The Atlantic’s David Graham, who considers himself a friend of mine, asked an interesting question on Twitter on Thursday.
Is Iowa definitively out of reach for Clinton? https://t.co/kKOLQWzWCh
— David A. Graham (@GrahamDavidA) September 22, 2016
A 7-point lead in one poll isn’t definitive. But as Donald Trump’s national poll numbers have improved, his standing in Iowa has as well. He and Hillary Clinton were essentially tied in the state until about two weeks ago. Since then, his lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average has extended to more than 6 points. Is it out of reach for Clinton?
The short answer is no. Polls are volatile and this has been a very weird year in which a lot of “that happened?” things happened. But the longer answer is: It sure looks that way.
In 2012, the last few months of the race were remarkably stable. Even when the national polls shifted dramatically toward Mitt Romney after the first presidential debate, only five of the 16 states that were considered battlegrounds saw their polling averages flip from one candidate to the other after Aug. 1. In all of the other states, there was movement in how big or small the margin was for Romney or President Obama, but the winner never changed.
In those 16 states, here’s how many days Obama or Romney held a lead after Aug. 1. Even in those states that flipped, the change was only temporary. Only in Florida was one candidate not winning for at least three-quarters of the time.
That suggests a lot of stability in the race. On average, the total range of movement in those five states was about 6.1 points — meaning that the change in the polling margin only moved around within a 6-point window. (It’s also worth noting that if all five had ended up going for Romney, he would still have lost.)
This year, we’re seeing a bit more variability.
In the 11 states that are the closest right now, the RealClearPolitics average has flipped between the candidates in seven. In only Georgia has one candidate held the lead for less than two-thirds of the time. In Iowa, Clinton has led for 69 percent of the days since August 1, which, now that the lead is gone, she probably doesn’t think is very nice. In states where the person in the lead has flipped, the window of movement has been smaller than in 2012: about 5.5 points.
In North Carolina, Ohio and Nevada, Trump’s leads are very, very recent. A good reminder that what matters as Election Day approaches isn’t the overall split, it’s the trend. Thanks to the big-picture shift toward Trump recently, he’s also seen a shift in all of these states.
We saw just such a swing after the first debate in 2012. Is Iowa off the table? If it were late October 2012, it would be pretty safe to say yes. Three days before the first debate and with 40-odd days left to go, it probably isn’t.