I have spent almost 50 years predicting the outcomes of elections for clients and the media. I have had a pretty good track record — or the clients would not have paid me for my gazes into the political crystal ball and the media would not have used me as a source.
One of my secrets was never to make specific predictions too far out. And I have not. Politics is a game of surprises and voters are not sure how they will feel when they are confronted with the immediate necessity of casting a ballot. Issues that are deemed important early on often fade in the rearview mirror. Ergo early polls are not helpful – and early predictions not very useful.
Things begin to come into focus in the last four weeks – and especially in the weekend before Election Day. Not this year. That is because the many indicators that people like me usually use to make our predictions are all out of whack.
Electoral College versus the popular vote
First of all, any professional prognosticator will not look at national numbers when considering the presidency. It should be obvious that we do not elect a President based on a national vote. We must analyze the results within each state – and how that will affect the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because of HUGE majorities in big states like California, New York and New Jersey while Trump won more states by much closer margins – garnering more electoral votes.
In terms of the current analysis of the all-important electoral vote, the advantage lies with Biden. Once you add up all the almost certain states – one way or another – Trump has fewer locked in electoral votes than Biden. Also, Biden has a number of configurations the uncertain states can break and still reach the requisite winning number of 270 electoral votes. Trump has a path to victory, but he has that are available to him – and he must win them all.
Pollsters can solicit the candidate preference of all adults – but they usually do not. That is because the opinions of people who are not registered to vote are meaningless and misleading in terms of an election outcome. Many pollsters, however, do use models that reach out for all registered voters, but even that will not give good results.
So, when those of us in the predicting business look at polls we look at those that contact the most likely voters – based on their recent voting history. People who voted in the past are highly likely to vote again. While this is the best method, it is not totally reliable, in and of itself.
If the polls were accurate indicators for voters’ intentions, we would know the winners in advance. But polls tend to be backward looking. They miss last minute trends. After what happened in 2016, there is a natural skepticism about what polls tell us. If today’s polls were totally accurate, one would have to concede the election to former Vice President Joe Biden.
Enthusiasm is another thing that pollsters attempt to judge. Since the summer’s political conventions, the Republicans have had the enthusiasm advantage. Generally, voter enthusiasm is reflected in turnout.
On the eve of the election, most polls show Biden with two advantages. He is ahead – even in all those states that Trump needs to reach 270 electoral votes – AND be over the important 50 percent mark in many of them. That would suggest a lock on most of those states. If the polls hold up – and that is not at all certain – Biden wins BIG.
We also have to look at turnout. It has been a long-held belief that big turnouts are bad for those in power. Large numbers of voters generally turnout to turn the ins out. Big turnouts are usually the result of voter anger – and this year it is impossible to judge which side is angrier. This year, however, there are signs that part of the big turnout in early and vote-by-mail is in response to an anticipated big turnout from the other side. That would bode well for Trump.
Last minute trends
One of the important signs is how voters are trending in last minute polling. This has been to Trump’s advantage – as it is normally for Republican candidates. This could be a precursor of a Trump victory since many of the polls that have Biden ahead in battleground states are within the margin of error. Republicans generally do about 5 percent better than the polls predict. It has to do with built-in biases and sample models that over count Democrats. The question is, how much did the pollsters learn from their mistakes in 2016.
New registrants are difficult to poll accurately since they do not fit into the “likely voter’ category. Polling on how many will actually vote – and how they will vote – is more like witchcraft than scientific polling. It is generally believed that Trump’s campaign has been better than the Democrats at signing up new voters. Some polls show that as many as 30 percent of those attending Trump rallies are first-time voters. Trump also has a much bigger ground game focused on getting out the Republican vote. In terms of new voters, it is an advantage for Trump.
The minority vote
This could be the biggest shocker to Biden and the Democratic Party. They have long relied on a solid majority of the Black and Hispanic vote – north of 85 percent for Blacks and 70 percent for Hispanics. Current polling suggests a potentially significant shift in the minority vote. Some polls show Trump actually winning as much as an unprecedented 30 percent of the Black vote – and more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. This is especially true in key battleground states, such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
We may have had a hint of that change in 2016, when Black voters in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia did not show up at the polls. Often the first step in the change of allegiance is refraining from voting. It is a halfway position to an ultimate switch. If there is more than a 10 percent switch in the combined minority vote, Biden may be looking at his retirement years.
Long-term voting patterns and incumbency
I always do an analysis of long-term voting patterns as a significant indicator of voter outcomes. We humans tend to be creatures of habit – and we still cheer for our favorite teams even when they are in a slump. That is why incumbents win most of their re-election efforts.
But long-term voting patterns can be changed significantly by dramatic short-term events. We saw it when voters switch to Democrats after the 1929 stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression. We saw it again when the likely victory of Senator John McCain in 2008 ended due to a crash in the housing market.
This year it is the Covid-19 Pandemic. There can be no doubt that it has lessened Trump’s chances for re-election – chances that were breaking significantly in his favor at the beginning of the year.
The Covid advantage
The Covid-19 Pandemic has been nothing but good news for Biden and the Democrats for three reasons.
- Trump is in the wheelhouse. He must work through seemingly impossible strategies to limit the impact of the virus and, at the same time, not let the entire economy crash into depression. Conversely, Biden and many present all kinds of criticism – and offer all kinds of impossible promises – but need not be judged on results. It is often said that what the ins point to with pride, the outs view with alarm. That is truer than ever.
- The virus has given Biden an excuse to stay off the campaign trail. By limiting his campaigning to a few highly structured events and scripted statements from his basement, Biden has been able to avoid his greatest weaknesses – gaffes and senior moments.
- The virus has also enabled Democrats to follow their tradition of never letting a crisis go to waste. The result is fearmongering. They well understand that fear and anger are the two primary motivators for voting.
The virus has been a particular benefit to Democrats because of the willingness of so much of the Fourth Estate to abandon all ethical principles and report the news off the Democrats’ game sheet. They have been part of the #NeverTrump Resistance Movement from the onset and have blocked all news favorable to Trump in favor of incessant propaganda-like narratives.
The psychological game
People like me also take in the opinions of the politicians and media pundits – always recognizing that they are predicting with a biased view. For the politicians, it is more wishful thinking than political analysis.
Usually in a close election – which this appears to be – both sides predict with caution. Not this year. If you listen to the left – the Democrats – you will hear them predict a Biden election victory with the certainty usually reserved for races that are shaping up to be landslides. The hosts and panelists on news networks like CNN and MSNBC speak of a Biden election as a foregone conclusion. On the other side, those leaning to Trump make predictions that the President will win reelection with all the same certainty.
With the majority of prognosticators, there is neither common ground nor consensus.
What does it all mean?
Well … if after all this explanation, you are expecting me to make a definitive prediction, you will be sorely disappointed. It would just be a guess. I will go so far as to say that I think Biden has the edge – maybe odds in his favor at around 55/45. But I would not at all be surprised by a Trump win. In fact, I hope I am wrong and – for the sake of the Republic – the Republican team wins. I have already voted my desire – and hope you will join me in voting for Trump and those threatened Republican senators.
So, there ‘tis.