DISCLAIMER: Nothing in the post suggests any of us can rest on our laurels. Post card writers need to keep writing. Intersection flag-wavers need to keep waving their flags. Homeowners need to keep putting up Biden/Harris signs. And community based groups of Democrats, Republicans and independents like our “Amelia Island Good Troublemakers” need to keep reminding voters of all the reasons they are voting for Biden. As Yogi Berra would remind us, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
In 1992, when Colorado Governor Roy Romer was chairman of the National Governors Association, he invited his son Paul (not yet a Nobel Laureate in Economics) to a meeting of the Economic Development and Commerce Committee which I staffed during my time with the organization. It was in the middle of the high tech boom when some economists predicted the accelerating pace of U.S. innovation would result in indefinite, recession-free growth. Paul had a different point of view, simply stated, “The NEW economy still operates under OLD economy rules.” As we learned twice in the next decade, he was right.
I have been thinking about Paul a lot recently, as I listen to journalists and pundits talk about the NEW politics of Donald Trump and how it makes it difficult to predict the status of the race. As a trained political scientist, I find it useful to paraphrase Dr. Romer, “The NEW politics still operate under OLD politics rules.” If I am right, I do not anticipate my own Nobel prize as there is not one for achievement in social science. But if I am wrong, maybe someone will nominate me for the prize in Literature based on outstanding fiction.
Exactly which rules do I believe still apply and how do they impact the 2020 outcome. Let’s take them one-by-one.
#1. The indicator with the highest correlation to voter preference: “Is the country heading in the right direction?”
- According to the RealClear Politics average of polls, as of October 13, 62.7 percent of Americans believe the country is on the “wrong track” while only 31.3 think we are on the right track.
- The impact of these numbers on voter behavior increases when the election is a referendum on a sitting president seeking re-election or the party in power.
#2: The indicator with the second highest correlation to voter preference: “Does the candidate care about people like me?”
- A June, 2020 Pew Research Center survey found Biden held a 13 point lead 54-41 percent) over Trump on this factor.
- This is the same factor that derailed Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2012, following the release of a video in which he implied he could never get the support of 47 percent of the voters, those he referred to as “takers.”
- Trump’s inability to show a kernal of empathy for the victims of COVID-19 has likely widened that margin since June.
#3: When there is an incumbent running for re-election, late deciders break for the challenger.
- This is just common sense. After observing the incumbent govern for four years, you are either with him or asking yourself, “Am I comfortable enough with the challenger to take a chance?”
- Ronald Reagan passed that test in 1980 as did Bill Clinton in 1992.
- Joe Biden faced the same questions going into the first presidential debate. He needed to demonstrate two things. He was not suffering from dementia, and he was not to the left of Fidel Castro.
- According to polling since the debate, he aced the exam. On the day of the debate, Biden’s projected margin of victory, according to the FiveThirtyEight average of polls, was 5.9 percent. Today it stands at 10.5 percent.
#4: Manufactured October Surprises
- Truly significant October surprises almost always emerge much earlier with new information in the closing days of the campaign merely reinforcing the original narrative.
- Examples: The futility of the Vietnam War in 1968. Jimmy Carter’s inability to free the Iranian hostages before the 1980 election. John McCain’s response to the increasing economic meltdown in 2008. Jim Comey’s October letter to Congress resurrecting the year-long focus on Hillary Clinton’s emails.
- In contrast, October “Hail Marys” generally come off as last-minute desperation, e.g. the fake letter about George W. Bush’s national guard status, and seldom move the needle.
- Unlike anything ever seen, the Trump campaign has been running the shop all three shifts to manufacture a January, February, March, etc., surprise to bring down Joe Biden. A charge of sexual assault. Ukraine. Domestic spying. A lot of spaghetti on the floor. Little if any on the wall.
- In contrast, the front page story remains Trump’s handling of the pandemic. And the most significant October surprise is likely to be no surprise at all. The second wave spike in cases, hospitalizations and fatalities.
#5: Voter Enthusiasm
- The Trump campaign has claimed this to be their candidate’s strong suit. Energizing his base to vote will overcome his deficit in the polls.
- As pointed out in the October 8 post “It’s October! Surprise!“, the numbers tell a different story. The most recent polls continue to show a wider margin of victory for Biden among “likely voters” than “registered voters.”
- This could actually have a bigger impact on Senate races, particular in states such as Montana, Arizona and Alaska.
- Florida voting ends at 7:00pm on election day. If early returns trend toward Biden, voters in western red states who anticipate the inevitable outcome might be even less willing to venture out to vote (especially if the northernmost states are in the midst of a coronavirus spike).
- Lower turnout on election day increases the impact of early and mail-in ballot on the final outcome. And early reporting suggests a huge Democratic advantage in pre-election day balloting.
A good campaign should be able to overcome one or two of these disadvantages heading into the final days before the election. But not all five. Maybe the spaghetti is not on the wall, but the writing may be.
For what it’s worth.