U.S. presidential elections are only nominally national contests and are not decided by the popular vote. The outcome is decided in the 50 individual states as the candidates look to win the Electoral College, with each state's impact on the outcome dependent on its population and representation in Congress.
Both Democrat Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, and Republican Donald Trump, a real estate tycoon seeking his first elected office, are trying to get to a majority 270 of the 538 electors to claim a four-year term in the White House.
Now, new polling released Thursday shows her surging to leads over Trump in four key battleground states, even as she pulls further ahead in national voter surveys. Other projections show her with a wide edge over the one-time television reality show host in Electoral College projections, but often not yet reaching the 270 majority figure as they fight to win swing states where Democratic and Republican support is almost evenly divided in U.S. presidential elections.
One political analyst, Amy Walter, said this week, "She has more options to get to 270 than he does. She is clearly the favorite. But, this race is not over."
The latest battleground polling shows Clinton opening a 9-percentage-point edge in the midwestern state of Michigan, a 15-point advantage in the northeastern state of New Hampshire, an 11-point lead in the eastern state of Pennsylvania and a 6-point margin in the southeastern state of Florida. All are states where Trump has campaigned and is looking to reverse Democratic voting trends in recent elections to gain an edge in the November election to replace President Barack Obama when he leaves office in January.
National polls also show Clinton, seeking to become the country's first female president, surging to bigger, but not insurmountable leads over Trump. In an average of polls, Clinton is ahead of Trump by about six points, 47.4 percent to 41.5, although the most recent poll by Fox News pegged her lead at 49-39 in the days after she and a raft of speakers denounced Trump at last week's Democratic National Convention.
Fallout over Trump comments
The recent polling has been conducted as Republicans have voiced sharp dismay over a series of Trump comments in the last week.
In a succession of interviews and comments on Twitter, Trump seemed ignorant of the ramifications of 2014 Russian takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, repeatedly belittled the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed in fighting in Iraq in 2004 after they attacked him at the convention and in subsequent television interviews and refused to endorse the country's top elected Republican official, House Speaker Paul Ryan, in his party primary next week.
“It almost feels like we’re at a tipping point,” Alan Abramowitz, a long-time presidential election analyst at Emory University in Atlanta, told VOA. “It’s really pretty incredible.”
He said Trump “seems to believe he’s still running a primary campaign” trying to win the Republican nomination, rather than taking on Clinton three months ahead of the November 8 national election.
“This is pretty clear, this is hurting him,” Abramowitz said of Trump.
“We have to wonder whether we’ll see more erosion,” Abramowitz said. “There’s never been a candidate like [Trump], with his lack of self-control.”
He said that with polls showing American voters view both candidates unfavorably, him more than her, the contest has become “more about his fitness and suitability” to become the U.S. commander in chief.
“The Democrats are trying to turn this into a referendum on Trump and he’s trying to help them,” Abramowitz said.
‘Absence of any discipline’
Another political scientist, James Gimpel at the University of Maryland outside Washington, said “The electoral map was always challenging for the Republicans. But with his seemingly almost random comments, we’re really in uncharted waters.”
“There’s an absence of any discipline” on Trump’s part, Gimpel said.
“He is not a mistake-free candidate,” Gimpel said, while cautioning that neither is Clinton. “She might end up stumbling, too.”
Trump contemplated the state of the race at a campaign rally in Florida on Wednesday.
"Wouldn't that be embarrassing to lose to crooked Hillary Clinton? That would be terrible," he said.
Later, in an interview with a local television station, he was asked whether he has been "baited into battles" over his sometimes brash views.
"I think that's probably right," he said. "We're going to focus more on Hillary Clinton."
Walter, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, concluded that "Trump is running a disorganized, unconventional and seat-of-the-pants campaign that is driven as much by what he sees [and] hears on cable TV as anything else. This approach won him the primary but it really limits his pathways to 270 Electoral College votes."
But Walter said, "Clinton is running an organized and disciplined campaign that lacks the sort of organic excitement or enthusiasm of a 'normal' campaign. It comes across as stilted and poll-driven… to within an inch of its life."