Is 2016 a 50-50 Proposition?

Pundits and political scientists agree that, if the 2016 presidential election were today, we'd have a much better idea who would win.


Pundits and political scientists agree that, if the 2016 presidential election were today, we’d have a much better idea who would win. A spate of articles assessing the likely outcome of an election that will be held in twenty short months have hit the pike. They’re interesting food for discussion but not much else.

Alex Roarty, writing for National Journal (“PREDICTIVE INTELLIGENCE: Think Hillary Clinton is likely to win? Think again.“):

Ask around: Washington is pretty certain Hillary Clinton is the favorite to win the White House. Democrats have a natural turnout advantage in presidential years, seasoned political operatives reason. Five of the past six popular-vote tallies have gone to the Democratic candidate. And early polls that show Clinton sporting a big lead, especially among women, have strategists wondering how the Republican nominee could ever catch up.

But outside of the capital, from Georgia to New York to California, there’s another set of political professionals watching this race: academics and model-makers. And based on the data they track, Democrats have little reason to be so bullish about Clinton’s chances.

“Viewing her as a prohibitive favorite at this point is misplaced, definitely,” says Alan Abramowitz.

Abramowitz isn’t a Republican pollster or a professional Clinton-hater. He’s a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. And he and his ilk—the wonky academics who research in anonymity while pundits predict races on TV—offer the most compelling case for reconsidering Clinton as the likely winner.

“I would feel comfortable saying that it’s a 50-50 race right now,” says Drew Linzer, a political scientist who is an independent analyst in Berkeley, California. “But I don’t think anyone would be wise going far past 60-40 in either direction.”

Veteran political operatives regard these predictions as nothing more than musings from the Ivory Tower. But political scientists who specialize in presidential-race forecasts aren’t relying on their guts. They’ve built statistical models that draw on the history of modern presidential campaigns (since Harry Truman’s reelection in 1948) to determine with startling accuracy the outcome of the next White House contest.

The best-known forecasting tool of the bunch—and one that plainly spells out Clinton’s looming trouble—is Abramowitz’s “Time for Change” model. He first built it before George H.W. Bush’s 1988 election, and he has used it to predict the winner of the popular vote in the seven White House races since. (The model predicted that Al Gore would win the presidency in 2000, when he became the first person since Grover Cleveland to earn the majority of the popular vote nationally but lose the Electoral College.)

The model uses just three variables to determine the winner: the incumbent’s approval rating, economic growth in the second quarter of the election year, and the number of terms the candidate’s party has held the White House. Official forecasts aren’t made until the summer before the presidential election. But reasonable estimates rooted in current political and economic conditions demonstrate Clinton’s vulnerability.

There’s more along these lines but the upshot is that, if Abramowitz’s model is right, Hillary is in trouble. It would take a significant uptick in economic performance and Obama’s approval ratings to move her above the 50 percent line. (This presumes that there are no significant third party spoiler candidates which, like all of this, it’s way too soon to know.)

GW political scientist John Sides, writing at Monkey Cage (“Could Obama’s liberalism hurt Hillary Clinton in 2016?“) adds:

One of the important challenges she faces is simple history: it has been difficult for a political party to hold the White House for more than two terms.  The political scientist Alan Abramowitz, whose presidential election forecasting model explicitly includes this tendency, calls it the  “time for a change” factor.

Now, new research offers an explanation for why a party’s control of the White House so frequently ends after eight years.  In short, it’s about policy.  And this poses a challenge for Clinton because the Obama administration’s key policy achievements are distinctly out of step with the trend in public opinion. If voters in 2016 are suffering from “Obama fatigue,” his administration’s liberal policies could be one reason.

The research is by University of Texas political scientist Christopher Wlezien. Drawing on one of his earlier studies, he first shows that the public tends to move in the opposite ideological direction as the incumbent in the White House.  Under Republican presidents, public opinion tends to shift in the liberal direction.  Under Democratic presidents, it tends to shift in the conservative direction.

As of 2012, public opinion was as conservative as it had been in decades, as Larry Bartels previously noted on this blog.  This is based on the political scientist James Stimson’s compilation of hundreds of survey questions that, taken together, capture the ideological “mood” of the country.

He provides several charts and graphs to illustrate the trends and concludes,

Wlezien finds that this policymaking is correlated with presidential elections. When the ideological direction of policymaking deviates widely from the historical average, or from what we would expect based on the public’s ideological mood, the incumbent party loses vote share. And once policymaking is taken into account, the simple impact of serving one vs. two terms in the White House — the “time for a change” factor — has a much smaller impact.

And so the challenge for Clinton is clear. Voters appear to punish the president’s party for pushing policy in one direction while public opinion is heading in the opposite direction. And this is exactly what has happened under Obama.

Likewise, stats guru Nate Silver, at his 538 Politics site, calls the race a “toss-up.”

The truth is that a general election win by Clinton — she’s very likely to become the Democratic nominee — is roughly a 50/50 proposition. And we’re not likely to learn a lot over the rest of 2015 to change that.

His analysis is lengthy and worth reading in its entirely but focuses on similar facts: the incumbent’s approval ratings, the state of the economy, and demographic trends coupled with the institution of the Electoral College. More interesting is his argument that it essentially doesn’t matter who the Republicans run against her.

[T]he candidates matter less in U.S. presidential elections than in just about any other type of electoral contest. The reason is that the arduous, 50-state nomination process (and the “invisible primary” before it) screens out most candidates who would be huge liabilities to their party. An underqualified or unvetted or politically extreme or profoundly unpopular candidate might win one primary or caucus, but voters and the political parties will move to stop him in his tracks after that, as Republicans did to Newt Gingrich in 2012.

Consider the three measurable factors that our U.S. Senate model uses to evaluate candidates. One of them is their qualifications on a 4-point scale as measured by their highest elected office, where the highest rating goes to those candidates previously elected as governors or senators. Almost all presidential candidates — including Hillary Clinton and the viable Republican candidates this cycle — rate as extremely well qualified by that standard.

Another factor is fundraising, which is important unto itself, but also as a proxy for a candidate’s organizational strength. We’re not breaking any news here, but Clinton and the Republican nominee are going to raise oodles of money — probably in excess of $1 billion each, beyond whatObama and Mitt Romney did in 2012. That’s well past the point of diminishing returns. The candidates may struggle to make good use of all the money they’ve raised, in fact, and if one brings in 10 or 20 percent more than the other, it’s not likely to matter very much at the margin.

The third factor is a candidate’s ideology as measured on a left-right scale. “Extreme” candidates (like Barry Goldwater) suffer an electoral penalty, while moderate ones (like Dwight Eisenhower) usually perform well.

But nominees like Goldwater (or George McGovern) are rare. So are those like Eisenhower, for that matter. Usually a party nominates a candidatecloser to the median of its voters and elected officials.

That’s part of why Clinton is such a safe bet to be the Democratic nominee. Her political positions are essentially those of a “generic Democrat.” She’s neither a true centrist, nor extremely far to the left, so she’s not especially vulnerable to a challenge from either flank of her party.

Republicans have a choice between more moderate and more conservative candidates. Jeb Bush’s positions might be just moderate enough to give Republicans a slight advantage next November, other factors held constant, while Scott Walker’s might be conservative enough that they could harm Republicans.

But the positions of the Republican candidates are likely to converge toward one another. Bush, in the primaries, will seek to prove his conservative credentials, while Walker, should he become the frontrunner after the first few primaries and caucuses, will work to reassure GOP elites that he’s an “electable” alternative and not the next Goldwater. By next November, the difference might boil down to the equivalent of couple of percentage points on the general-election ballot. It could matter in an a close election, but not one where the fundamentals have shifted strongly to one party by then.

Silver concludes:

Break-even favorability ratings don’t look so bad, however, when compared to some of the alternatives. Vice President Biden’s are net-negative, for instance. On the Republican side, Walker and Marco Rubio aren’t all that well-known yet, but their ratings are also about break-even. Chris Christie’s are terrible (28 percent favorable, 46 percent unfavorable). Jeb Bush’s are quite poor too. His unfavorable rating is already as high as Clinton’s, 45 percent, but his favorable rating is just 31 percent.7

Clinton is so well-known, in fact, that it’s almost as if voters are dispensing with all the formalities and evaluating her as they might when she’s on the ballot next November. About half of them would like to see her become president and about half of them wouldn’t. Get ready for an extremely competitive election.

In a New York magazine piece titled “How ‘Negative Partisanship’ Has Transformed American Politics,” Jonathan Chait contends all of this analysis is based on an outdated model.

The trouble is that almost all those cases are drawn from a historic period that is very different from the current one. During the 20th century, the two parties were extremely heterogeneous. The Republican Party had a moderate wing that dominated its presidential elections for most of the postwar years until Ronald Reagan. Democrats had a powerful southern conservative wing. In that environment, the old folk wisdom, “Vote the man, not the party,” made a great deal of sense. In that environment, large chunks of the electorate swung easily from one party to the other depending on transient factors, like the current state of peace and prosperity, rather than deeper values.

The splitting of American politics into two coherent ideological parties with very little programmatic overlap changes things. Voters who are fundamentally attached to one party or the other are not going to abandon their team merely because their party has held onto office for too many terms, or because the other party’s president is presiding over a nice recovery. Those factors are not meaningless because some swing voters do still exist. And performance can change voter perceptions to a degree; a deep recession might make some Democrats doubt their party’s economic program. But these temporal effects are muted.

Emory political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster have a new paper, not yet available online, exploring the nature of the new polarization. The paper is filled with interesting findings, but the major one is an attempt to resolve a paradox. Measured by self-identification, partisanship is actually declining — growing numbers of Americans describe themselves as “independent” rather than loyal to one of the parties. But measured by actual voting behavior, the opposite is happening: Straight ticket voting continues to grow. This matches what operatives like Dan Pfeiffer have seen, and what Karl Rove saw a decade before — the swing voter had nearly vanished.

Lots of charts and graphs follow and then Chait offers:

Abramowitz and Webster don’t extend their analysis to presidential forecasting. But their notion of negative partisanship would certainly explain how the Democrats might hold a relatively solid advantage in presidential elections despite relatively modest approval ratings. Obama’s approval rating now is just about the same point it was in the summer of 2012. His approval did rise by a couple points in the final weeks of the campaign. (Likewise, George W. Bush’s approval did the same in 2004.) The theory of negative partisanship might imply that an election forced the president’s disappointed partisans to take a side, and that having a president with an approval rating in the high 40s is a much stronger position today than it was several decades ago.

It also suggests that the electorate is much less fluid than it used to be, and is more easily understood as hardened blocs defined by shared cultural identity (or shared mutual cultural antipathy). To be sure, as noted before, it is possible for the Democratic bloc to shrink and the Republican bloc to grow. Analysts like John Judis have suggested that this is happening — that white voters are moving toward the GOP. (Andrew Prokop endorses Judis’s argument that Democrats’ “support among working- and middle-class white voters may be declining more quickly than its support among racial minorities is growing.”)

But the polling evidence suggests this is not the case. White support for the Democrats did drop slightly from 2008 to 2012 — accounting for Obama’s narrower margin of victory — but it did not drop from 2012 to 2014. What changed from 2012 to 2014 was which parts of the electorate showed up to vote, not the electorate’s underlying loyalties.

More charts and analysis and then the bottom line:

In this trench-warfare atmosphere, the fact that the bloc of voters loyal to the Democrats is growing steadily would seem to loom large. It is surely true that eventually, the alignment of the two parties will change, either because the Republicans move to the center or the Democrats move away from it. It is also probably true that the Democratic advantage is narrow enough that a major short-term event, like a recession or a huge scandal, could disrupt it. But the understandable reliance on the models of the past, and the assumption that nothing ever changes, may be missing the fact that something very important has.

One thing that’s worth noting here is that the credible analysts are debating whether it’s Clinton’s race to lose or whether it’s a toss-up; nobody is arguing that the Republican candidate, whomever he might be, is the favorite.

Chait’s premise, that the transformation of the two parties into programmatic ones rather than big-tent, catch-all parties (one that Dave Schuler argued frequently on the late, lamented OTB Radio program) makes voters less fluid strikes me as reasonable. And the notion that swing voters, to the extent they still truly exist in large numbers, are really going to cast their ballot on the basis that, “Hey, the Democrats have had the White House for eight years, might as well give the Republicans a shot!” is implausible. To the extent that voters get weary of the incumbent party, surely it has more to do with Wlezien’s explanation—that incumbent parties naturally presume they have a mandate and therefore push too far away from the center in their policies—than it does with simple boredom.

Additionally, when the parties are catch-alls, the natural tendency for the out party is to co-opt the more popular parts of the in party’s agenda and come up with appealing new ideas as alternatives to the stale agenda of the in party. That’s what Ronald Reagan and company did in the late 1970s to prepare the way for the 1980 election and what Bill Clinton and the DLC did in the years before taking back the White House in 1992. Thus far, there’s not a whole lot of evidence that the Republican Party is having that sort of revival. While there’s a “Reformicon” wing to the party, it seems to exist only in the punditocracy rather than the contenders for office.

As I noted in a comment thread this morning, there’s still time for Jeb Bush and others who are currently running as undefined moderates, with little more than warmed over Reagan rhetoric and anti-Obama and anti-Hillary applause lines, to develop a substantive alternative agenda. It takes a while for candidates who’ve never run for anything bigger than a statewide office to develop a national platform.

Silver, Sides and company are right that the “fundamentals” matter more than the personalities of the candidates, campaigns, and platforms. But the fundamentals point to a tight race, at least in terms of the popular vote. Which means that those marginal things could well decide the contest.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Environment, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I think what we’ve got here is a bunch of guys who need some traffic on their sites over the next twelve months when no one but real political geeks is into the election coverage. No horse race = no clicks.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: Spot on! There are several issues they don’t take into consideration. (1)The nearly overwhelming advantage the Democrats have in the electoral college. (2) the likely candidate from the Republicans is likely to be Jeb Bush who is despised by the base. Both Bush and Rubio have negative approval ratings in Florida. (3) The democratic base may not be in love with Hillary but they don’t want a Republican choosing the next Supreme Court justices.

  3. stonetools says:

    Count me on in the Jonathan Chait’s camp. Sides and Silver are predicting on the basis of the 1985 version of American politics, not the 2015 version.

    This matches what operatives like Dan Pfeiffer have seen, and what Karl Rove saw a decade before — the swing voter had nearly vanished.

    Hey , we have an example right here. Doug Mataconis is an “independent” and thus would be considered a swing voter by Silver or Sides. But does anyone truly consider Doug as a swing voter equidistant between the Democratic and the Republican nominee?
    Numerous liberal commenters have expressed their dislike for Clinton. But they are going to vote for Clinton over any Republican candidate, and rightly so, because they detest the Republican program and prefer the Democratic one

  4. I give the predictive models some serious credence, and I would also note that what one is hearing from Abramowitz is typical academic hedging, especially this far out (indeed, since his model requires data from next year, he can’t in good conscience make a claim).

    Having said that, I think that what a lot of these models miss (and 2000 underscores this) is that they are based on a notion of the popular vote counting uniformly across the country, rather than adjusting to the distortions caused by the electoral college.

    And there is always the basic caveat: we cannot see the unforeseen. If Hillary is caught is a real scandal, for example (not just something that upsets Fox News viewers) then that changes the dynamic of the race.

    I do think, ultimately, that it is Hillary’s to lose, not the least of which because I am convinced that that GOP nominating process is going to take their more electable candidates and make them less so as they pander to the Tea Party faction of the party (as well as the SoCons and the pro-war types).

  5. humanoid.panda says:


    Count me on in the Jonathan Chait’s camp. Sides and Silver are predicting on the basis of the 1985 version of American politics, not the 2015 version.

    Yep. What they are doing is basically the political equivalent of the rational actor theory in economics: they presume that both parties are perfectly rational actors that immediately adjust to changing demographics, and therefore demographic changes and political changes will cancel themselves out . This might work in the mediuim to long-term range, but it requires ignoring a whole lot of evidence about the here and now.

  6. humanoid.panda says:

    @humanoid.panda: In essence, what we need is something akin to the sticky wages concept that Keynes introduced in economics: because political allegiance is rooted in identity politics, there is a lag between a demographic change and a rebalancing of the politicla system, as the groups that are enraged about demographic changes rail against it. We are probably living through this kind of period.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    I wish I shared the optimism of several of you on Hilary’s election. Hillary is trying to raise an unprecedented 2.5 billion, and she’ll need every nickle of it to counter the GOP Billionaire Boys Club. Turn out will be a factor. It’s easier to fire people up against than for. The Tea Party, Jeb Bush or no, will be whipped into a frenzy of Hillaboma hatred. Enthusiasm for Hillary and against Bush will be fainter. Hillary is not a great campaigner. Thankfully, neither is Jeb. The electorate remembers nothing beyond six months and W will be eight years ago. In any case, the out party is never more than a crisis or scandal away.

    I fear people’s contempt (entirely justified, but not universally shared) for GOP policy and candidates is leading to unwarranted confidence. Be afraid, be very afraid. And send her money.

  8. humanoid.panda says:


    Hillary is trying to raise an unprecedented 2.5 billion, and she’ll need every nickle of it to counter the GOP Billionaire Boys Club. T

    I actually think the difference between 1.5 billion and 2.5 billion in a presidential election is negligible: is there really a difference between seeing 500 attack ads and 900 attack ads, especially when dealing with known quantities like Clinton and whomever gets into the general in the GOP? Where the millionaire money is hurting the country is in local and state level races, where people don’t know the candidates… If Hillary indeed gather 2.5 billion dollars, I hope her people are clever enough to spend some of that in Senate and House races.

  9. superdestroyer says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Any modeler who treats all voters as if they are middle class white voter probably does not need to be involved in politics. Does anyone really believe that there is anything in politics (liberal policies, incumbent approval ratings, number of years that the Democrats have been in office) that will change is a very minor number of black, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Homosexual votes.

    Unless a modeler is at least admitting that changing demographics are having some effect on politics, they need to be ignored.

  10. PJ says:

    One of the important challenges she faces is simple history: it has been difficult for a political party to hold the White House for more than two terms

    Simple history teaches us that a women has never been elected President.
    Obviously she won’t have a chance.

  11. michael reynolds says:


    Exactly. I have no respect for models like this. We’ve had 44 presidents spread across more than two centuries, a period of time which has involved just a wee bit of change. Under these circumstances I think it’s silly to pretend that we have some rational statistical model useful for prediction.

    We never had a handicapped president until we did. (FDR) We never had a black president until we did. (BHO.) We never had a mentally challenged president until we did. (GWB)

    I have a simpler model: show me the states Obama carried that Hillary will lose.

    The GOP has four potentially electable candidates: Bush, Walker, Rubio and Kasich. Kasich is worrisome because he is popular in Ohio and it would be a shame to lose Ohio.

    But to show you just how strong Hillary is, she’s leading Walker in Walker’s own state of Wisconsin by 11 points. That’s two candidates with 100% name recognition in the state, and she’s up by 11. That’s a big gap.

  12. grumpy realist says:

    I’m going to call this the “I gotta make this into a horse race because I need to be hired” theory.

    Tea leaves thrown at the wall would have an equivalent predictive ability. This far out, who knows what will happen? Grexit + Golden Dawn taking over in Greece? Crash of the stock market? Hillary drops dead of a heart attack? Asteroid hits Middle East? Terrorist attack somewhere in US? North Korea doing something stupid? Russia getting to be best buddies with Iran? Pakistan sliding into civil war?


  13. Nick says:

    @gVOR08: Never mind what’s wrong with the GOP candidates.

    How is she qualified to be President?

  14. Nick says:

    @PJ: Considering who this woman is, or more importantly isn’t, one can hope she is not elected.

  15. Robert Levine says:

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Alan Lichtman “Thirteen Keys” model. It’s got a very long track record for accuracy, and also suggests that Clinton will win in 2016 absent any major changes in the existing landscape.

  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    Any attempt at applying models this early is pointless, other than as a way to generate employment for people who derive models and as clickbait for people who write political blogs.

    With regard to the 50/50 – who knows? At this point it is meaningless. Get back to me on that point once the Republicans have selected their nominee to run against Clinton – and said nominee has driven his clownmobile way over into far-right land during the primaries in order to even BE the nominee.

    I strongly suspect that the numbers will not be anywhere even remotely close to 50/50 at that point – the point where they actually matter.

  17. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Hmm, well, let’s see.

    She spent 8 years being very up close and personal with the day to day responsibilities and workings of the office of president during her husband’s two terms. Before that, she did the same for 12 years as the wife of the governor of Arkansas.

    She has been a congressional legal counsel.

    She has sat on the board of directors of several companies, including 6 years as a director of Wal-Mart.

    First female chair of the Legal Services Corporation. First female partner at her law firm.

    8 years as a sitting senator in the US Congress.

    4 years as the US Secretary of State.

    Most pointedly? Before the party lost its collective mind and got into bed with the bible thumpers and snake handlers, she was a Republican.

    None of Republican challengers even come close to that level of familiarity with and qualification for the office. What you should be asking yourself is how any of THEM are qualified to hold the office.