Voters are daily seeing presidential poll results. Do they really tell us who will win the election next November? Is it even worth paying attention to polls? Or, as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight would say, are these polls just noise while we are missing the real signal?

Before you answer, consider this: Since William McKinley’s election of 1896, each political party, once having won the White House, has gone on to control that office for a period of at least eight consecutive years — with one exception. That was the Democrats’ single term in the presidency under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.

Stated another way, for nearly a century and a quarter, once Americans have chosen a governing party for the office of president, it has been exceedingly rare for them to switch after only one term.

Since 1896, voters have been asked a dozen times, following a change of party control, to validate their previous choice of a party by giving it a second four-year term. And, on 11 of those 12 occasions, except for Carter, the voters re-elected the incumbent party.

Yes, it’s true that incumbent Republican Presidents William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush also were defeated in re-election bids — but those ousters came only after their party had held the presidency for eight or 12 or (in Taft’s case) 16 consecutive years.

What does this say? It tells me that voters are willing to change the party in control of the White House, but usually only after it has had at least eight-year run. Voters also could be reluctant to admit so quickly that what they wanted to do so recently has changed. And it tells me that we should study the election of 1980, when the voters did change their partisan horse in midstream, and try to see why President Carter’s re-election effort failed.

A major theme in the 1980 campaign that Republican Ronald Reagan waged against Democrat Carter was the “Misery Index.” (The Misery Index I am referring to is not this fall’s new TV comedy game show; it is an economic indicator created by Arthur Okun, who had served as President Lyndon Johnson’s last chair of his Council of Economic Advisers.) The Misery Index was designed to be a proxy for how the average citizen is doing economically by combining the inflation and unemployment rates into a single number.

In June 1980, the Misery Index was 22%, having increased during Carter’s term by seven percentage points.

Today, the Misery Index is less than 6% and has dropped under President Donald Trump.

Of course, there were other issues in the 1980 election, including the Iran hostage crisis, a bitter interparty fight between Carter and Ted Kennedy, the viable third-party candidacy of John Anderson, and the grain embargo.

The combination of American voters’ general reluctance to ditch a president after one term and the current economic circumstances of the country has led several prognosticators to make Trump the favorite to win re-election. Last month, using a model based largely on unemployment statistics, stock market data and other economic information, Moody’s Analytics predicted Trump would win with a comfortable Electoral College margin.

Prof. Allan Lichtman wrote “The Keys to the White House,” which sets forth a methodology that has accurately predicted the results for many presidential elections. Lichtman thinks Trump currently holds enough “keys” to win re-election, depending on what happens in the impeachment proceedings and what happens with the economy.

Lichtman’s 13 keys do not primarily rely on economic measures and do not at all rely on polls. Instead, they are primarily based on the performance of the political party (as opposed to the individual person) controlling the White House. Under Lichtman’s theory, for this 2020 election you could completely ignore the Democratic debates and the dozen candidates and all the noise they generate. What is important are larger events that affect how pragmatic American voters see the world.

Many of the 13 keys are related to the myriad problems Carter faced in 1980; those problems have not yet surfaced for Trump.

If you have a hard time coming to terms with the results of presidential elections since 1896, the status of the Misery Index and Lichtman’s 13 keys, and you still believe in polling and need your immediate polling fix to get you through the day, you can always turn your attention to Wisconsin (and not just for the Gophers/Badgers and Vikings/Packers rivalries).

Wisconsin was one of three Blue Fire Wall states (along with Pennsylvania and Michigan) that went for Trump in 2016 by less than 1% of the vote. To beat Trump, the Democrats’ best path is to take back all three of those states to secure more than 270 electoral college votes. In this scenario, Wisconsin is the tipping point state in the next election. As Wisconsin goes, so goes the country.

While previous polls of Wisconsin voters showed Democratic candidates beating Trump in the Badger State, the most recent Marquette Law School Poll, completed Nov. 17, shows a very divided state that would still vote for Donald Trump.

Like other voters around the country, Wisconsin voters have not yet been clearly convinced Trump should be impeached. Less than one year out from the election, we can expect an extremely intense campaign both in Wisconsin and Minnesota. And, given that about 20% of Wisconsin’s media market overlaps with Minnesota, I can see why Trump has targeted Minnesota as well.

Further, while we would hate to admit it, our two states have many common demographic features, and our patterns in presidential voting are remarkably similar. If the results of this most recent Marquette Law poll accurately foretell the results in Wisconsin, we will see a very close race in Minnesota again in 2020 and perhaps with a different result from 2016.

This will be a dramatic election. But do not get confused by polling data and the horse race on the Democratic side. This race is about the Republican Party’s performance and big events concerning the economy and world affairs. It is also about how closely this 2020 race parallels what happened 40 years ago in 1980.


Brian F. Rice is a Minneapolis attorney, registered lobbyist and active member of the DFL Party.