Who will win the 2016 U.S. presidential election and why?

Which party – Democrat or Republican? Which nominees are the most likely to win their party’s nomination? How much will the gender or “race” of candidates influence the 2016 election?

Nobody knows the answer to this question. It’s far too early – 29 months in advance – to know who will win. Even 4 months before, it’s not a given. All information this far in advance – polling data, candidate perceptions, party brands, the dominant issues – has very little autocorrelation this far out.

In fact, if you look at most POTUS elections, polling data 29 months beforehand has been, if anything, anticorrelated with the result on Election Day. This time in 2010, Obama trailed Romney, Gingrich and Huckabee – according to a poll conducted by a Dem-aligned polling firm (Public Policy Polling). In July ’06, John McCain led by 10 pts over every Democrat polled, and Hillary led the Dem field. ’02 favored Bush, bucking the trend. In ’98, Democrats had every reason to be heavily favored – a roaring economy, a heir apparent to Clinton, and an shocking victory in the midterms. In ’94, well, Clinton looked not so good. In ’90, Bush 41 looked unbeatable with ~65% approval ratings (and they continued to climb to 89% in 1991). If you’d asked someone in the summer of 1990 who was going to win, they’d have asked you in return: who the heck would run against him? Virtually all prominent Democrats declined to challenge him: Mario Cuomo, Sam Nunn, Jerry Brown until entering very late. In ’86, Reagan looked pretty good, but all of that changed a few months later with Iran Contra and Ollie North.

About Hillary specifically: Hillary Clinton’s “lock” on the nomination and subsequent victory is an extreme historical abberation, and she knows this. And with 24 months to go till the conventions, there is plenty of time for regression to the mean. Being a front-runner sucks. Several swords of Damocles dangle above her. Her foes – whether it’s the media or the opposing party – have only one target to pick apart and scrutinize endlessly. To survive in competitive politics, it helps being part of a herd – you just have to avoid being the slow zebra. But Hillary is in an even worse strategic position. She is the only zebra in the quaint Serengeti of Democratic politics. How do you win in that situation? Even if you disagree with the analogy – say, she’s really more of a cheetah, or an elephant, hippo, whatever, or not even part of a biome / food web – how do you weather the withering spotlight for that long and retain, let alone build, political capital?

Another big aspect: What will the issues be in 2016? Political coalitions and made and unmade depending on shifts in public priority / concern. Consider 2000 and 2002. The big issues in the 2000 election were education, the budget surplus, drilling in Alaska, and a few other “social issue” things. 24 months later, everything changed. 2002 was mostly about foreign policy and going to war. This caused non-trivial shifts in the coalitions of both parties. During the 90s Democrats had gained ample credibility as stewards of the economy, but that became less relevant during the terrorism debate. Meanwhile, Republicans had an opportunity to reclaim the “moral high ground” in swing voters’ minds, after previous missteps with trying to impeach Clinton. The same could occur in the next two years, such that the main issues in people’s minds do not line up with Hillary’s political strengths.

Bottom line: politics is very volatile. Data is small, and patterns change significantly over time. If it weren’t, then it wouldn’t be as interesting and worthy of long Quora posts.

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