There is little doubt that former Vice President Joe Biden is ahead in the polls right now. He regularly posts double-digit advantages nationally and is ahead in the key swing states. If the election were held today, Biden would almost certainly be elected president.
But the election is not being held today. It’s being held in a little less than four months. That’s a lot of time.
And given the size of Biden’s lead (clear, but not a blowout), the race can definitely shift enough to characterize this race to be within the true margin of error.
To be clear, I don’t mean that Biden and Trump have similar chances of winning – far from it. Biden is clearly the favorite.
What I mean is that people often don’t realize what odds actually mean. Something may not have a likely chance of occurring, but it’s quite conceivable that it does happen.
Whenever you see a poll published, you’ll see the result comes with a margin of error. The margin of error essentially means that for a given population, 95% of the time a poll’s result will come within the margin of error of the true value. There’s a 2.5% (1 out of 40) chance a result will fall outside the margin of error on the low side, and a 2.5% (1 out of 40) chance a result will fall outside the margin of error on the high side.
It’s not shocking at all to receive a poll result back that’s outside the margin of error. It’s even less surprising when a poll comes in within the margin of error of the other results, though at the high or low end of the polling results published.
Borrowing from this margin-of-error concept, there’s literally no reputable forecast I know of that suggests that Biden’s advantage is outside that 95% confidence interval when projecting forward to November.
You can see how a race can change from this point forward by looking at history.
Earlier this month, I examined the 13 elections featuring incumbent presidents since 1940. I noted that in two of the 13 presidential contests, the difference between where the national polls were at this point and the eventual margin was greater than 10 points.
That’s more than the current margin between Biden and Trump. Two out of 13 times is well more than 2.5%. One of 13 times is plenty more than that.
If you were to expand to contests without incumbents, you will find even more examples of big swings. I wrote about the 1988 election a few weeks ago. The difference between the polls at this point and the election result (Republican George H.W. Bush by 8 points) and the polls in mid-July (Democrat Michael Dukakis by 5 points) was double digits.
This historical study doesn’t even take into account that Trump likely has a better shot of winning the Electoral College than the popular vote.
Importantly, you can look at a lot of different odds makers and reach conclusions similar to mine.
The betting markets, which I believe are overestimating Trump’s chances, give him about a 2-out-of-5 (40%) chance of winning a second term. (It should be noted that betting markets gave Bob Dole a similar chance of winning in 1996, when he faced a deficit similar to Trump’s now. Dole lost.)
Jack Kersting’s forecast, which I’ve cited before, puts Trump’s chance of winning at about 1-in-6 (just north of 15%).
There’s also the Economist forecast, which gives Trump about a 1-in-10 (around 10%) chance of winning.
There are clearly differences among these odds. The similarity across all of them is that Biden is ahead, though not by enough to have a lead that can be considered anywhere close to being outside the true margin of error.
The worst result for Trump is having about a 1-in-10 chance. His shot would need to be below 1-in-40 to be considered outside the true margin of error.
Indeed, we still have a lot of events and potential game changers ahead of us.
There are the conventions, which sometimes (though not recently) have really shaken things up historically.
We have an economy that seems to be more prone to shocks than usual, which could shift voter opinions.
Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic is bad right now, but there’s no real way of knowing how things will be when voters are casting their ballots. Perhaps the case rate will be lower. Maybe there will be better treatments. We just don’t know.
Speaking of the coronavirus, it feels like this campaign isn’t even really underway. Usually, a presidential campaign is the main news story by this point. But with the pandemic and the protests against police brutality, it’s been the number three story over the last month.
The campaign will eventually become the number one story. With a compressed time frame, we may see bigger jumps later in the campaign than we’re used to in modern campaigns.
The bottom line is that unless the economy totally falls apart or Biden starts leading by closer to 20 points than 10 points, this election will never be anywhere close to being safely in his corner at this early juncture.