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The Economist’s 2020 Presidential election model

Here it is, the first official model of the year.

Four months ago, Donald Trump’s odds of winning a second term had never looked better. After an easy acquittal in his impeachment trial, his approval rating had reached its highest level in three years, and was approaching the upper-40s range that delivered re-election to George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Unemployment was at a 50-year low, setting him up to take credit for a strong economy. And Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, had won the popular vote in each of the first three Democratic primary contests.

But even by Mr Trump’s frenetic standards, the tumble in his political stock since then has been remarkably abrupt. First, Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s moderate and well-liked vice-president, pulled off a comeback for the ages, surging from the verge of dropping out to presumptive nominee. Then covid-19 battered America, claiming at least 110,000 lives and 30m jobs. And just when deaths from the virus began to taper off, protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd convulsed cities across America. Mr Trump’s callous response has widened the empathy gap separating him from Mr Biden into a chasm.

Even at the president’s high-water mark in February, he trailed Mr Biden by five percentage points in national polling averages. That deficit has now swelled to eight. Polls of swing states tell a similar tale. Mr Biden is not only ahead in the midwestern battlegrounds that elected Mr Trump the first time, but also in Florida and Arizona. Even states that Mr Trump won easily in 2016, such as Georgia, Texas, Iowa and Ohio, look competitive. There is little question that if the election were held today, Mr Biden would win in a near-landslide.

The election, of course, will not be held today. In fact, more time remains between now and November 3rd than has passed since Mr Trump’s impeachment trial. And given the devotion of the president’s base, Mr Biden is probably approaching his electoral ceiling, whereas Mr Trump has plenty of room to win back soft supporters.

Indeed, there are good reasons to expect he will. First, the latest jobs report suggests that the economy may have bottomed out. In 1984 Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale by declaring “Morning in America”, though unemployment remained high by historical standards. Mr Trump plans to make the same argument. The Black Lives Matter protests could also backfire on Democrats if they rally white voters behind the “law and order” candidate, as they are thought to have done in 1968.

Given all this uncertainty, it is tempting to conclude that it is too early for predictions, and call the election a virtual toss-up. That is the view of bettors, who currently make Mr Biden a bare 55-45 favourite. Yet a hard look at the data and at history suggests that this is too generous to Mr Trump. The Economist’s first-ever statistical forecast of an American presidential race, which we launch this week and will update every day until the election, gives Mr Biden an 82% chance of victory.

G. Elliott Morris, one of the architects of the model, adds some detail in this Twitter thread. Remember that models are not really about prediction, but about possible outcomes given certain starting conditions. Models necessarily give different answers when the basic data informing the questions change. The best thing you can do is try to understand what those questions are, and avoid putting too much faith in any headline interpretation of them.

All that said, you know my interest is always in what the outlook is for Texas, and you can see what the model is saying about our state here. As of this writing, Biden has about a 20% chance of carrying Texas, which frankly sounds pretty robust to me. It projects a five-point win for Trump, which suggests to me that Dems will do quite well downballot, as we saw in 2018. All this can and will change as we get more polling data, and as overall conditions such as the economy change. We’ll check back on this later to see how and in what direction things are changing. For now, take a look and see what you think.

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One Comment

  1. brad says:

    Given Trump’s man child petulance I firmly believe his incompetence and his administrations’ incapable enablers will not help his polling.

    Trump will try everything possible to reality TV away the COVID, economic and racial injustice crisis, but it will be hard to hide the GOP elephant in the room all across the nation.