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What Are Trump’s Odds, Really?

July 23, 2020
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(Hannah Yoest / Photo: GettyImages)

1. Welcome to the Matrix

I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about the future of American politics post-Trump almost as an assumption that Trump is going to lose.

I want to clarify my thinking here, for myself as much as for you guys.

I don’t like talking about electoral outcomes in terms of predictions so much as probabilities, because that’s how the world actually works. When someone says, “Candidate X is going to win” what they really mean—or what they should mean—is “The odds are highly in favor of Candidate X winning.”

My thinking on the race has remained basically unchanged for the last 16 months or so:

  • The most likely outcome is that the fairly popular vice president of the last very popular president will defeat the historically unpopular incumbent.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just the Occam’s razor view of the election. Most of the time when you hear hoofbeats, they’re horses, not zebras, etc.

This isn’t to say that circumstances haven’t shaped my thinking about the probability of the various outcomes. They very much have.

For instance, the twin monsters of the pandemic and Trump’s response to civil unrest have increased the chances that Biden’s margin will be large and the ticking clock has reduced the chances that Trump has room to change the dynamic of the race. Six weeks ago I ventured that the cake was already mostly baked. What was true then is more true now.

So here’s what my outcome matrix looks like as of late July:

(1) Biden wins a mid-size victory of roughly +6 points: 1-in-2 odds

The natural equilibrium of this race is more or less Biden +6. It’s been that way since before Biden declared his candidacy and was like that through the pre-primary and primary stages. Until May, the exact size of Biden’s lead over Trump moved around a little bit, but never got much closer than +4 / +5.

I would be mildly surprised if the race does not tighten down the stretch, because one of the iron laws of politics is that All Races Tighten. So my assumption is that at some point in the fall, we’re likely to be back to Biden +6. And then it’s a coin flip as to whether the race moves again (in either direction) or finishes at its natural level.

(2) Biden wins a large victory of > +8 points: 1-in-4 odds

Pre-pandemic I would have said that a landslide election was lower-probability because of the polarized nature of the electorate. In the environment we’re in now, with Trump’s approval ratings what they are on the two most salient issues of the day, the odds are pretty fair for a blowout.

There are two ways to get to a landslide.

The first is that Biden’s lead since May turns out not to be a temporary jump in valence, but a new equilibrium point. And he just holds the position from here to November.

The second is that the race tightens down the stretch and then, in the final two weeks or so, if Trump is clearly losing, the bottom drops out as people come off the fence against the incumbent, and the bandwagon effect takes over.