It is probably safe to say that, during all of the 2019 coverage of the upcoming election, no one factored in the possibility of how a pandemic would effect the outcome. That reinforces a point I have tried to make about how the unknown undermines predictions about the future.
There are, however, some assumptions we can make, and Ed Kilgore has identified one of them in a piece titled, “5 Reasons Pundits Will Overestimate Trump’s Odds of Winning in November.” While he identifies five reasons, there is one that overwhelms the others. Kilgore uses a tweet from Ron Klain to make the point.
Here's my prediction: Having predicted a Trump defeat in 2016, many outlets will compensate now, by repeatedly predicting a Biden defeat in 2020.
What they say doesn't matter. What we DO does.https://t.co/vA8IXtCn1M
— Ronald Klain (@RonaldKlain) April 22, 2020
Klain was responding to an article by Nate Cohn that compared polling on the Biden-Trump race to what we saw in the Clinton-Trump race. What caught my eye about Cohn’s piece is that he didn’t compare current polls to those conducted in April 2016. Instead, the polls he uses from the previous election were conducted following the third presidential debate on October 19, 2016.
It is unclear why Cohn would focus on such an apples to oranges comparison, but it is probably because he was attempting to compare Biden’s numbers with polling just prior to the election—assuming it would capture the final results.
There was, however, an unpredicted event that happened a week and a half after the third debate of 2016 that had a major impact. On October 28th then-FBI Director James Comey announced that he was re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Both Sam Wang and reporters at Vox have documented that the announcement cost Clinton the election.
The evidence is clear, and consistent, regarding the Comey effect. The timing of the shift both at the state and national levels lines up very neatly with the publication of the letter, as does the predominance of the story in the media coverage from the final week of the campaign. With an unusually large number of undecided voters late in the campaign, the letter hugely increased the salience of what was the defining critique of Clinton during the campaign at its most critical moment.
Even the Trump campaign conceded that Comey’s announcement had a defining impact.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign acknowledged in an internal memo that former FBI Director James Comey’s 11th hour decision to reopen an inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s use of private email helped shift the results…
“The last few days have proven to be pivotal in the minds of voters with the recent revelations in reopening the investigation of Secretary Clinton,” the memo read, according to Green. “Early polling numbers show declining support for Clinton, shifting in favor of Mr. Trump.”
It added: “This may have a fundamental impact on the results.”
Of course, none of that negates other factors that influenced the 2016 election, leading it to be close enough that 77,000 votes spread across three states made the difference. But Cohn’s analysis offers three cautionary tales.
- As Kilgore suggests, pundits are likely to overcompensate for getting things wrong in 2016,
- Especially in a close race, unpredicted events can alter the outcome, and
- It helps to be skeptical about apples to oranges comparisons.
In that spirit, polling can tell us where the race stands today—six months away from actual voting. Given that Clinton won the popular vote, we’ve all been reminded that national polls don’t tell us much. But here are the averages for a few swing states that Trump won in 2016, as reported by RealClearPolitics.
- Wisconsin – Biden +2.7
- Florida – Biden +3.4
- Michigan – Biden +5.5
- Pennsylvania – Biden +4.6
- Arizona – Biden +4.4
Based on those, if the election were held today, Biden would win with 318 electoral votes to Trump’s 219. Any analysis of this race that doesn’t acknowledge that Trump’s re-election is in big trouble right now is either skewed or overcompensating. If stating things that clearly makes you uncomfortable, I would suggest that it points to Kilgore’s fourth reason related to Democratic pessimism.
It seems to be a matter of partisan identity this cycle: Republicans look at the evidence and spin it madly in their candidate’s favor, apparently under the impression that self-confidence is a tangible asset, while by and large Democrats have a hard time seeing or accepting good news.
In other words, those who rely on pessimism are not going to like a factual analysis of where this race stands right now. But that doesn’t change the fact that Biden is in the lead. Now we simply wait to find out if there are any more unpredictable events that will change the expected outcome.