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Polls tighten for Trump but along came GDP

It was a bit of a good news bad news morning Friday for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

On the good side, polls now show a clear tightening of the race with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's lead shrinking from 12 points to just 4 in The Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll. The change helped reduce Clinton's lead in the Real Clear Politics Average to 5.3 percentage points, still a solid advantage less than two weeks before Election Day.

On the bad news front, third-quarter GDP growth came in at 2.9 percent, a better-than-expected reading that dents Trump's case that the economy has stalled out. Trump has spent much of the campaign describing the U.S. economy as a disaster, a hollowed hellscape of shuttered factories and violent inner cities menaced by dangerous illegal immigrants. "Right now our country is dying at 1 percent GDP," the GOP nominee said during the third debate.

The latest GDP report — coupled with unemployment at just 5 percent and wages rising — undermines that case. "This is still another reason why Trump will probably lose. The economy is in decent shape so decent that the Fed will have to raise interest rates later this year," Greg Valliere, chief global strategist at Horizon Investments, told me Friday.

"This report shows a solid economy with — ironically — decent export growth. Clinton simply has to avoid gloating. But this is a big plus for her, and she may get another pleasant surprise when the October jobs report is released next Friday."

The struggling economy — and voter fatigue with Democratic control of the White House — was always supposed to be the Republican's ticket to winning in November. But Trump never managed to stay focused on the economy, despite the strong appeal of his anti-free trade message in several Rust Belt states. The GOP nominee often found himself mired in controversies of his own making, from attacking the family of a slain U.S. solider to his crude comments about women and repeated fights with fellow Republicans.

Donald Trump
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Donald Trump

Trump's lead as the candidate better able to handle the economy — consistently rated by voters as the top issue in 2016 — has also dwindled. A CNN/ORC poll in September found Trump with a 16 point edge on the economy. The same survey this week showed Trump's edge down to 4. And Clinton's wide lead on other issues including having the temperament to handle the presidency and manage foreign policy blows out the GOP nominee's advantage on pocket-book issues.

Republicans were also seen as favored to win this year based on polls showing a large majority of Americans view the nation as on the wrong track. But that figure no longer appears to have much political relevance. The numbers have stayed terrible even as President Barack Obama's approval rating has risen to more than 50 percent and people express more confidence in their own economic situation while spending at an impressive clip.

Pollsters now ascribe much of the wrong-track numbers to general dissatisfaction with the political process and the vitriolic nature of the campaign. "The wrong-track number does not seem to respond to objective economic change," Charles Franklin, a polling expert at Marquette University Law School told me. "I think it's become a pretty poor indicator."

Still, Trump is clearly making the race closer in the final days, though his path to 270 electoral votes remains difficult if not impossible. Trump's surge in the ABC tracking poll stems from Republicans returning to the GOP nominee and some independent voters moving his way. The polls now move in a clear pattern. Clinton moves into big leads after major events like the presidential debates only to see that lead erode with no national events to focus voters' attention on the things they don't like about Trump.

The overall pattern is similar to 2012 when Mitt Romney regularly closed polling gaps with Obama. But unlike in 2012, when Romney closed out the race essentially tied with Obama in the polls, Trump is still down by a significant margin. No candidate in the modern era has won the White House when trailing by 4 points or more this close to Election Day.

Most of what we are seeing now is Trump moving closer to a more traditional loss scenario rather than an epic defeat that could see states like Georgia and Texas move away from him. It remains possible that Trump could continue to gain and make the race much closer than people expect. But it would take a historic comeback and require at least some Democrats to move away from Clinton. And Trump is getting no help from economic data that show America is not doing as terribly as the GOP nominee would have us believe.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.