Tuesday, November 10, 2020

BTRTN: Post-Election Reflections...and How We Did With Our Predictions

Tom has caught up on his sleep sufficiently to offer some post-election thoughts and a report card on our BTRTN predictions.

There are two natural questions to address after any major election.  One is to try to understand how and why the winners won.  And the second is to see how the actual results compared to pre-election expectations, as set traditionally by polls, and more recently by election forecasters who aggregate polls and build prediction models, including BTRTN.

The first question is worthy of deep analysis, and it is a bit too early for that.  But we will give some initial reflections on the election results, what happened and what they mean.  And for the second question, we offer our “report card.”  Even though a number of races have yet to be called, we think we have enough to paint a general picture of how we did.

The basic facts are clear, if not the precise final results:  Joe Biden won the presidency; the Republicans held on to the Senate, subject to a challenge in Georgia in January, the Democrats held the House, albeit losing at least five net seats, and the GOP flipped one governorship.

For the purposes of what follows, we will assume, with respect to the uncalled races, that Biden will win Georgia and Arizona, while Trump will win Alaska and North Carolina, and the Senate races in Alaska and North Carolina will go to the GOP.  We will make no assumptions about the remaining 21 House races, except that the Democrats will indeed retain the majority, even though they are two seats short of control right now, at 216 called seats (versus 198 for the GOP).

 

WHAT HAPPENED?

Perhaps the most interesting factoid of the entire election is that of the roughly 175 Republican incumbents that ran for re-election in 2020, only three were voted out of office:  Senator Corey Gardner of Colorado, Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, and President Donald J. Trump.  Not a single Republican member of the House of Representatives lost a House seat (the Democrats have flipped three seats so far, but in each the GOP incumbent had retired), and not a single GOP Governor was voted out of office.  This election was hardly a repudiation of the Republican Party, which has been completely recast as the party of Trump.  But it was a repudiation of Trump himself.

Joe Biden won the presidency, and while it was a close race, the final tallies will not be that close.  He will win the popular vote by five million votes, and compile a 306-214 win in the Electoral College.  While it is true that he won four states by a point or less, that is likely to be the norm in any race of this polarized era that does not feature a transforming candidate (such as Barack Obama).  It sure felt closer, due to the agonizingly slow motion count of the mail-in ballots in multiple states, which gave the illusion of a “comeback.”  But this was not a 270-268 nail biter.

Biden ended up flipping five states from 2016.  These included the famous troika of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Trump won by a combined 78,000 votes in 2016, flipping three states the Democrats had taken since 1992.  Biden also flipped Arizona and Georgia.  It is worth noting that Hillary Clinton outperformed Barack Obama in only three states, and two of them were Arizona and Georgia.  Clearly they were on a trend to turn blue at some point, and this appears to be the year.  The third state?  Texas.  Romney won Texas by +16 in 2012; Trump won it by +9 in 2016; and now Trump won it by +6 in 2020.  Those 38 electoral votes will certainly be in play again in 2024.

There will be much deep analysis of this election, when valid post-election research is done.  (I urge caution in putting too much stock in “exit polls,” which have a far more sordid history than polling itself, and given all the voting process dynamics in play in 2020, I have less confidence in them than ever.)

But I will put forward a few simple propositions.

The first relates to Trump defectors.  In the early months after his inauguration in January, 2017, Donald Trump lost a few points in his approval rating, dropping from 47% down into the low 40% range.  And he never recovered – not only did he become the first president to never achieve an “above water” (50%+) approval rating, but he never got back to 47%.  He seemed totally locked in the 43% range, and as we pointed out time and again, no incumbent has ever won reelection with such a low rating.  (George W. Bush pulled it off with a 48% rating in 2004, materially above Trump).  “Trumpgret” set in with a crucial sliver of Trump’s 2016 electoral support – and that modest defection essentially prevented Trump from pulling off another “inside straight” win in 2020.  Instead of winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by 78,000 votes, he lost them by over 200,000.

