike, while making appeals to college-educated white women.
Both candidates continue to be viewed negatively by the voters. Currently, 39 percent of registered voters have a favorable impression of Clinton, while 57 percent have an unfavorable impression. For Trump, the results are comparable: 38 percent see him positively, 57 percent negatively. That unfavorability number, however, is five points lower than it was just before the two parties’ national conventions in July.
Both candidates are seen as lacking in honesty, although Clinton is in worse shape on this measure. Currently, 33 percent of voters say she is honest and trustworthy, while 62 percent say she is not. For Trump, it is 42 percent and 53 percent, respectively, an improvement since earlier this month.
Trump’s major obstacle still appears to be the fact that majorities do not see him as qualified to be president or possessing presidential temperament. On those qualities, 53 percent of registered voters say he is not qualified, 58 percent say he lacks the temperament to serve effectively, and 55 percent say he does not know enough about the world to serve effectively.
Doubts about Trump’s qualifications have softened somewhat since midsummer, when 6 in 10 registered voters said he was not qualified. White men are far more likely to say Trump is qualified (63 percent of white men vs. 43 percent of the overall voting public); to say Trump has the personality and temperament to serve effectively (54 percent vs. 38 percent); and to say Trump has sufficient knowledge of world affairs (57 percent vs. 41 percent).
Trump has the support of 88 percent of registered voters who say he is qualified, which is a high in Post-ABC polls. Among those who say he is not qualified, just 5 percent support him, no higher than before.
On most of those measures, Clinton scores positively, with 57 percent of registered voters saying she is qualified to serve as president; 55 percent saying she has the right temperament; and 68 percent saying she knows enough about the world to serve effectively.
Majorities of Americans judge both candidates to be in good enough health to serve in the Oval Office, with 73 percent of registered voters offering positive assessments of Trump and 52 percent giving Clinton good marks
Clinton’s health became a prime issue two weeks ago when she was seen in a video stumbling as she was helped into a security van leaving a memorial service for the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York. Her campaign later disclosed that she had been given a diagnosis of pneumonia days earlier, and she stayed off the campaign trail for several days before resuming activity.
Clinton was sharply criticized in some quarters for failing to disclose her condition at the time she received the diagnosis. But the Post-ABC poll found that more than 6 in 10 Americans said she was justified in keeping the diagnosis private until she became ill in public.
Trump is given no such comfort on his decision not to release his tax returns. Asked whether he was justified in not disclosing his returns, more than 6 in 10 say he is not.
When it comes to which candidate people trust on issues, Trump’s clearest edge is on the economy, where 50 percent of registered voters trust him to do a better job compared with 43 percent for Clinton. Earlier this month Clinton had a 50-to-44 edge on the issue.
The two are about even on trust to handle terrorism, ethics in government and immigration. Clinton has small edges on health care and looking out for the middle class. Her four-point advantage on the middle class compares with a 14-point margin in May and a six-point edge in July.
Clinton has double-digit advantages on handling an international crisis (52-40) and on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage (54-33).
Clinton was criticized recently when she said that half of Trump’s supporters could be put into a “basket of deplorables,” by which she said she meant people who were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and Islamophobic.” She later said she regretted saying “half” but stood her ground that Trump’s candidacy has appealed to many people with those prejudices.
Clinton’s critique is not shared by most Americans, with more than 6 in 10 saying it is unfair to describe a large portion of Trump supporters as prejudiced against women and minorities. Still, almost 6 in 10 say Trump is trying to win support by “appealing to people’s prejudices against groups that are different from their own.” That includes 46 percent who say that he is making such appeals strongly. When asked the same about Clinton, the public was split, with 45 percent saying she, too, is appealing to people’s prejudices, while 46 percent say she is not.
Jobs and the economy continue to top the list of issues influencing people’s vote, cited by 32 percent of registered voters. But 25 percent say terrorism is the most important issue in their vote, up from 19 percent last month. Terrorism-focused voters now support Trump by a 20-point margin over Clinton, up from 13 points earlier this month. Among economy voters, Clinton leads by a 35-point margin, also much larger than in the previous poll.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted Sept. 19-22 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error for overall results is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the margin of error is four points among the sample of 834 registered voters and 4.5 points among the sample of 651 likely voters.
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.