Well, here we are. Over the past few weeks, I had some personal priorities to attend to, as well as, you know, the disruption of a global pandemic. My plan had been to update my election series on the Democratic nomination after Ohio, but due to these two things, and also Ohio and almost every other primary being delayed until June (or later!) I never got there.
And now, whereas we previously knew:
We also now know who the one is!
I have come neither to praise Biden nor bury him, my goal was always to provide a data-driven outlook on who the likely nominee was. Now there’s no “likely” to it. All the other candidates have dropped out and endorsed him. There could still be some shocking outside event, but, barring that, Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee.
So now it’s time for my analysis to pivot to our next electoral outlook, be it still more than six months out:
Actually, I’ve dabbled a bit in this already, here and here. Both times, I came down on the side of Trump’s re-election being very very far from a sure thing, so much so that we on the Left should stop bed-wetting ourselves into surrender. That was based on general outlook, things are a little less abstract now that we have actual names on both sides of the ledger. So how do things look currently?
The first stop is to observe that Biden actually has a pretty healthy and persistent lead in year-to-date polling averages:
I can hear a chorus of “so did Clinton” coming, but I think that’s actually a pretty useful comparison to make in some ways. What immediately strikes me in comparing Clinton’s numbers for the same period is that she spent a lot of time under 48% (where she actually ended up finishing) and almost no time above 50%. Biden, by contrast, has been above 48% almost the whole time, and not infrequently above 50%. His “floor” is higher.
Yes, but Chris, the polls were wrong! Before continuing, I urge you to read this from the lead analyst at Real Clear Politics, and this from the same at FiveThirtyEight. If you’re now convinced that national opinion polls were actually in range, and the real problem was polling in particular states, and pundits generally understanding probability, then we can continue. If you’re not, well, data-driven analysis probably isn’t for you.
Nationally, if Biden did turn out to have around a 5.8 point lead, the quickest and crudest way to look at that would be adding 3.7% to Clinton’s 2016 closest state margins (since she won nationally by 2.1%):
That would get you the following map:
Admittedly, that’s a crude way of estimating. It would be better to look at actual surveys of some of these states tagged as possible flips from last time (Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) to see if that outlook matches the national outlook. So let’s do that!
At first blush, it certainly looks plausible to think that Biden, currently, is competitive in a lot of this territory.
The other major way to look at this is to examine the incumbent’s popularity. He had a brief “rally around the flag” moment around his handling of the COVID pandemic, but that seems to have almost entirely reverted now. Overall, since inauguration, his popularity has been underwater, and he’s never consistently had a run above 44%, two percent less than what he drew in 2016:
We’ve kind of gotten used to this in some ways, so it can be helpful to look at it compared to other recent Presidents’ net approval rating at the same point. Trump never had the kind of early term approval bump that the others had. He’s almost never been above the trend line of any of them. The two his ratings at this point look most similar to are Carter and Bush1, both of whom were headed to first term defeat amid economic turmoil.
To me, all of this says that the data is saying the same thing that makes immediate intuitive sense: Any President hobbled by economic turmoil and botched reaction to a crisis is probably facing a difficult reelection. And Clinton had so many unique headwinds against her- decades of slurs aimed at her character, a last-minute FBI intervention, an at the time underappreciated massive foreign intelligence operation against her, and still only “lost” because of around 77,000 votes in three states. Any halfway decent Democrat was likely to be competitive.
And, indeed, there is every reason to think at this point that Biden has a very solid shot at winning the election. There are miles of twists and turns to come. So many that I’m not even going to bother to do an update until June 3rd, which puts us five months out. But nothing we’re seeing now dissuades from the idea that Trump is in serious trouble, and Biden’s chances are good.