On November 8, the US votes for a president in an election that can best be described as bizarre. Both candidates are disliked and it is alleged that this makes the election difficult to forecast. Further complicating projections is the likelihood of a considerable presence of the “lying factor” in opinion polls. It is believed that some “not-insignificant” percentage of Whites (about 70% of the electorate) are too embarrassed to admit that they will vote for the openly racist and misogynist Donald Trump. In a race that is considered too close to call—for over three months now (see accompanying graphic)—the lying factor can make forecasts of a Hillary Clinton victory go wrong.
Adding to the possibility of a Trump win is the fear of the Brexit shadow. For long, it has been feared that the Brexit vote was a pointer to a world trend. Hence, the widespread fear that the anti-globalisation Brexit virus was contagious and would spread across the Atlantic. However, there is a major problem with this facile Brexit “correlation”. In a referendum, you vote for one issue; in elections, you vote for multiple issues embodied in each candidate. The probability of reaching the same “outcome” in a referendum as in a presidential election is very small.
In two previous articles, I had forecast that after accounting for male-female differences in voting behaviour and ethnic differences in propensities to vote, Clinton would win with close to a double-digit margin. But that was before FBI director James Comey decided to further complicate forecasts by (illegally?) re-opening the e-mail investigation against Clinton. It is popularly assumed that this will reduce Clinton’s advantage, if not eliminate it.
We examine the effects of these special circumstances on the US election.
The Comey factor: The accompanying graphic reports three spreads in the vote margins of several opinion polls—before the first debate (September 26), after the leak of Trump lewd tapes but before the final debate, and over the last six days. Comey has not had an effect on the Clinton vote-share (steady at 44-45%), but has increased Trump’s vote-share by 2 percentage points.
Accounting for lying: There is a widespread belief that there is a considerable amount of lying in the opinion polls, i.e., the polls are understating Trump’s strength because many voters are hesitant to admit that they would vote for him. Many believe that missing out on this lying factor got pollsters, and others, mistaken about Brexit, and Trump in the primaries. Note that the polls from the primary elections—the state-level contests to decide the party nominee—always had Trump performing about in line with the actual primary election results. So, the polls well captured his support—not so many ‘liars’ in the primaries. But the political establishment was deeply sceptical that he would not self-destruct or assumed that the other, more conventional Republican candidates would find a way to actually dominate him… and they were wrong. This contributed to the view that he has been underestimated. He was underestimated, but not by the polls, and not by “lying”.
Opinion polls ask questions relating to political views, in addition to a direct question about voting choices. The former, indirect questions, can be assessed for their revelation about “true” choices. Towards this end, 61 questions (e.g. favourability of candidate, ability to handle an international crisis, trustworthiness, etc) from five different pollsters were pooled. The striking result—the opinion questions had the same result as the presidential-poll questions, i.e., lying may not be a factor in this election. Clinton is ahead by 9 percentage points (ppt) for the larger question set, and ahead by 6 ppt for a set of five specific opinions.
A noteworthy feature about Trump’s popularity is that no matter what the criteria or question, he finds it difficult to cross 42% of the vote. Thus, the evidence overwhelmingly converges to this simple reality—he has a core support of only 35% of the electorate.
Non-college White voters: A large fraction of the core support for Trump is expected to come from the White, less-educated population. The latest data on educational attainment (US Census Bureau) indicates that there are 180 million individuals above the age of 18 with zero college education. Of these, 80 million are Whites; with a voter turnout of 60%, i.e., 48 million potentially disgruntled White voters (men and women). Assume 70% of these potentially disgruntled 48 million white voters are certain to vote for Trump (the reader can insert her own preference). Hence, Trump receives 34 million votes from this demographic, or a 20-million voter advantage.
However, this vote advantage only covers three-fourths of the 27-million vote advantage that Clinton receives from non-White voters. Even if educated Whites vote equally for Clinton and Trump, that still leaves Clinton with a 7-million (out of 135 million) voter advantage. That is a 5% victory margin with very extreme assumptions.
In no analysis do we get a Clinton victory of less than 5 percentage points, a result far away from the opinion polls. The reality will be known on November 8, so hold the brick-bats (or the compliments!) till then. If I am right, then it is useful to remember history for parallels.
There are only 13 presidential elections since 1828 where a candidate has received less than 41% of the vote. In five, third-party candidacy was a major factor affecting vote-shares of the two major parties. Since 1948, there have been three elections without significant third party presence. This list has many honourable politicians, and none said that he may not accept the result of the election. The three honourable losers: Goldwater, 1964 (38.7%); McGovern, 1972, (38.2%); Mondale, 1984 (40.8%).
A Trump vote of 43% will exceed the maximum of the above three honourable losers, and is close to the upper bound that he is likely to obtain. It would also put him ahead of a kinder, gentler Mondale. The third party candidates are unlikely to reach double-digits, say 7 %. This leaves the prediction of 50% for Clinton.
There is a lot of international stake in this election. If it turns out as predicted, it will likely provide a much needed boost to those who believe in trade, open borders, and the traditional “American way”. The anti-trade, anti-immigration, wave around the Western world will at least be halted, if not reversed, with a large Clinton victory. The recent High Court judgment in England (“Parliament must vote on Brexit”) has already provided the basis for the beginning of the retreat of anti-globalisation forces.
The author is contributing editor, The Financial Express, and senior India, analyst at the Observatory Group, a New York-based macro policy advisory group. Views are personal . Some of his election research can be found on ssbhalla.org Twitter: @surjitbhalla