Trump’s 2020 Odds Are Better Using Political Science Models Than Polls

U.S. President Donald Trump.

U.S. President Donald Trump. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

If you follow the polls, you know that President Donald Trump’s numbers are in pretty bad shape. But according to models developed by political scientists, confirmed with numerous prior predictions, the president’s reelection chances aren’t too bad. The question will come down to whether or not we trust voter inclinations today, or how people thought about elections over the past hundred or more years.

Except for Rasmussen Reports, polls show the president with higher disapproval ratings than approval ratings, poor numbers which have plagued Trump throughout his term in office. Moreover, he’s often behind leading Democrats like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders nationwide, and even in battleground states. Even lower-tiered candidates like Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren are giving Trump a run for his money in states he easily won in 2016, like North Carolina and Texas.

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Last week’s Morning Consult numbers were even worse for the Republican president. Checking out Trump’s approval-to-disapproval ratings, you can only find him comfortably ahead (by 20+ points) in Alabama and Wyoming. His other double-digit leads are in Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia. He’s ahead in Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Dakota and Missouri, but that’s it.  Even in Indiana, Utah, Texas, Georgia and Florida, it’s a toss-up. The same goes for Alaska, Montana, North Dakota and Nebraska. He’s losing in North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Arizona and Pennsylvania. The other states have him behind by double-digits, even ones he won in 2016 (Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin).

Political Science Provides President Trump a Chance

But it’s a different story for some political science models. These, like Allan Lichtman’s The Keys to the White House: A Surefire Guide to Predicting the Next President, show that President Trump is in pretty good shape, an even-bet for another four years.

Orignally, Lichtman and a Russian scientist, using methods similar to predicting earthquakes, developed a model that explained the factors that led to each presidential election victory from 1860 to 1980. Then, they used this formula to predict each election from 1984 to 2012.

Lichtman actually predicted Trump would win in 2016. There is a caveat, as Trump did not win the popular vote, though he did take the Electoral College. Moreover, the model predicted that Gore would win the popular vote in 2000, which he did. But again, the GOP owned the Electoral College.

So what are the keys to a presidential popular vote win? Here are the lucky 13 that Lichtman provides.

Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections.

Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination.

Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president.

Third Party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign.

Short Term Economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign.

Long Term Economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms.

Policy Change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy.

Social Unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term.

Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal.

Foreign/Military Failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs.

Foreign/Military Success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs.

Incumbent Charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero.

Challenger Charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero.

Will Trump Be Reelected in 2020?

According to Lichtman, a challenger would need six or more to be false to win the Executive Office of the White House. If only five or fewer are false, it’s another term for Trump.

Here Are the Keys to Presidential Victory That Are False:

  • Party Mandate: After the midterm elections, the incumbent party holds more seats in the U.S. House of Representatives than after the previous midterm elections. FALSE
  • Scandal: The incumbent administration is untainted by major scandal. FALSE
  • