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2016 should be winnable for Republicans. But can they win with Trump?

- May 4, 2016
Donald Trump speaks during a rally at Griffiss International Airport on April 12, 2016, in Rome, N.Y. (Mike Groll/Associated Press)

In January 2014, I wrote a post called “The Democratic Party’s uphill path to 270 electoral votes in 2016.” I noted that, contrary to some conventional wisdom, the broader fundamentals of the presidential election actually favored the GOP.

This is still correct. In a forthcoming article, Lynn Vavreck, Michael Tesler and I estimate a simple statistical model of presidential election outcomes. It includes changes in the size of the economy (gross domestic product) from the first to the third quarters of the election year, the president’s June approval rating and how many terms the incumbent party has held the White House.

If we assume that economic growth in 2016 will resemble that of 2015 and that President Obama’s rating in June will be where it is now — about 50 percent — then it’s actually Republicans who should have the edge: about a 60 percent chance of winning.

In large part, this is due to the White House’s greater tendency to change hands the longer the incumbent party has been there — what the political scientist Alan Abramowitz calls the “time for a change” factor. This is not simply a quirk of recent elections. This tendency is present across a large swath of elections, as David Mayhew has found. For more on its origins, see the research by Christopher Wlezien, which I previously discussed. For a similar finding, see this post by Matthew Atkinson and Darin DeWitt.

There’s nothing magical about this one statistical model, of course. One could imagine that other models would generate somewhat different results. And, of course, things could change: If the anemic growth in the first quarter of 2016 is a harbinger of growth in the rest of the election year, then that 60 percent figure might actually be too low. Or perhaps Obama’s approval rating will continue to increase, and the 60 percent figure is too high.

Regardless, this was supposed to be a race that the GOP could win. What is striking, then, is how pessimistic many observers are:

  • In a recent survey of 15 academic experts on elections by the site PollyVote, only one expert expected the Republicans to win back the White House.
  • In prediction markets, the Democrats have a 70 percent chance of winning the general election. As Tobias Konitzer and David Rothschild noted on Tuesday, that is higher than at this point in 2008 and 2012. It’s pretty remarkable that the markets give the Democrats a higher chance now than they did in 2008 — when President George W. Bush was far more unpopular than Obama is now and when the country was in the middle of a recession.
  • The forecasters at Good Judgment feel similarly. Over time, they have consistently favored the Democrats and currently give them about a 65 percent chance:

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The forecast is even worse with Trump as the nominee. When asked to forecast the general election in this circumstance, the Good Judgment forecasters are even more bullish for the Democrats, giving them an 85 percent chance. This could reflect Trump’s historically low favorability rating.

All the usual caveats apply. There are still six months before the election. Moreover, these forecasts are probabilities, not certainties. They merely show that the Democrats are favored, not that they are guaranteed to win.

Nevertheless, it is striking that in an election year in which the GOP should have been competitive — much more so than in 2008 or even 2012 — they find themselves in a hole.