Just a glance at RealClearPolitics or Pollster shows that the 2016 presidential election has tightened considerably over the past month. As of Thursday morning, the political website FiveThirtyEight puts the odds of a Trump victory at better than 40 percent, which should be way too high for my comfort. There is the possibility that, with the steadier management team that he installed last month, Trump could improve on his complete ineptitude as a general-election candidate and actually overtake Clinton in the polls.
This tightening has caused some on the left to freak out a fair amount. Nonetheless, prediction markets have not had nearly as strong a reaction. And while some news outlets are exploring the prospects of a Trump administration with appropriate seriousness, many pundits are not freaking out at all.
This is causing Nate Silver to freak out a little. Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, tweeted: “Never seen otherwise-smart people in so much denial about something as they are about Trump’s chances. Same mistake as primaries, Brexit.”
I’m one of those pundits who would be super-scared about a Trump presidency but have not been terribly perturbed by the narrowing in the polls in recent weeks. As someone who suggested that elite contentment may have been a causal driver of Trump’s primary victory, am I falling into the cognitive trap that Silver has laid out? At a moment when the American populace no longer trusts itself (or, rather, other Americans), why am I so calm that things will work out?
As an exercise in transparency, I thought it would be a good idea to explain my current thinking. It does not mean my thinking is right, mind you — I’m a political scientist, but I’m not a political scientist who specializes in American politics.
Fortunately, RealClearPolitics’s Sean Trende — hardly a Clinton devotee or a believer in her inevitable triumph — wrote something two days ago that matches my assumptions on how the race is playing out as well. Here’s the key part:
“A truly terrible news cycle was still not enough to put Trump ahead. In a strange way, that’s good news for Clinton. The rhythm of the campaign is such that news cycles are almost guaranteed to swing the other way, and, well, Trump has a history of giving them an assist. The bad news cycle can also cause Republicans to break through likely-voter screens while Democrats become less likely to answer the polls; this “differential response” issue explains a lot of the ebb and flow of campaigns. But we have to wonder: If this didn’t catapult Trump to an electoral lead, what could?”
My model of this election is that Trump has a rigid core of supporters but also a hard ceiling on that support. Clinton has more voter support but also more “soft” support. These are voters who become easily disaffected when she has a bad news cycle or two. (It’s also possible that those on the left get disaffected when she appeals to moderate Republicans and vice versa.) So when the race looks close, it’s not because Trump is attracting Clinton voters, it’s because possible Clinton voters are not feeling all that good about Clinton and might choose not to vote — or answer a pollster.
In this way, the very tightening of the race prevents Trump from winning. There is a bevy of voters who are not jazzed by Clinton but are petrified by a Trump presidency. Once polls start to show that it’s close, they will decide to vote for Clinton or say so in a poll. When the lead expands, they get more complacent and disaffected by Clinton’s flaws.
Given the good recent economic news, and the failure of terrorism threats to benefit Trump, my baseline of the 2016 election is that any tightening of the race creates endogenous effects that prevent Trump from taking the lead.
There are a few additional factors that make me even more confident about a Clinton victory:
1. Contra Trump’s claims that he will change the map by bringing out lots of new voters, none of the data I have seen suggests that this is true. There’s no hidden “reserve army” of Trump supporters in places such as Connecticut or Oregon.
2. Although Trump has surged in places such as Ohio and Florida, recentpolling in crucial swingstates for Clinton’s bare-minimum electoral path to 270 continue to show her with a comfortable margin of victory.
3. I’m assuming that Clinton’s vastly superior ground game and data operation will give her a boost of one to three percentage points above the polling averages, which could make the difference in places such as North Carolina, Florida and Ohio.
4. The last major moment endogenous to the campaign, when Trump can overtake Clinton, is the debates. And I think Clinton’s extensive debating experience, combined with her recent one-on-one debates with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, leaves her far better prepared than Trump. James Fallows made this point in the Atlantic:
“Significantly, Clinton, unlike Trump, comes to this fall’s debates as a veteran of five one-on-one debates with Sanders (plus five in the 2008 election cycle against just Barack Obama after John Edwards dropped out, and three against Rick Lazio in her 2000 Senate race). Donald Trump, by contrast, has not been through even one head-to-head live debate. After the multiplayer scrum of the early Republican field, the smallest field he ever faced was Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio in Miami in the very last GOP debate. These are entirely different experiences: facing one person, with a moderator, versus being part of a crowd. With three or more contenders onstage, each participant is mainly fighting for airtime and looking for chances to get in planned zingers. . . .
“In a head-to-head debate, participants know they will get enough airtime. The question becomes how they use it. Example of the difference: In several of the GOP debates, Trump went into a kind of hibernation when the talk became too specific or policy-bound, letting John Kasich or Marco Rubio have the microphone. It didn’t matter, because he’d have a chance to come back with a one-liner - ‘We’re gonna win so much.’ In debates like the ones this fall, it will be harder to answer some questions and ignore others.”
Trump’s best chance of persuading voters to back him over Clinton is in a venue where Clinton is far more likely to shine.
So that’s how I’m thinking about this election right now. Maybe there’s some motivated reasoning in there in which my brain, believing that Trump would be an unmitigated disaster as a president, can’t possibly, actually win. But until something happens that alters those assumptions of mine, I’m still feeling copacetic.
Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.