Polls agree on this much: Presidential race is between the lesser of two evils

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are competing to see who will sit behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office next January.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are competing to see who will sit behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office next January. The Associated Press

Donald Trump used to talk and tweet incessantly about polls when he was crushing other Republican presidential candidates.

But that doesn’t happen nearly as much anymore. What a coincidence: Trump this month trails opponent Hillary Clinton in the most reputable national polls.

Yet Clinton has her own big poll-related woes, ranking as the most unpopular Democratic general election candidate in history with American voters, according to NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys.

That could hurt her chances of being elected in November, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told a packed audience Friday at a Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Union Station.

Except here’s another fact courtesy of the same surveys: Trump is the most unpopular Republican general election candidate in history.

“This is a nose-holder election” between two intensely disliked candidates, Newhouse said. “It will be decided by nose-holders.”

He noted that — while many people have strong feelings about both candidates — 18 percent of voters could decide to not go to the polls at all, support a third-party candidate or eventually come around to back Trump or Clinton.

“It really is a race between the lesser of two evils,” his presentation stated.

In 2016, polls are being used to measure all kinds of sentiments about elections from the national level on down. But just how much faith should Americans put in them?

Newhouse concedes he was among the many “experts” who didn’t foresee Trump nabbing the GOP presidential nomination. He worked on behalf of Jeb Bush, who dropped out after pitiful showings in early primaries.

Yet while the importance of polls can be overstated, they can’t be overlooked.

For instance, the most important issues facing the country are jobs (17 percent), terrorism (14 percent), a decline in real income for workers (13 percent) and ISIS (11 percent), according to a Bloomberg Politics poll in early August.

Those matters are driving much of what Trump, Clinton and their supporters talk about on the campaign trail and put in advertisements.

Some polls, however, don’t always tell the full story.

In March 2015, voters in the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida were neutral or just slightly negative on Clinton’s status as an “honest and trustworthy” person. Just five months later, after reports broke about her email scandals, 60 percent or more of people in those states did not consider her trustworthy, according to Quinnipiac surveys.

And yet, much more recent polls gathered by realclearpolitics.com reveal that Clinton leads in Trump’s “must-win” states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida — all despite the fact that large majorities of people in those states consider her dishonest.

Newhouse said in an interview after his presentation that the first presidential debate in late September — far from being a ho-hum event televised to people who have already made up their minds — could have huge consequences for the race. People want to know whether a candidate can perform on the presidential stage, he said.

And the pollster pointed out that, while many election experts say Trump has to win Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida to make it to the White House, just doing that won’t necessarily get him there.

The problem? Trump is so unpopular in the rest of the country that states a Republican candidate normally could win or compete in are looking like solid Clinton victories. They include Colorado and Virginia. In addition, Trump is in danger of not winning usual GOP strongholds like Georgia and Arizona.

Still, Newhouse says don’t discount the Trump message that “This is a moment of crisis for our nation.” An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey showed it was far more popular than Clinton’s upbeat “Do not let anyone tell you that our country is weak” refrain.

Of course, polls also can be and have been very wrong in the past. Modern-day pollsters point out that they have improved their gathering of information in recent years, such as trying to reach more young people.

The last resort of people trailing in any poll goes like this: The only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.

That’s certainly true from a factual standpoint. But all the polls taken up to that point — who’s up and who’s down in certain races — can affect the interest in elections and even their outcomes.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have captured the public’s attention. But, polls show, it’s really not in a good way.