Rules for Political Prognostication in an Era in which No Rules Apply

After the surprise outcome of the 2016 election it has become conventional wisdom that the old rules of politics don’t apply anymore.  Today’s politics seem increasingly unpredictable and chaotic, driven by cable news and social media fanning the flames of a polarized electorate.  But it’s not anarchy yet.  Some traditional rules still apply and can help shine light into what seems the dark ages of politics.

Here are three “old rules” we think helpful for bringing order to chaos:

  • Resist the myths
  • Know the races, the handicaps and the polls
  • Follow the money

There are others, but we’ll focus on these three for now.

Resist the Myths

American politics has long been fertile ground for myth-making, ever since George Washington chopped down that cherry tree.  One emerging myth – sometimes called “conventional wisdom” – is that President Trump must win all of his 2016 states to win re-election.  According to that myth, lightening must strike twice, and in the same places, for the president to reach 270 electoral college votes.

In reality, the president has more flexibility to shake up the map going into 2020.  In 2016 he carried Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by narrow margins.  Look for both sides to fight fiercely to polish off a win in this part of the Rust Belt.  But the president doesn’t need to win them all, as he did in 2016, to squeak out an electoral college win.  He need only hold on to one of them. He could also lose all three of those if he can pick up Minnesota, which he narrowly lost the first time around.  Should he manage to recapture those three states he could afford to lose Florida.  While it’s not necessarily a myth that history repeats itself, President Trump need not rely on 2016 redux to win.  He has room to maneuver.  Democrats target too narrowly at their peril.

Another “myth” comes in to play here as well…it used to be Election DAY.  Now voting goes on for a month or more, so it’s election MONTH.  And Minnesota is the first out of the starting gate, with early voting beginning September 18, 46 days before Election Day.

Know the Races

The second rule of politics– know the races, handicaps and polls – still provides insight on how the presidential contest will shake out.

Share of New Jobs

Share of New Jobs by MSA

Numbers count in this rule, and perhaps the most important numbers are economic. As former Governor and GOP Chair Haley Barbour said at our firm’s annual dinner over a year ago, economic recovery and growth is highly variable geographically and is mostly outside the Rust Belt and the Heartland of America.  But job growth in Denver, Phoenix, Detroit, and Charlotte will bolster Trump’s claims of a strong economy in “swing” presidential states including Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Michigan (helping him hold on to one of those “must-win” Midwest states).  George Jones may have had “Friends in High Places,” but the president has high job numbers in the right places.  These economic numbers will also help GOP Senate candidates in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and North Carolina.

Knowing the historical context of the polls provides perspective on the president’s job approval rating.

While Trump’s job approval is under 50 percent, at 44.8 percent, he’s still near the average job approval rating (48.6 percent) of the last three presidents to win a second-term (Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama).   Trump’s job approval rating is actually slightly better than Obama’s at this point in the Democrat’s presidency.  Among Republicans, the president’s approval remains steady and stellar at 90 percent (where he has hovered since inauguration) while he has improved somewhat among independents since January of this year.

Those are national numbers.  Looking at the president’s net approval in key battleground states, the numbers are bleaker for Mr. Trump:

Minnesota:  -16

Wisconsin: -14

Michigan: -7

Pennsylvania:  -9

Ohio: -4

Arizona: -7

 

Follow the Money

The Trump campaign raised a staggering $105 million in the second quarter of 2019, more than doubling President Barack Obama’s second-quarter 2011 haul of $46 million, and candidate Hillary Clinton’s $48 million at this point in the 2015 race.  Nor is Trump sitting on the money.  Since January 1, 2017 he has spent $75.2 million, and currently has $56.7 million cash-on-hand.  According to his campaign you can follow $35 million of that money to digital advertising and email prospecting.  The Trump campaign’s Facebook ad spending so far exceeds all of his Democratic rivals, combined.

Speaking of Trump’s rivals, Senators Sanders and Warren lead the pack, (at $46.3 and $35.7 million respectively).  Mayor Pete Buttigieg is close on Warren’s heels at $32.3 million.  “Front-runner” Joe Biden, while leading in the polls, trails behind in sixth place.  We will soon see if the former vice president’s lead in the polls follows the money – downwards.

Prepare Your Alibis

An unspoken old rule of politics is always to have an alibi handy.  We continue to think the presidential race is a toss-up and, with record-high turnout possible (the 2018 election was the highest turnout for a mid-term in 104 years) anything could happen.  Novelist Robert A. Heinlein wrote that politics is the “only game for grown-ups.”  That game may not be played today exactly the way it was in 1956 when Heinlein wrote those words, but despite the passage of year – and the demographic, communications and cultural shifts of the past several decades — some of the same rules still apply.  We will be following them.  Stay tuned.

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