A tradition every four years, presidential election forecasters issue predictions at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association.
For those of you seeking clarity about the state of the race, here is my report of the findings presented at several virtual panels of political soothsayers last week.
There is no clarity.
For sure, most of the analysts predicted a victory for former Vice President Joe Biden. Some even prophesied a Blue Wave for the Democrats.
However, the prevailing sentiment among the panelists was that 2020 is a political year unlike any other. Some openly dismissed the results of models that had successfully predicted presidential elections for 40 years or more.
For example, political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University has relied on a model that takes into account three factors: 1. Whether the president is running for re-election; 2. The approval rating of the president in late June; and 3. The rate of GDP growth in the second quarter of the election year.
Nevertheless, the findings of the Abramowitz model in 2020 were severely distorted in favor of Biden, due to the COVID-induced collapse of the national economy last spring.
With a straight face, the respected forecaster Michael Lewis-Beck of the University of Iowa presented two models – one predicting a Biden victory and the other projecting the re-election of President Trump.
The Trump-will-win study was based on polls in which, despite their disapproval of the president and intent to vote for Biden, most citizens predicted a Trump triumph.
Then again, the predictions of Democrats, traumatized by the surprise outcome of the 2016 election, may be excessively pessimistic.
Before you reject the entire enterprise of academic election forecasting as an exercise in navel-gazing, it is founded on solid theory and evidence.
Typically, a presidential election is a referendum on the performance of the incumbent party. If voters believe the country is going in the right direction, the economy is improving, and the current president is doing a good job, they will re-elect the incumbent.
None of those indicators favors President Trump. According to the latest official statistics, the national unemployment rate fell below double-digits, but there are 11 million fewer jobs than there were before the pandemic.
Furthermore, the vast majority of voters have made up their minds by now.
In other words, the next seven weeks of campaigning will not change the mind of the electorate.
That is why, under normal circumstances, forecast models would predict Trump to lose. On the other hand, there are several reasons to think voters in 2020 may act differently.
First, partisan polarization has altered citizen perceptions of presidential performance. For the last few election cycles, huge partisan gaps in presidential approval have appeared.
Pandemic, the economy, and racial unrest notwithstanding, Republicans believe President Trump is doing great. The main reason Democrats are voting for Biden is that he is not Trump, reflecting a growing trend of negative partisanship.
With incumbent approval untethered from performance, the election comes down to turnout.
According to the Niskanen Center’s Rachel Bitecofer, the anti-Trump wave that materialized in the 2018 midterm elections will produce a Democratic sweep of the White House and both houses of Congress in 2020.
If yard signs in Pennsylvania are any indicator, though, turnout for Trump will be huge.
Second, although Trump is faring poorly in trial heat polls against Biden following both national party conventions, he only needs to raise his standing a few points to get into striking range.
In his revised model focusing solely on presidential approval ratings, Abramowitz noted that disapproval of the president connects to his leadership on the coronavirus, not the economy.
In other words, it’s the pandemic, stupid.
Third, as we all know, presidential elections are decided by winning sufficient states to accumulate a majority of electors in the Electoral College.
Interpreting polls and the economy at the state level, Peter Enns of Cornell and Julius Lagodny say the president has a 40 percent shot at winning, which are better odds than what well-known forecasters are providing.
Political scientists will tell you to ignore the day-to-day campaign outrages and focus instead on the fundamentals. Unless nothing is fundamental anymore.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @mcclelef.