In his article, “It’s the Pandemic, Stupid! A Simplified Model for Forecasting the 2020 Presidential Election,” Alan I. Ibramowitz writes at At Sabato’s Crystal Ball:
My “time for change” election forecasting model relies on three predictors to forecast the outcomes of presidential elections: The incumbent president’s approval rating in late June or early July, the change in real GDP in the second quarter of the election year, and a dummy variable based on whether a first-term incumbent is running for reelection. This time for change factor reflects the fact that first-term incumbents like President Trump generally enjoy a significant advantage even after controlling for their approval ratings and economic conditions.
There are good reasons to expect that two of these predictors — the change in real GDP in the second quarter and the time for change dummy variable — will not perform as they normally do in 2020. Although the U.S. economy is currently experiencing a severe downturn, with real GDP plunging by an almost unprecedented amount in the second quarter, voters do not appear to hold the incumbent president responsible for this. That is undoubtedly because the recession was deliberately induced in order to try to control the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Thus, despite a massive rise in unemployment and decline in real GDP, President Trump’s approval ratings on handling the economy have generally remained positive.
Abramowitz, author of The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump, writes that “Given the concerns described above, for the 2020 presidential election, I am using one predictor to forecast the results: the incumbent president’s net approval rating in late June…Along with the current forecast, I will present conditional forecasts based on the president’s net approval rating in late October.” For now, he concludes:
When an incumbent president is running for a second term, the election is always largely a referendum on the president’s record during his first term. Normally, an important component of that record is the performance of the U.S. economy, especially during the first half of the election year. In 2020, however, due to the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on American society and on the economy, it appears likely that the presidential election will turn much more on the president’s handling of that pandemic. By the summer of 2020, the public’s assessment of the president’s handling of the pandemic had turned decidedly negative.
It also appears unlikely that President Trump will enjoy the electoral advantage that normally accrues to first-term incumbents. Partisan polarization has drastically reduced the ability of incumbent office-holders at all levels to appeal to voters across party lines. Moreover, unlike previous incumbents, Trump has made little effort to expand his base of support during his time in office.
Based on these considerations, I have presented a simple incumbent referendum model for forecasting the outcome of the 2020 electoral vote. The president’s net approval rating of -15 percent in late June yields a forecast of a decisive 319-219 vote victory by Joe Biden in the Electoral College. Yet the model still gives Trump about a 30% chance of winning the election due to uncertainty about what will transpire between June and November. However, if Trump’s approval rating remains at -15 in late October, the model predicts an even more overwhelming defeat with 361 electoral votes for Joe Biden to only 177 for the president. At that point, Trump would have only a 9% chance of winning the election according to the model.
All in all, it’s an encouraging forecast for Democrats. But it is not a signal to relax, because Republicans in all swing states are already mobilizing to suppress pro-Democratic voters as much as possible – the wild card in the 2020 election.