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Clinton slips in polls as emails, foundation linger in headlines

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to members of the media on board her campaign plane as she travels to Tampa, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016. Clinton will attend a rally at the University of South Florida. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A new national poll showing Donald Trump with a slight lead over Hillary Clinton among likely voters may be jarring for the Democratic nominee’s supporters, but experts say it not quite time for them to panic or for Trump to celebrate.

The CNN/ORC poll released Tuesday puts Trump ahead of Clinton by two points with likely voters in a four-way race including Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. In a head-to-head race, Trump is up by one point.

Clinton is within the 3.5-point margin of error in both matchups, making it essentially a dead heat.

In the same poll, Clinton leads Trump among registered voters, although by a smaller margin than she did in the previous CNN survey in early August. The August poll did not look at likely voters.

Trump boasted about the results at an event Tuesday.

“It’s good psychology,” he said. “I know for a fact that people that didn’t call me yesterday, they’re calling me today.”

Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon called the poll "a clear outlier" on Twitter, but he acknowledged the race is getting closer.

Other polls offer better news for Clinton. An NBC News/Survey Monkey weekly tracking poll released Tuesday shows her holding steady with a 6-point lead among registered voters in a head-to-head race and up by 4 points in a four-way matchup for the second week in a row.

The Washington Post and Survey Monkey just completed a 50-state poll that questioned 74,000 registered voters between August 9 and September 1.

In a two-way race in that poll, Clinton leads by more than 4 points in 20 states, totaling 244 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Trump holds a 4-point lead in 20 states as well, but his only add up to 126 electoral votes.

This poll has raised some doubts because it puts Trump close in states like Michigan, where Clinton holds a sizable lead in other surveys, and it has Clinton leading in Texas.

Even if the CNN poll is an outlier, the days of Clinton racking up double-digit national leads have passed. Whatever bounce she received from the Democratic National Convention has faded, and the Real Clear Politics polling average now gives her only a 3.3-point lead over Trump.

It will take more data to evaluate whether CNN is the start of a trend or an anomaly.

“The wise thing to do is treat it like an outlier but not really dismiss it,” said Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and professor at Louisiana State University.

The campaigns do their own internal polling that they likely trust more, but the headlines could impact public perception of the race.

“My sense is that they factor it in but they worry about it only to the extent that it affects the atmosphere of the campaign,” he said.

Clinton is still outperforming Trump in many battleground state polls and she is maintaining her strength with minorities and college-educated white voters, but Trump is making up ground with other demographics and leading with independents.

“To deny that there has been a tightening is to want to see Hillary Clinton win the presidency,” said Stephanie Martin, an assistant professor of communication studies at Southern Methodist University. “You can’t look at the numbers and not see that the polls have tightened.”

But it is still 63 days before the election and there is plenty of time left.

“If you’re a Trump supporter these numbers should give you hope, but it’s not November,” Martin said. “If you’re a Clinton supporter, these numbers should give you pause, but it’s not November.”

Democratic strategist Matt McDermott said the underlying dynamics of the race have not shifted. Trump’s demographic weaknesses in key swing states remain and he faces challenges in states like Virginia and Colorado.

“The race is definitely tighter today than it was immediately following the party conventions in early August, but structurally, the state of the race is fairly static,” said McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Insight Strategies.

If Clinton is falling or Trump is rising, experts point to a series of news cycles focused largely on Trump, continuing coverage of scandals surrounding Clinton, and general voter distaste for both candidates as likely explanations.

“The drumbeat of news about the emails and the Clinton Foundation stories” have evaporated Clinton’s post-convention bounce, Mann said.

Several media reports over the last two weeks have contributed to concerns about possible special treatment for Clinton Foundation donors by Clinton’s State Department. Her campaign denies those allegations, but Trump and his supporters continue to raise the issue. New emails obtained by conservative groups and released to the media have also kept the foundation story alive.

The FBI released its reports on the investigation of Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state on Friday, sparking new allegations of dishonesty, corruption, and incompetency from her critics. The State Department has been ordered by a federal court to begin releasing new batches of Clinton’s emails later this month, ensuring the controversy will remain in the headlines through the election.

According to Martin, all of these questions are part of a bigger problem for Clinton.

“There’s one issue: people don’t like her,” Martin said.

That will be extraordinarily difficult to turn around at this point, but if she wins, a lack of favorability and trust could be obstacles to getting anything done.

“Elections aren’t just about winning. They’re about capturing legitimacy to govern.”

Clinton spent much of August crisscrossing the nation to raise money for the two-month sprint to Election Day, sometimes holding multiple fundraising events a day. As a result, she raked in a record amount in donations, but she was also often absent from public campaign rallies and appeared evasive to the media.

Trump’s campaign frequently suggested she was in hiding and sent out daily updates on how long it had been since her last press conference. Some of his supporters hinted that her health has kept her off the campaign trail.

“She was either absent or the news wasn’t great,” Martin said.

Mann agreed that Clinton staying out of the media spotlight may have allowed Trump and the media to drive the campaign narrative, but he added that the stories about the emails and the foundation would have made headlines regardless.

Trump, meanwhile, has struggled with his own controversies, but he has had a few big moments that would at least appear to casual observers to be victories. First he visited Mexico and appeared at a press conference with the Mexican president, and then he attended a black church in Detroit.

Although the Mexico visit led to a Twitter fight with a head of state and Trump’s campaign was embarrassed by a leaked script for the church appearance, many voters will not hear all of that.

“He had two extremely good moments where the pictures just looked good,” Martin said.

Trump’s negative ratings are on par with Clinton or worse in most polls, though.

“There’s no evidence to suggest Trump has been successful in overcoming his structural negatives in this race,” McDermott said. “He still remains disliked by three in five voters – and continues to have an equally as large trust deficit among voters as Clinton.”

With the first debate less than three weeks away, both candidates will be looking to capitalize on any weaknesses and advance their own agendas.

“Trump has to find a way to win back those college-educated white voters, and I strongly suspect that everything he does that on the surface looks like reaching out to minority voters is actually about reaching out to educated white voters,” Martin said.

Clinton needs to focus on her get-out-the-vote efforts and enlist the big-name supporters who defended her effectively at the Democratic National Convention to drum up enthusiasm, she said.

According to Mann, Clinton must shift attention back to Trump’s negatives and offer her own competing narrative.

“The last couple of weeks have sort of been a referendum on Clinton and that’s not the race that she wants,” he said.

Clinton should stay on-message, McDermott said, but Trump may have to turn his attention to overcoming her advantage in a few must-win states.

“Trump needs to find a way to put Virginia and Colorado back into play, or turn a deficit into a lead in Pennsylvania,” he said.

If Clinton does continue to trail in the polls, there could be an upside to that for her campaign. Previous experience has demonstrated that Clinton is stronger on defense than she is on offense, and complacency is always a risk.

“She is in the driver’s seat in this election and she’s at her best when her back is to the wall,” Martin said. “Her back is not to the wall.”

A steady stream of polls giving Clinton a commanding lead might reduce the urgency supporters feel to actually show up and vote. If nothing else, the CNN poll is a reminder to them that victory is never assured.

“Anyone who trembles at the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency should always be worried until it is November 9 and he has not been elected,” Martin said.

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