Advantage Hillary: Clinton widens lead as first debate looms

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton5 things to know about Boris Johnson Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota The Hill's Morning Report — Trump applauds two-year budget deal with 0 billion spending hike MORE has wrested back a clear advantage in polls over Donald TrumpDonald John Trump5 things to know about Boris Johnson Conservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Trump says Omar will help him win Minnesota MORE just days before their first critical debate.

An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll conducted this week — viewed by some election experts as the gold standard — found the Democrat leading Trump by 6 points nationally.

And while the candidates are running neck and neck in the RealClearPolitics national average, the NBC News-WSJ survey found Trump has failed to meaningfully cut into Clinton’s significant advantages with Hispanics, African-Americans, young voters, women or those with a college education.

Instead, Trump’s recent polling strength appears to have energized Clinton’s supporters, who now match Trump’s supporters in enthusiasm. And Clinton’s ace-in-the-hole is a battleground map that will require Trump to draw a near-perfect hand.

The GOP nominee will have to run the table on states where the race is currently a toss-up — Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Nevada among them — and then pull out victory in a traditionally blue state.

New surveys out of New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia and Colorado show that Clinton is the favorite and will win the White House if that blue wall holds.

“Advantage Hillary,” said Brookings Institute elections scholar Bill Galston. “You can see how Trump might get close, but unless he can win a state that looks out of reach for him right now, I don’t see how he gets over the top. If the election were held tomorrow, she’d win. He needs a disruptive event, something that causes voters to break decisively in his favor.”

Trump will have an opportunity for a game-changing event on Monday when the candidates square-off at the first presidential on Long Island, which is expected to attract upwards of 100 million viewers.

Clinton stumbled badly at the beginning of September as a series of crises led to negative headlines and a noticeable tightening in polls. 

Less then two weeks ago, Clinton made a serious gaffe in describing half of Trump's supporters as being in a "basket of deplorables," a statement she sought to walk back. Two days after that, she was videotaped getting helped into her van as a bout with pneumonia took her off the campaign trail for days. 

There are still reasons to think Clinton is vulnerable, and a Rasmussen poll this week found her 5 points behind Trump nationally. 

Yet she seems to be entering debate night from a position of relative strength. 

Data guru Nate Silver’s 538 model gives Clinton a 59 percent chance of winning, up from 56 percent earlier this week. That is off of her highs in August of nearly 90 percent, but Silver still allots 286 electoral votes to Clinton, compared to 251 for Trump.

In that model, Trump makes things interesting by hanging on in Florida, Ohio, Nevada and North Carolina. But Clinton’s blue wall holds and she achieves victory by winning in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Virginia and Colorado.

A candidate needs 270 votes to win the Electoral College.

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Clinton leads by 5 points in both Michigan and Wisconsin. A Roanoke College poll of Virginia released this week puts her up by 11, and a new Morning Call survey has Clinton ahead by 9 points in Pennsylvania.

In Colorado, a Mesa University poll released this week also shows Clinton ahead by 9, although a Quinnipiac University survey puts the margin at only 2. In New Hampshire, Clinton posted another 9-point lead in the latest Monmouth University survey.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics model also has Clinton running the table on blue states, guaranteeing that she’ll achieve at least 272 electoral votes and potentially as many 323, if toss-ups North Carolina, Florida and Nevada fall into her column.

A FrontloadingHQ model, run by University of Georgia political science professor Josh Putnam, has Clinton taking Florida and Ohio and winning in a landslide, 335 to 203.

As Putnam explains it, Clinton’s battleground states checklist is made up of “wants,” while Trump has only “needs.”

The likeliest scenario, Putnam says, is a near repeat of 2012, when the race was close in the battleground states and some traditionally blue states, but President Obama prevailed over Mitt Romney in all but one. Obama won 332 electoral votes, compared to 206 for Romney.

“Her cushion hasn’t disappeared altogether, but it has shrunk,” Putnam said. “But even as things have gotten worse for her, she’s still winning. Trump needs to crack into a blue state like Pennsylvania or Colorado. Those states have proven resilient in bouncing back for Clinton so far.”

There is still opportunity for Trump.

A victory in Pennsylvania, where the RCP average shows he trails by 5, would completely reshape the map. He is campaigning there today but badly needs to expand his appeal beyond rural areas if he’s going to triumph.

And pollsters are confounded by Colorado, where surveys have been all over the map. Most still believe it will go blue in 2016, but 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 is routinely drawing double-digit support there and keeping Trump in the race, even as most polls show the GOP nominee struggling to reach 40 percent support in the state.

Much of the lead Clinton built up after the conventions has slipped away.

The polling trend lines moved aggressively against her as she dealt with questions about her health, endless controversies over the Clinton Foundation and her use of a private email server as secretary of State, as well as her "deplorables" remark.

But pollsters note that Trump’s momentum from those controversies has been blunted after a series of his own stumbles.

Over the last week, as Clinton has quietly retreated to prepare for the debates, Trump stepped back into the spotlight by reigniting the controversy surrounding his past support for the “birther” movement, which holds that President Obama is not a naturally born American.

He squabbled with the black pastor of a church in Flint, Mich., proposed profiling to prevent terrorism and provoked outrage for saying Clinton’s Secret Service detail should disarm to see “what happens to her.”

Election experts have noticed a trend between the two historically unpopular candidates.

“Whichever candidate is in the news is the one that is falling,” said GOP pollster David Winston. “Neither has been able to make a positive case for why they should be president. Maybe that will change at the debate.”