Donald Trump needs a new state in play, and it looks like he may be getting one. The race in Wisconsin, site of his most humiliating primary stand, has significantly tightened according to two new surveys released Wednesday.
A Monmouth University poll shows Clinton up by five among likely voters, 43 to 38 percent, with Gary Johnson and Jill Stein drawing 7 and 3 percent, respectively. A Marquette University Law School poll released a few minutes later Wednesday afternoon gives Clinton a three-point lead among likely voters in a two-way race, 45 to 42 percent, and a five-point lead among registered voters in a four-way race, 37 to 32 to 11 (Johnson) to 7 (Stein).
The useful comparison here is Marquette’s poll from earlier in August—i.e., during Clinton’s convention bounce and Trump’s horrific two weeks of minute-by-minute gaffes—which showed Clinton with a 15 percentage point lead in a two-way. In early July, when Clinton was suffering under the weight of her FBI investigation, she only led by four.
The same trends seen nationally are reflected crisply in these new polls: Trump’s killer weakness is still among white women; both candidates are tremendously unpopular, with Clinton worsening and Trump staying just as unpopular as ever; vast numbers of undecided voters still aren’t picking sides; and the presidential race is still in Clinton’s control but clearly tightening.
One way to look at the emergence of Wisconsin as a potential battleground is as an escape from Trump’s “Pennsylvania problem”—i.e. that without Pennsylvania, where he’s been performing worse than his national average, there weren’t really any paths to an outright majority for him lest a new state becomes competitive. If Wisconsin is that state, Trump has a fresh new path. If we give Trump all of the Romney 2012 states, and he can flip Ohio, Florida, Iowa, and Nevada, that leaves Trump with 265 electoral votes. Wisconsin’s 10 votes would put him over the top. He could also win Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, and either Iowa or Nevada and reach an electoral college tie decided in the House of Representatives.
None of this matters if Trump can’t close the gap any further—if, say, a four- or five-point Clinton lead is the equilibrium, and plucking each new voter is going to be exponentially more difficult than the last. We have to see where all of these precious, undecided Hamlets end up sorting, too, after the debates; it's no surprise that there are more of them in a state that went starkly for Sens. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz in the presidential primaries. If the race were to tighten into a deadlock, Trump would need a new state—in addition to Ohio, Florida, Iowa, and Nevada—that was blue in 2012. Wisconsin may be that state.