Breathe deeply. The election will be over in 23 days. Well, unless there’s a recount. Or unless one of the candidates refuses to accept the results of the election, provoking a Constitutional crisis and undermining the norms that have made the United States the world’s leading democracy for the past 240 years or so. Hey, how about those Cubs?
But seriously: Let’s try to gain some perspective by stepping back and asking our collection of 10 questions about where the election stands. (Previous editions of this exercise were conducted on July 15, Aug. 15, Sept. 6 and Sept. 25.)
1. Who’s ahead in the polls right now?
Hillary Clinton has a significant lead, although there’s some question about the margin. For instance, one major national poll released on Sunday morning, from ABC News and the Washington Post, had Clinton ahead by 4 percentage points. Another, from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, had Clinton up 11 points instead. Our forecast model falls in the middle and shows Clinton with a 6- or 7-point lead. That translates to an 86 percent chance for her to win the election according to our polls-only model, and an 83 percent chance per our polls-plus model.
2. What’s the degree of uncertainty?
Let me approach this question in two ways. First, there’s uncertainty as our model attempts to define it. The most important factors in that calculation are the number of days until the election and the number of undecided and third-party voters. Obviously, we’re getting closer and closer to Election Day, with early voting already underway in many states. But the number of undecided voters remains fairly high (although it’s declined slightly). In national polls, about 85 percent of the vote is committed to Clinton or Trump, as compared with around 95 percent that was committed to President Obama and Mitt Romney at this point in the campaign four years ago. Those unpredictable undecided and third-party voters are why our models show both a better chance of a Trump victory than most of our competitors and a better chance of Clinton winning states like Texas.
And in a more qualitative sense: Well, this election is totally nuts, with Trump now implying that Clinton is on drugs and alleging that there’s an international conspiracy to rig the election against him. As my editor put it, everything is on the table in terms of how the final three weeks could go, ranging from Trump taking advantage of very low expectations before the third debate on Wednesday, to his giving up on the election to avoid taking responsibility for what will probably be an embarrassing defeat. Our model’s relatively cautious approach seems prudent under these conditions.
3. What’s the medium-term trend in the polls?
By “medium-term trend,” I mean what’s been going on over the past few weeks in the polls. By short-term trend — see the next question — I mean what’s been happening in the past few days, which is usually harder to determine. The medium-term trend clearly favors Clinton. After polls in mid-September showed a very close race, with Trump trailing Clinton by only 1 to 2 percentage points nationally and almost catching up to her in the Electoral College, Clinton began to pull away following her performance in the first presidential debate on Sept. 26. And her lead has continued to grow from about 3 or 4 points just after the debate to more like 6 or 7 points now. The release of a video on Oct. 8, which showed Trump condoning sexual assault against women, has probably contributed to Trump’s increasing polling deficit.
4. What’s the short-term trend in the polls?
There almost certainly hasn’t been a shift back toward Trump, but it’s hard to tell whether Clinton’s lead has stabilized or if she’s continuing to gain ground. That’s partly because the polls are having trouble keeping up with all the news. The recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal and ABC News/Washington Post polls, for instance, were conducted last Monday though Thursday, largely before a number of women came forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault.
5. Which states shape up as most important?
The swing state map is broader than in 2012. Whereas by the end of that election, only a half-dozen states were really in doubt, there are 10 to 15 states that remain interesting this year. But Florida stands out according to our tipping-point index because winning it would all but clinch the election for Clinton. Without Florida or North Carolina in her column, conversely, Clinton would have to retreat to her “firewall” states, of which Pennsylvania, Colorado and New Hampshire are probably the most vulnerable
6. Does one candidate appear to have an overall edge in the Electoral College, relative to his or her position in the popular vote?
Clinton’s been polling well across the board — in national polls, in swing state polls, in polls of red states and in polls of blue states — and the probability of a split between the Electoral College and the popular vote has been declining in our models. But if such a split were to occur, it would be more likely to favor Trump than Clinton, according to our forecast. That’s partly because Clinton has more to lose: When you’re the favorite, you want to avoid complications, and the Electoral College is a complication. For Trump to be competitive at this point, he’ll either have to make a last-minute comeback or the polls will have to be significantly off, and how that might play out in the swing states is somewhat unpredictable.
But, also, the gains Clinton has been making relative to Obama aren’t necessarily optimal for maximizing her Electoral College chances. She’s made states such as Texas and even Utah much more competitive, and one can even imagine their becoming swing states by 2024 or 2028. But for this year, Clinton will probably lose them, leading to a lot of wasted votes (statistically speaking).
7. How do the “fundamentals” look?
The economy remains “meh” — that’s a technical term — with solid jobs reports but mixed figures otherwise. And an election between a generic Republican and a generic Democrat would probably be competitive. But as Trump runs an increasingly abnormal campaign and appeals to a narrow slice of the electorate, it’s becoming less likely that he can benefit from those relatively favorable conditions as a conventional Republican might.
One factor helping Clinton: Obama’s approval ratings are about as good as they’ve been all campaign. So while there are lots of undecided voters that don’t like either Clinton or Trump, they often have fairly warm views of the president, which might lead them to prefer Clinton’s continuity to Trump’s change.
8. How do FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts compare against prediction markets?
Prediction markets put Trump’s chances at 15 percent, right in line with FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts. One could argue that this is too high, however, because betting markets should probably be pricing in some effect from the latest round of sexual assault accusations against Trump, whereas there hasn’t been enough time for the impact to really show up in the polls yet (and therefore in our forecasts).
9. What would keep me up late at night if I were Clinton?
We’re getting to the point where a Clinton loss would require either an “October surprise” — maybe Wikileaks has something more damaging up its sleeve than what it’s shown so far, although even then it could be drowned out by all the news Trump is generating — or a significant polling error. On the prospects for a polling miss, let me state this carefully. It’s not that the arguments for why the polls could be underrating Trump’s support (e.g. the supposed presence of “shy Trump” voters) are all that strong. There are reasons to think the polls could be underrating Clinton’s support instead of Trump’s, in fact. But polls aren’t always as accurate as they were in the past few presidential elections, and given the large number of undecided voters, they could be off in either direction. A 6- or 7-point polling error is just on the outer fringe of what’s possible based on the historical record in U.S. elections.
With that said, it’s not the massive polling miss that would concern me if I were Clinton. Instead, I’d worry about what might happen if Trump was on a rising trajectory as Nov. 8 approaches, having cut my lead down to 3 or 4 percentage points, and then there was a more modest polling error on the order of what we saw in advance of Brexit, where the final polls were off by about 4 points. Polling errors of that magnitude are considerably more common than 6- or 7-point errors.
10. What would keep me up late at night if I were Trump?
I’m not sure I can keep up the gag of pretending that Trump has some sort of rational inner monologue. So instead, I’ll think of this question as what would keep me up late at night if I were Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s campaign manager. And the answer is that the Trump campaign was never really set up to have a strong finishing kick. Trump has considerably less cash on hand than Clinton; he also has a much inferior ground game and is burning bridges with Republicans who could help him. And in the primaries, Trump consistently struggled with late-deciding voters, perhaps because he was such a polarizing candidate. So even if Trump catches a couple of breaks over the final weeks, he might not be poised to take advantage of them.