With much of the country in lockdown, millions of Americans out of work, and Wall Street crashes evoking memories of the Great Depression, it may seem foolish to predict a comfortable reelection for President Donald Trump.
But that is what my prediction model forecasts: It gives Trump a 91% chance of beating the all-but-certain Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump would get 362 electoral votes, Biden 176. (Trump would also beat Sen. Bernie Sanders, who dropped out last week, with 390 electoral votes to the Vermonter’s 148.)
For more than 100 years, the model has selected the winner of almost all presidential campaigns, including Trump’s victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Primary Model is a statistical algorithm that uses presidential primaries as the key predictor of the general election. In short, Trump is favored to win because of his superior primary performance and the tendency of the electoral pendulum to hold steady after one term in the Oval Office. On the off chance of a mismatch between electoral and popular votes, as happened in 2016, the forecast for 2020 targets the vote of the Electoral College (assuming a majority of electors for one nominee).
Winning primaries, especially the early ones, has proved to be a powerful leading indicator of victory in November. Trump, who had some token opposition, handily won the Republican primary in New Hampshire while Biden came in fifth on the Democratic side. Biden had a strong comeback in South Carolina but a split verdict in the first two contests, which augurs poorly for November.
What also favors Trump is the operation of the electoral pendulum of presidential elections. Just consider as an illustration how that pendulum has worked since 1960: When the party in the White House was in its first term, it won reelection six out of seven times, meaning the electoral pendulum generally stayed put. The exception is President Jimmy Carter losing to GOP challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980. On the other hand, when a party had held the White House for two terms or more, it lost seven out of eight times. Meaning the electoral pendulum generally swings to the challenging party on those occasions. The exception in that period came in 1988: President George H.W. Bush extended the GOP hold of the White House after two Reagan terms. All of this adds up to powerful odds in favor of someone like Trump seeking reelection after one term.
Now add the knock-out punch: primary performance. It may be surprising to learn that presidential primaries have been around since 1912. That year, President William Howard Taft was challenged in Republican primaries, not just by a token opponent, but by a former president, Theodore Roosevelt. Taft badly lost to TR in the GOP primaries but was handed the nomination nonetheless at the party’s national convention. Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Woodrow Wilson won his party’s primary battle, was awarded his party’s nomination, and went on to win the general election. A pattern was set: the party nominee with the stronger primary performance defeats the nominee with the weaker primary performance. It has held up for more than 100 years.
As of now, there is no sign of a crack in Trump support in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. To the contrary, his job approval rating ticked up to 49% in a Gallup poll, the highest of his tenure in the White House in surveys by that organization. On the issue of handling the pandemic, Trump got an approval of 60%. What’s more, the “war” against this crisis is casting Trump as a wartime president, which may help his reelection prospects as it has done with other wartime presidents.
Helmut Norpoth is a professor of political science at Stony Brook University. His most recent book is “Unsurpassed: The Popular Appeal of Franklin Roosevelt.”