This Election May Not be as Weird as we Think
Political Science research suggests that the election is, in basic ways, about what we would expect.
Something I have been thinking about quite a bit of late is the degree to which, despite the very unusual nature of the Trump candidacy, that this election is not all that unusual. By this I mean that the actual behavior of voters, en masse, is not all that much outside the norm. This derives from a political science literature that argues that candidate quality and horse-race journalism doesn’t have the effects on outcomes that we tend to think that they do.
Along these lines I would point to this entry at The Monkey Cage by Andrew Gelman: Krugman wonders how the race could be close. Political science wonders how it could be otherwise.
First, just based on general information — nothing about the candidates, just economic trends — we’d expect the election to be pretty close.
When I did my best attempt to fit the Hibbs model, which predicts incumbent-party vote share using change in per-capita income growth, I got a forecast of 52 percent of the two-party vote for the Democratic nominee.
Other forecasts give slightly different answers, as there are many ways of constructing a prediction model given past elections, but the general consensus is that the fundamentals predict the election is likely to be close. The economy is going okay but not great; the president is somewhat popular; there is a small minus for the Democrats in that the incumbent is not running for reelection, but a small minus for the Republicans in that they control both houses of Congress and, hence, represent a less appealing choice for centrist voters who prefer divided government.
So, to start with, no explanation is needed for why the election might be close. Yes, Donald Trump is an unusual candidate, but research by political scientist Steven Rosenstone and others suggests that when it comes to the general election, Americans vote party more than candidate.
To put it another way, the electoral landslides in postwar presidential elections were in 1964, 1972, and 1984 — all years in which the economy was booming. This year, the economy is doing okay but not booming, hence the more equivocal forecast.
The link in the quote is to another Gelman piece (at Slate) that discusses the ways that 2016 is unlike 1964 or 1972 and it worth a read as well.
Now, we shall see how things turn out, and there will be plenty for analysts to address, both in the short term and the long run. But, the fact that a major party nominee is competitive is not all that surprising, even candidate Trump. This does not let the GOP nomination process off the hook for producing said candidate, however.