And the second relates to Trump supporters.  The question I have been getting more than any other this past week is: how could almost half of America – 70 million and counting -- vote for Trump when his fingerprints are all over the scene of the crime of the COVID deaths of more than 240,000 Americans?  Frankly, I do not think the answer is terribly complicated.  Trump has made it clear to his followers that he will absolutely make their jobs, their ability to earn an honest wage, his first – even his only – priority.  His message, when you scrape away all the histrionics?  “I will not let COVID-19 get in the way of your job – no lockdowns on my watch.  I will not let the environmental threat get in the way – I will scrap those costly green regulations.  I will not let undocumented immigrants get in the way – I will build a wall so they will not take your jobs.  I will bring back manufacturing jobs.  I will cut your taxes.”  It’s the economy, stupid…right?  Trump’s followers believe in his economic program, including his tax cuts, and they also favor the judges he appoints, his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and apparent alignment with their value system, in word if not in deed.  They are willing to overlook his many character flaws because, to them, he is so clearly on their side, fighting for them.  They don’t care about character flaws, lies, Constitutional niceties...or Joe Biden.  It’s not that complicated.

With respect to COVID, think of it this way.  Say an average town in the US has 20,000 residents.  Such a town would have had about 600 COVID cases by now (3%, the national average), and six residents would have died from the scourge (1% of the 600).  Such a town might actually conclude that they would rather stay open for business and risk losing a few more lives, than locking down, sacrificing thousands of jobs.  That is how Donald Trump portrayed the choice, when you get right down to it.  The tragedy is, it’s a false choice -- if he just told them that they could keep their local businesses open if they wore masks and practiced social distancing, they could have had their jobs and virtually eliminated loss of life.  That will be Joe Biden’s plan.  But the Trump voter listens only to Trump, so they bought into the false choice he presented. 

Biden won because he wasn’t Trump, and also won because he was also not Hillary Clinton.  He ran as Joe Biden, an authentic character, borne of Main Street, Scranton, Pa., a human being who knows pain, even tragedy, makes mistakes (call them gaffes, if you must), overcame a stutter and embraces old-school political values like working across the aisle and the incremental change that the Senate of the United States embodies.  David Axelrod said that in the 2008 campaign, they parked Joe Biden in the Midwest.  In some sense, that is actually where they found him, where he always was on the political map, and where he has been running since the day he first announced his candidacy for the presidency back in 1987.  But after two failed runs in 1988 and 2008, this time, America was looking for him.

Biden did not have Obama’s magical touch, though, and so the Democrats failed in their bid to gain control of the Senate, picking up only one net seat instead of the three they needed, losing Alabama as expected, but flipping Colorado (John Hickenlooper ejecting Gardner) and Arizona (Mark Kelly defeating McSally, who has lost both Senate seats in Arizona in two short years).  But they lost two other flips, in Maine and North Carolina, the latter perhaps due to Cal Cunningham’s sexting scandal, which diminished his solid lead, as well as four other races that qualified as toss-ups in Iowa, Kansas, Montana and South Carolina.

But Democrats did force two run-off elections in Georgia, and they will certainly have a chance in both come January 5, 2021.  In both elections, they won 48% of the vote (in the special election, that equaled the GOP); they have credible candidates; this is now a blue state with the Biden win; and the entire Democratic volunteer apparatus and fundraising machine will descend on the state in short order.  The Dems will be underdogs, but not by much.

The only real shocker was in the House, where the Dems have already lost a net of five seats and could lose a few more as the final 21 races are finalized in the coming days and weeks.  They will emerge with a thinner majority, surely the strongest sign that the GOP message – Trump’s message – has resonance.  It remains to be seen whether the GOP prowess in gerrymandering can continue to offset the demographic gains the Democrats inexorably will continue to make.

The net of all this is that while Trump will be gone, his message – his focus on the economy and jobs over all else – will remain.  Whether this will resonate without him – and with those ominous demographics moving in the Democrat’s direction – remains to be seen.  It will be Joe Biden’s challenge, having won back the Rust Belt, to deliver on the implicit message that he has a long-term economic solution for them, beyond “simply” solving COVID and taxing the rich.

Also worth noting is that, as you read this, Donald Trump is making his final set of challenges to American institutions.  His fraud charge was a direct test of our electoral system, and our gloriously local election apparatus appears to have passed in a heartwarming civics lesson.  Americans of all political stripes appear to have pulled off a fair election under arduous conditions.  Now we’ll see if the courts step up and do their role in affirming that effort with 9-0 verdicts on fraud cases put before them.  We have to see if the GOP ultimately tells Trump it is time to go, and if our police can keep the peace if needed.  If we meet all those challenges, we will be in a better place than if Biden had sailed to a 413-125 landslide over Trump.  Let’s show Trump who is really in charge: the American voter.

 

HOW DID WE DO?

