A month ago, there were “Road Closed” signs up on all of Donald Trump’s potential paths to the White House.
But now, less than a week before the crucial first debate of this presidential race — and as a terrorism bombing investigation continues in New York and New Jersey — a viable route has emerged for the Republican nominee, according to the latest NPR Battleground Map.
About a dozen battleground states have gotten closer with some key ones showing Trump leading for the first time. Hillary Clinton retains the advantage, but it’s a far more precarious lead for the Democrat than at any time in this presidential race.
Trump’s movement comes as many pollsters have switched to “likely voter” models, which try to predict the electorate based on factors like enthusiasm and past voting records. That alone may be responsible for most of the tightening, but it also follows a less-disastrous month of campaigning for Trump than the stretch immediately following the party conventions, which saw his fight with the Khan family, whose son, a Muslim American, was an Army captain killed in Iraq. Trump also began running his first major round of campaign ads in key states in recent weeks.
The closing in the polls, though, is despite Trump’s continued inflammatory language, like threatening to blow up Iranian ships that get to close to American ones; reiterating a hard-line immigration plan; and finally declaring that President Obama was born in the U.S., without apology, and by starting a new false claim that Clinton’s campaign started the birther movement.
The change in the race has also come as Hillary Clinton landed in the first bit of non-email or foundation controversy following her comments labeling “half” of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” and revelations that she withheld a pneumonia diagnosis from the public that caused her to leave a 9/11 remembrance early. Video showed her collapsing before being ushered into a van.
Clinton has slipped with some key demographic groups — notably young people, many of whom are choosing third-party candidates like Libertarian Gary Johnson. The Obama Coalition isn’t as fired up for Clinton at this point as it was for Obama, who enjoys approval ratings over 50 percent. Still, Trump continues to have his own deficits with Americans when it comes to temperament and qualifications to be president.
Battleground Map: So what did we change?
The NPR Battleground Map takes into consideration historical voting trends, demographics and on-the-ground reporting in addition to public and private polling.
Factoring in just the states leaning in either Clinton’s or Trump’s directions, the September NPR Battleground Map shows Clinton ahead 268-185 — with 85 electoral votes in the tossup category, states that could go either way at this point.
This is the first time in NPR’s Battleground Map, which has published every month since May, that Clinton has dropped below the 270 electoral vote threshold needed to be president with just the states leaning in her direction.
Notably, we moved Iowa from tossup to Lean Republican and moved two historically Republican-leaning states, Utah and Georgia, back more toward Trump.
We also moved New Hampshire from Lean Democratic to tossup and one congressional district in Maine from Likely Democratic to tossup. (Maine is one of two states to allocate its electoral votes by congressional district instead of winner-take-all, and new polling shows Trump up in Maine’s second congressional district, a perennial GOP target that has failed to deliver. This could be potentially pivotal — see below in the “possibility of a tie” section.)
There were no ratings changes in a trio of battleground states — Florida, Ohio and Nevada — but while Clinton and Trump remain statistically tied in all three, there has been notable movement toward Trump.
Not all the moves were in Trump’s favor. We also shifted Arizona from Lean R to tossup, as Trump is now up by just an average of about 2 points, a statistical tie. Clinton has begun running ads in the state, including Spanish-language ads aimed at the state’s sizable Hispanic population. The Clinton campaign is organizing on the ground trying to woo voters, especially Latinos, who make up roughly 30 percent of the state’s population but were just 18 percent of the electorate in 2012.
Polls have also tightened in Colorado, Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and even Minnesota. But Clinton continues to have an edge in all of them.
Just looking at the polling…
The battleground map, though, doesn’t quite capture just how much the landscape has shifted.
Looking strictly at the polls — only a month ago in the RealClearPolitics average, Clinton was ahead 363-174. She held a broad, shallow, but consistent lead in virtually every battleground state.
Now, that’s shrunk dramatically to 287-251.
Trump’s path… and the possibility of a tie
Trump now has a mathematically plausible — albeit very narrow — path to winning the presidency.
As we noted, Trump is now ahead in the RealClearPolitics average in Iowa, Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Maine’s second congressional district (if even within the margin of error).
Still, even if all of those were to break in Trump’s direction, that would only bring him to 251 electoral votes — 19 short.
That means he’d either need to flip one of the larger remaining states leaning toward Clinton or pick up the two remaining tossups — North Carolina and New Hampshire.
If Trump were to get both of those, he’d win — 270-268.
By the way, if you take away that one electoral vote in Maine — it’s a tie, prolonging this contentious election. (For more on what would happen in the event of a tie, check out this explainer from the National Constitution Center.)
So is this the high-water mark for Trump or does his tide continue to rise?
The debates are the last best chance for either candidate to change the trajectory of the race. And, right now, they could be key in determining who wins, because the election looks to be at an inflection point.