• Seth Masket

Four things that could still affect the presidential race but probably won't


Source: FiveThirtyEight

If there's anything that's defined the 2020 presidential race so far it's stability. No matter what issues and events the world throws at it -- and it's thrown plenty -- the polls barely budge. Yes, the overall polling averages have narrowed slightly during September, but Biden continues to have an edge in the battleground states that just hasn't shifted much.


But what could still affect the race? Here are a few different options:


The Economy

To the extent that national polls have tightened, this is likely due to the improving economy. To be clear, the economy is still in a difficult situation. Gross domestic product shrank massively in the second quarter. However, it appears likely to be growing in the third quarter, and unemployment, which peaked near 15% in July, shrank substantially to 8% in August. Evidence from previous elections suggests that voters tend to reward improvements in the economy even if the overall economic situation remains poor, as was the case during the Great Depression.

The economy, interestingly, is one of the few areas where Trump has held a polling advantage over Biden, with more Americans saying they trust Trump on improving the economic situation. Recent polls suggest that advantage is slipping, and that Biden and Trump are trusted equally on the issue. However, should the economy continue to improve, this will likely work to Trump’s advantage, marginally.

A Vaccine

Another issue that could affect the race would be the introduction of a Covid vaccine. Trump has recently promised that hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine will be available by late October, shortly before the election. These claims are in sharp contradiction to the statements by the director of the Centers for Disease Control, who notes that vaccines are still in development, haven’t yet been shown to be safe and effective, and would require substantially more time to produce in large quantities. Yet Trump clearly sees the introduction of a vaccine, or at least the appearance of one, as crucial to his reelection efforts.

My impression is that Trump claiming a vaccine exists within the next month is unlikely to substantially change the election. More than likely, he would not have the backing of the leading scientists within the CDC and other government agencies, nor the backing of academic researchers or leaders of the pharmaceutical community. Nor would most people be able to obtain a vaccine. What’s more, Trump has spent a great deal of time undermining public faith in government experts on this issue, to the point that his announcement of a vaccine would likely be met in a partisan way by a very skeptical public.


The Debates

We're just a week away from the first presidential debate. It is possible that this could affect voters’ assessments of the candidates. The history of presidential debates is mixed on this matter. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was widely seen as having substantially beaten Trump in all three debates, and she received significant boosts in public polling following those. However, those boosts proved short-lived. What’s more, that contest was unlike this one, in that most Americans hadn’t seen either candidate in debates before. By contrast, voters are well familiar with Trump and Biden, and judging from the stability of the race thus far, it’s unlikely that there will be much new information at these debates or that such information would really change voters’ views.

Incumbent presidents often underperform in their first reelection debate, as George W. Bush did in 2004 and Barack Obama did in 2012. Judging from Trump’s recent performance at an ABC News Town Hall, he appears to be uncomfortable with direct questioning from voters and reporters (most incumbent presidents are shielded from direct criticism), while Biden has recently emerged from a year of debates with fellow Democratic candidates. Trump is also, by many reports, loathe to prep for debates. However, the chances that either Trump or Biden deliver debate performances that defy voters’ expectations are pretty low, and even if they did, any shift in the polls is likely to be short lived.


The Supreme Court Nomination

A final matter which could affect the race is last week's passing of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It'll be at least a few more days before we know if this had an effect on the race. This does have the potential to change this contest, although in which direction is difficult to say.


Each of Trump’s Court nominations so far have been highly dramatic and norm-shattering events. This one promises to be no different. Traditionally, Supreme Court nominations have been considered better drivers of Republican voter turnout than Democratic voter turnout – this was part of the reason Republicans in the Senate held open the Supreme Court seat in 2016 – but that’s not obviously true today. The Kavanaugh confirmation fight was likely a net benefit to Democratic turnout efforts in 2018. Also, Ginsburg was a popular icon on the political left, and her replacement by a conservative justice puts a lot of longstanding Democratic accomplishments, including legal abortion and the Affordable Care Act, in jeopardy.


What this nomination fight does have the power to do is shift the focus of the election away from the coronavirus, on which Trump is very unpopular, to an area where he is somewhat more competitive. If the presidential election is very close and contested and ends up in court, as the 2000 presidential election did, Trump would be on better legal footing with his third nominee on the Supreme Court, giving conservatives a 6-3 majority there. Of course, it will be difficult to steer voters’ attention away from the virus that has affected so many of their lives in very direct and personal ways, but this nomination will surely capture a great deal of attention, and will be at the fore of many voters’ minds.


In sum, I think we're looking at a bunch of game-samers, to borrow Lynn Vavreck's term. Combine that with the effect that people are already voting, and it really blunts the idea that the overall state of the race is going to be altered.

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