We sure got the headline wrong:  “Biden Wins and Dems Achieve a Trifecta.”  We got the Biden part right, but there was no trifecta, at least for now.

But it was actually a pretty good performance overall.  I’d give us an A for the presidential race and the Governors, a B for the Senate, and a D for the House.  Overall, in GPA terms, that averages out to a B, and that feels about right.

·        In the presidential race, we got the Biden win right, and correctly predicted 48 out of 50 states, and 53 out of 56 entities including DC and the Maine and Nebraska districts.  We were wrong only in Florida (a bad switch we made just before posting our final predictions) and North Carolina.  In both states, the polls had Biden up by a point or two, and instead Trump won by narrow margins. 

·        In the Senate, we made the right call in 33 out of 35 races, but the two misses, in Maine and North Carolina, were enough to keep the Democrats from taking control of the Senate, which we had predicted.  Our favorite accurate prediction was that Georgia’s regular election would join the special one in a runoff in January.  That, of course, could redeem our “control” miss, since if the Democrats win both, they will indeed control the Senate.  We will be back on January 4, 2021 with those predictions. 

·        We were correct on all 11 Governor races. 

·        But the House was a disaster.  Sure the Democrats kept control of the House, as we predicted, but instead of gaining +18 seats, as predicted, they have lost a net of -5 so far, and will lose a few more when all is said and done.  We have no good explanation for this: the generic ballot has a very long history of being an extremely accurate weathervane for the House, but this time it was clearly not.  How the Dems led in the generic ballot by +8.3 points and lost seats is a mystery to be analyzed in great depth, and we will have to do some retooling of our models.

I think we did a reasonable job preparing readers for a range of outcomes in the presidential race.  With 7 swing states totaling 133 electoral votes, we made clear that while Joe Biden would win, his margin could be anywhere from a 413-125 landslide to a 280-258 squeaker.  It was closer to the latter, for sure, but well along the range.

All in all, the pollsters have some explaining to do.  In looking at the presidential swing states, you can see (in the chart below) that they were particularly bad in the Midwest, apart from Minnesota.  In essence, they were right in that Biden won the states where he was ahead (Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), and lost the ones where he was behind (Ohio and Iowa).  But the winning margins were much closer than expected, and the losing margins much greater.  Note that the polling was much better in the Sun Belt and the West, but still tended to overstate Biden’s strength by just a bit. 

 

Swing State Poll Avg

Actual Margin

Actual Versus Polls

Different Outcome

BTRTN Call

Right/Wrong

Minnesota

Biden + 7

Biden + 8

1

No

Biden

Right

Georgia

Biden + 1

Biden + 0

-1

No

Biden

Right

Nevada

Biden + 3

Biden + 2

-1

No

Biden

Right

Arizona

Biden + 3

Biden + 1

-2

No

Biden

Right

Texas

Trump + 3

Trump + 6

-3

No

Trump

Right

North Carolina

Biden + 2

Trump + 1

-3

Yes

Trump

Wrong

Pennsylvania

Biden + 5

Biden + 1

-4

No

Biden

Right

Florida

Biden + 2

Trump + 3

-5

Yes

Trump

Wrong

Michigan

Biden + 8

Biden + 3

-5

No

Biden

Right

Iowa

Trump + 1

Trump + 8

-7

No

Trump

Right

Wisconsin

Biden + 8

Biden + 1

-7

No

Biden

Right

Ohio

Even

Trump + 8

-8

No

Trump

Right











Overall, the polls were off a bit, but not enough to effect the ultimate outcome.  As said, based largely on the polls, we were right in calling 10 of these 12 contested states, five of which were tossups.

One memento (below) from Election Night…my “cheat sheet” tracking the erosion of Trump’s lead in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as the night wore on.  I turned these into extrapolation spreadsheet models on the morning of November 4, models that gave me great comfort in the ensuing days.












And now on to Georgia.


 

 

2 comments:

  1. It would be interesting to know the range of dates in the field of the surveys. Once again, J. Ann Selzer's Iowa polling, put up the Sunday before the election, came pretty close to the final result.

    I'm wondering if the "not Trump" voters thought about things a little more, and decided they couldn't vote for Trump, but didn't want Biden to have a trifecta. Biden led Colorado's vote, with Hickenlooper about 4% behind, and the House votes returned 4 D and 2 R incumbents at close to the same margins they had in 2018, plus a new R who had beaten an incumbent in the primary winning by 5.5% -- about the same ratio as the Republican to Democratic registration gap in that district.

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