It's about the fundamentals, whatever those will be
What's going to happen in the November 2020 presidential election? Obviously, that's on the minds of quite a few political observers these days, and it would be even if we weren't in the middle of a pandemic. And some are questioning whether the pandemic will scramble the election and everything we know about incumbent presidents and political fundamentals. So I wanted to take a minute here to discuss just what we should expect at this point.
Jonathan Bernstein had a good piece earlier this week arguing that, basically, we have no way of predicting what's going to happen in November, simply because the political fundamentals are so unusual. As he writes, "There’s no precedent for in effect deliberately inducing a recession to save lives. And that seems different enough to me that I’m going to be very careful about making predictions." I'd like to respectfully disagree with this take, in part.
Obviously, it's good to be cautious about such predictions. Yet I'm not sure we need to be more cautious than usual, at least about the effects of the fundamentals on the vote. One thing we know from a good deal of elections research is that voters punish the president's party for general political conditions regardless of that party's culpability for those conditions. Surely no one seriously blamed John McCain for the collapse of the financial sector in 2008, but he and his party suffered dearly for it. Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey likely paid some electoral price for the Korean and Vietnam Wars, respectively, in 1952 and 1968, even though they had little to do with starting or prosecuting them. Voters knew full well neither Herbert Hoover nor George H.W. Bush started the economic downturns that occurred on their watches but still held them accountable at the polls. To the extent Jersey Shore residents punished Woodrow Wilson in 1916 for the crushed local economy in the wake of several shark attacks, they surely knew it was a fish who was culpable, but they took their anger out on the president and his fellow Democrats.
If we have cause to be extra cautious about this year's election results, it's because we really don't know what the political fundamentals will be.
A number of other political observers seem particularly hesitant to place stock in polling matchups between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, which have shown a healthy and pretty stable 5-7 point advantage for Biden. In part, this is just good skepticism that polling half a year before an election will give you a reliable forecast. But also, many observers are still skittish from 2016, when Clinton's substantial polling lead largely evaporated at the last minute, and the Electoral College results deviated significantly from the popular vote.
But a contest in which an incumbent is seeking reelection is importantly different from an open-seat contest like 2016. There's little mystery about what kind of president Trump would be if elected. One could plausibly think in 2016 that the person who was campaigning in such an erratic and bombastic style might govern in a totally different one; no one is under such illusions today. Besides, to restate a point from above, voters credit or blame the incumbent for fundamental conditions of the country. This did not affect Trump in 2016 but will this year.
If we have reason to be extra cautious about this year's election results, it's because we really don't know what the political fundamentals will be like as November approaches. We could see a situation in which the COVID-19 virus declines over the summer, people are largely able to return to work and school in the fall, and the economy mostly reverts to its previously healthy position. Those are conditions that favor the president's reelection.
It's also quite plausible that the virus is still quite deadly throughout the fall, terrifying voters and keeping unemployment at levels higher than those during the Great Recession and possibly approaching those of the Great Depression. It is still also possible that the re-openings several states are enacting over the next few weeks will cause a deadly resurgence of the virus. Whether the states are "open" will matter little if many Americans are sick or dying, others are taking off work to care for them, others can't go to work because they don't want to put their kids in schools with high numbers of infections, others are fearful of contracting the disease themselves or transmitting it to vulnerable relatives, etc. An electorate that is unemployed, broke, fearful, sad, and anxious is not one generally inclined to return an incumbent to office, regardless of whether that incumbent created the problem.
I do want to echo what Dan Drezner wrote here, that election coverage is far too focused on Trump's and Republicans' tactical campaign choices right now. Trump will try to tie Biden to China? Sure, of course he will. As I wrote here, Trump's style is to accuse his opponents of basically everything, especially of those things in which he is implicated.
But this will have little impact on the election. For one thing, Trump can't be counted on to continue the same line of attack from the beginning of a sentence to the end of it, no less for the duration of a months-long presidential campaign. For another, even if such attacks are potentially damaging for Biden, they're just going to be massively outweighed by the fundamentals, for which, again, Trump will receive credit or blame.
Now, none of what I have written above means that Trump will definitely lose or win. There's plenty of uncertainty over that. But that uncertainty emanates from the particularly chaotic environment in which the election will be conducted.