Independents break for Clinton ahead of crucial second debate
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Independent voters are fleeing Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE, helping Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Poll: Nearly half of Clinton's former supporters back Biden Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE open up a 5-point lead nationally as the candidates prepare for a pivotal second debate on Sunday night.

A Quinnipiac University survey released Friday found Clinton taking 45 percent support, compared with 40 percent for Trump. Libertarian Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonAmash won't rule out Libertarian challenge to Trump Buzz grows Amash will challenge Trump as a Libertarian Potential GOP primary challenger: Trump's 'contempt for the American people' behind possible bid MORE scores 6 percent in the poll, while Green Party nominee Jill Stein takes 3 percent support.

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In the same poll from mid-September — conducted before the first presidential debate — Clinton held only a 1-point lead. 

The candidates entered that debate, which was viewed by 80 million people, essentially locked in a tie. Since then, self-described independents have abandoned Trump in favor of Clinton.

In the Quinnipiac survey from September, Trump led 42 to 35 among unaffiliated voters, while Johnson took 15 percent support.

Clinton now leads 46 to 32 among independents — a 21-point swing — while Johnson’s support among the voting bloc has fallen to 10 percent.

The Libertarian had been cutting into Clinton’s support, particularly among young voters and left-leaning independents. The trend alarmed Democrats, who feared a replay of the 2000 election, when Green Party nominee Ralph Nader was blamed for spoiling the election for Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreAnother VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? Several factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Montana Gov. Bullock enters presidential race MORE.

But Johnson has staggered through a disastrous stretch of campaigning in which he repeatedly flubbed questions abut foreign policy, raising questions about his fitness to be commander in chief.

Clinton has benefitted from Johnson’ decline, doubling her lead over Trump in the RealClearPolitics average over the last three weeks.

Clinton’s lead among women, 53 to 33, is greater than Trump’s lead among men, 42 to 35, in the Quinnipiac survey.

And non-white voters break 63 to 18 for the Democrat, while white voters only support Trump by a 51 to 38 margin. 

“Post-debate, Hillary Clinton checks all the boxes,” said Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy. “With her base of women and non-white voters now solidly behind her and independent voters moving into her column, Donald Trump gets a wake-up call. The Indies are leaving in droves.”

Both candidates are off the campaign trail on Friday in advance of Sunday night’s debate, a town hall-style event in St. Louis that will be hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz.

Trump badly needs a strong showing in the debate to claw back into the race.

Pundits overwhelmingly declared Clinton the winner of the first debate, after Trump was repeatedly baited into defenses of past controversies.

The GOP nominee compounded his poor showing by spending the ensuing days feuding with a former Miss Universe contestant over her weight and sex life.

Trump has also dabbled in attacks against Clinton for her husband’s past infidelities; a strategy Republicans are warning against.

The Republican’s supporters are hopeful he’ll be more disciplined on Sunday night, and that his performance will lead to a comeback. 

Time is running out for Trump, with just about a month left until Election Day.

Clinton has opened up a 4.5-point lead nationally in the RealClearPolitics average and has led in almost every survey released in the aftermath of the first debate.

Worse for Trump, his path through the battleground states has been narrowing by the day.

Of the swing states, Trump is only the favorite to win Ohio, according to the RCP average, although the two most recent surveys of the state have shown Clinton edging ahead.

In Florida, another must-win state for Trump, the race has gone from a toss-up to Clinton holding a 3-point advantage.

Clinton leads in New Hampshire, has pulled away in Pennsylvania, and appears to have regained her footing in Colorado.

North Carolina and Nevada look like they could go either way, but Clinton has room to drop one or both of these if recent polling trends hold elsewhere.

Trump’s weakness among independents in the latest Quinnipiac survey is a troubling sign for his campaign.

GOP nominee Mitt Romney won independents by 5 points in 2012, and President Obama was still able to coast to victory by carrying every battleground state except for North Carolina.

Still, Trump’s support has proved surprisingly resilient.

Every time Clinton has threatened to run away with the race Trump has bounced back to within striking distance.

A strong showing on Sunday night will be paramount to keeping his hopes alive. 

- This story was updated at 2:13 p.m.