By MARK MURRAY, NBC News
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leads Republican Donald Trump by six points among likely voters heading into the first presidential debate on Monday, according to a brand-new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The survey – which was conducted after Clinton’s return to the campaign trail following her bout with pneumonia – shows a bigger advantage for the secretary of state than did polls taken during the heightened scrutiny of her health.
It also finds that Clinton is running nearly even with Trump when it comes to voter enthusiasm.
“Despite arguably the worst few weeks of her candidacy, the fundamentals still point toward a Hillary Clinton victory,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.
McInturff adds, “Donald Trump has closed the margin since August, but as we head towards the debate, still needs to push this campaign closer. The good news for him is the electorate narrowly agrees with him that America has lost ground and wants to see a change in direction.”
In a four-way horserace, Clinton gets support from 43 percent of likely voters and Trump gets 37 percent, while Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson is at 9 percent and the Green Party’s Jill Stein is at 3 percent.
In a head-to-head matchup without those third-party candidates, Clinton’s advantage expands to seven points, 48 percent to 41 percent. This is the NBC/WSJ poll’s first general-election poll of likely voters in the 2016 race.
Among the broader electorate of all registered voters, Clinton is ahead of Trump by five points in the four-way contest, 42 percent to 37 percent – down from Clinton’s nine-point lead in August.
And in a two-way race, Clinton’s edge among registered voters is seven points, 48 percent to 41 percent – also down from nine points in August.
Here, Clinton has the advantage with African American voters (81 percent to 7 percent), women (51 percent to 37 percent) and those ages 18-34 (50 percent to 34 percent), while Trump is ahead among men (46 percent to 44 percent) and whites (49 percent to 41 percent).
But the poll reveals a familiar pattern among white registered voters: Those without a college degree break for Trump, 53 percent to 35 percent, while those with college degrees tilt in Clinton’s favor, 49 percent to 43 percent.
Clinton runs nearly even with Trump on voter enthusiasm
Seventy-eight percent of Trump’s voters say they are highly interested in November’s general election – registering either a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale – versus 75 percent of Clinton voters who say that.
What’s more, 68 percent of Clinton voters respond that they will “definitely” vote for her, compared with 66 percent of Trump supporters who say that about the New York businessman.
And 50 percent of Clinton voters say their vote is more for Clinton, while 44 percent of them say their vote is more being against Trump.
That’s compared with 41 percent of Trump voters who say their vote is more for Trump, versus 51 percent who say it’s more being against Clinton.
Many voters still want change
Despite Clinton’s lead in the NBC/WSJ poll, Trump’s advantage is that many voters still want change.
By a 49 percent-to-47 percent margin, registered voters say they prefer a president who will bring major changes to the way the government operates, even if those changes might be unpredictable – though that margin is less than it was back in July.
And 48 percent of voters agree with Trump’s statement that America is losing ground and the economy hasn’t improved enough. That’s compared with 45 percent who agree with the Clinton message that the country is making progress and the economy has come back.
Trump holds the advantage on economy, Clinton on all other issues
Asked which candidate is better on the economy, 46 percent of registered voters say Trump, while 41 percent pick Clinton.
But Clinton leads on every other issue the poll tested – on being in charge of nuclear weapons (51 percent to 25 percent), on being a good commander-in-chief (48 percent to 33 percent), on dealing with immigration (50 percent to 39 percent) and on terrorism and homeland security (44 percent to 43 percent).
Clinton also holds the advantage over Trump on being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency (60 percent to 23 percent) and on having the right temperament to be president (56 percent to 23 percent).
But Trump holds the edge on being honest and straightforward (41 percent say Trump is better here, versus 31 percent who say Clinton is).
Obama’s job rating remains above 50 percent
The poll also finds President Barack Obama’s job-approval rating at 52 percent – unchanged from last month. Indeed, this is the fifth-straight NBC/WSJ poll in which his job rating has been above 50 percent.
And the poll shows Democrats enjoying a three-point advantage on which party should control Congress – 48 percent of registered voters prefer Democrats in charge, while 45 percent want the GOP in control.
Democrats held a four-point advantage on this question a month ago.