Who will win the 2016 US presidential election? (update)

Surprisingly, party approval ratings don’t seem to have much predictive value for presidential races[1]. But what about the candidates’ own favorability ratings? There’s good news and bad news here for the enterprising forecaster.

The good news: I have it on excellent authority that “the better-liked candidate has won each election since 1992, when Gallup began measuring favorable ratings in the current format”[2]. That’s only 6 elections, so look out for the small data set. Nevertheless, net favorability ratings seem like a pretty good predictive tool in presidential elections.

The bad news is harder to explain. Mr. Trump’s net favorability rating is currently -20%, and it has been in this neighborhood since August 2015[3]. HRC’s net favorability rating is currently -15%. But it has been positive as recently as 13 months ago and has been falling steadily about 1 percentage point per month since early 2013. If that trend continues, and Mr. Trump’s net favorability remains constant, then Mr. Trump will have a slightly higher net favorability rating than HRC does at the time of the election.

That’s a pretty big “if.” What does the future really hold? The following factors could affect HRC’s net favorability ratings over the next few months:

  • Reconciliation with Bernie or further alienation from Bernie[5]
  • The email scandal heats up even more[6]
  • Bill does something crazy[7]
  • The business about HRC being an enabler for Bill’s philandering catches on
  • Old FoB and FoH, Terry McAuliffe’s legal problems get worse[8]
  • Something (else) from HRC’s time as SoS turns bad (a la Lybia or Syria)
  • A scandal (or, if you prefer, “scandal”) from the past (Whitewater, Vince Foster, Benghazi, the hits just don’t stop) reemerges

That’s a lot that can go wrong, and not much that can go right. That said, HRC will probably get a boost coming out of the convention, provided that she’s able to unify (more-or-less) her party. I’m sure I’m missing some stuff, but it looks a bit bleak on donkey-back.

In contrast, the following factors could affect Mr. Trump’s net favorability ratings over the next few months:

  • Tax returns: either not releasing them makes Mr. Trump look worse (somehow) or he does release them and they contain something that is unforgivable to those who were fine with the racism, sexism, ablism, and so on[9]
  • Mr. Trump manages to say something that goes beyond the pale with his supporters (and, most likely, about his supporters)
  • Mr. Trump manages to pull apart the Republican Party, by – let’s say – attacking popular members of the party who are more-or-less bystanders to the election[10]
  • A scandal (no scare quotes this time) from the past (beauty pageant grossness, Trump University, mafia ties, etc.) reemerges[11]
  • Further evidence that Mr. Trump doesn’t know much about presidenting[12]
  • An exogenous shock to the US economy (which is almost always a boon to the party that is out of power) occurs
  • A large-scale attack on US civilians or military personnel (which might help the guy who said he’d kill the families of terrorists[13] or might hurt the guy who probably still doesn’t know what the nuclear triad is[14]) occurs
  • Retired high-ranking US military officers have a public freakout about Mr. Trump[15]

As with HRC, it’s a little hard to think of things that will improve Mr. Trump’s approval ratings. However, as I said before, they have gone up, so there you go. I suspect this is a matter of Republican voters lining up behind their candidate, and that will only go on for so long. Mr. Trump’s gross (as opposed to net) favorability rating is 38%. At the moment, 25% of likely voters consider themselves to be Republicans, 41% if you include those leaning toward Republicans.

I have to admit that it’s damn hard to know what sort of probabilities to assign these events. It would have to be a team effort. Or just – I don’t know – take a guess or something. Yeah, that’s what I’ll probably do.

Note that both of these candidates are pretty damn unpopular, by recent historical standards, with the voters. President Obama consistently had a net favorability rating of 20-or-more percentage points during his run-up to winning the White House in 2008, and his net favorability numbers didn’t fall below zero until 2013, until to oscillate from about +3 to about -3 percentage points since then[16]. In fact, the only major political figures other than President Obama who have a positive net approval are Sen. Sanders, who’s up by about 10% [17] and Joe Biden, who’s up even more [18].

Of course, one must put these numbers in context, especially those concerning Biden. I might approve of both Chris, the local police officer, and Pat, the local high school English teacher because each does her job well. But would I continue to approve of Chris if he started teaching English too? I don’t know, but my approval of her work as a police officer is little guide here. Chris might be very good at giving out speeding tickets to out-of-towners but abysmal at getting teenagers excited about John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Likewise, I might approve of Mr. Biden in his role as Vice-President, but I might also turn on a dime if he were at the top of the national ticket, even though Mr. Biden has all the same virtues and vices. Something similar (though not identical) is true of Sen. Sanders. I might approve of him as the head of an insurgent movement within the Democratic Party but disapprove of him as someone who’s one election short of being the Leader of the Free World (as we used to say back in the old red-under-the-bed days).

tl;dr – HRC’s net favorability ratings will probably go up a bit after Bernie is ushered from the stage, while Mr. Trump’s seem unlikely to get much better. And there’s good reason to think that the candidate with the higher net favorability will win. Since HRC already has a lead on Mr. Trump, that’s further reason to think she’ll beat him in November. But all of this is strictly ceteris paribus. So many highly unpredictable factors (see above, ad nauseum) can cause these numbers to fluctuate that it would be recklessly imprudent, I believe, for forecasters to put much weight on them, at least at this stage of the game. And that’s the bad news.

[1] https://www.gjopen.com/comments/comments/243836

[2] http://www.gallup.com/poll/157292/obama-challenge-higher-likability-approval.aspx

[3] http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/donald-trump-favorable-rating

[4] http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/hillary-clinton-favorable-rating

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2016/05/24/can-bernie-sanders-actually-hurt-hillary-clinton-on-his-way-out/

[6] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/what-state-department-email-report-means-hillary-clinton-n580516

[7] http://www.courierpress.com/columnists/bills-tough-on-crime-approach-could-hurt-hillarys-chances-31000e4d-20f4-03e1-e053-0100007fd89b-376553881.html

[8] http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/24/politics/terry-mcauliffe-hillary-clinton-2016/

[9] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/432326/donald-trump-tax-returns-must-be-released

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2016/05/26/trumps-new-mexico-setback/

[11] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/04/donald-trump-scandals/474726/

[12] http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/04/04/trump-is-the-ignorant-candidate-ignorant-americans-deserve/

[13] http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/02/politics/donald-trump-terrorists-families/

[14] http://www.politico.com/blogs/live-from-the-venetian/2015/12/2015-gop-debate-rubio-trump-nuclear-triad-216828

[15] http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/07/20/retired-admirals-torpedo-president-trump.html

[16] http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/obama-favorable-rating

[17] http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/bernie-sanders-favorable-rating

[18] http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/pollster/joe-biden-favorable-rating

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