Inflection Point: 2016 Presidential Race

Map of 2012 election resultsLast night’s Republican candidate debates and the surge of Donald Trump’s popularity have drawn more attention to the Presidential race that we normally see this far out from November 2016. This attention  does provide some context for looking ahead.

While my own research does not focus on Presidential elections, I have followed them closely since 1972 and I read all of the political science prediction literature and blogs, from Alan Abramowitz, Sam Wong, Nate Silver, Nate Cohn, and others.

At this point, it looks highly likely that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, barring an amazing change in the coming months.  Despite Trump’s current front-runner status, few expect that to continue throughout, as the Republicans have a host of candidates to sort through, as they did in 2012, when Mitt Romney emerged as the nominee after many other, less plausible candidates were each front-runners for a short period of time.  Many expect Jeb Bush, or perhaps Scott Walker, to be the candidate when all is sorted out, but no one really knows.

Overall, in a pretty evenly-divided county, the simplest way to view the election is via the turnout of each party’s voters.  Hillary is very well known – many like her, many do not.  So it seems unlikely that after 25 years in the spotlight that many feelings will change substantially on Hillary.  Democratic turnout is typical much better in Presidential years than in others, but will her female and minority supporters turn out in large numbers ?

The prediction models in political science are getting better, but they still have relatively few data points from which to extrapolate. They tend to rely very heavily on the state of the economy prior to the election.  Prognosticators have various perspectives on exactly what economic measure matters most (per capita income change, GDP, unemployment) and for exactly how long (typically 6-9 months pre-election), but voters’ perceptions of the economy and its movement are huge.  At this point, the economy in 2016 is impossible to predict. Knowing the electoral importance, it seems likely that President Obama will do what he can to keep the economy strong prior to the November 2016 election (as he would anyway).  But it is a wild-card, and one that had a big, last minute impact in 2008, when the economy and financial markets tanked in fall 2008 under a Republican incumbent.

Another important variable in these models is years in power of the incumbent Presidential party.  After 8 years of Obama, normally we would expect to see a party swing.  Only George HW Bush in 1988 overcame 8 years of his own party in power in recent decades (otherwise it goes back to 4 terms of FDR in the 1930s and 1940s).  This would tend to weigh in favor of the Republican candidate.

One can also examine national subgroups.  The electorate is very divided – women overwhelmingly favor Clinton (and perhaps even more so with the “first women President” possibility), minorities favor Clinton heavily (and they are the fastest growing electoral segment), while white men are heavily in favor of Republican candidates.  Again, turnout will be key, and the expectation is that it will be high for most of these groups, though white men typically have the highest turnout.

Rather than looking at it as a national election, since electoral votes are what count, a more useful perspective looks state-by-state.  Only about 5-8 states are likely to matter.  With big electoral votes, CA and NY are safely in the Democratic camp, while TX and most of the south are squarely in the Republican camp.  Most other states are pretty predictable as well. The key swing states are FL, OH, VA, CO, NV, and a few others.  In a landslide election, PA, WI, NC, and others might come into play.  Generally, the state-by-state map favors Clinton – the Republican must win most of the swing states to take the presidency.

Assuming some “wisdom of crowds” from people putting money at risk, we can also look at the various gambling sites, which have provided fairly accurate predictions in past elections.  Clinton is pegged at about 60% likely from bettors, at this stage.

So, enjoy the show, but stay focused on these fundamentals that drive Presidential elections, more than personalities, debates and gaffes.

~Image: 2012 presidential election results by county, shaded according to winning candidate’s percentage of the vote. Source: Wikipedia.



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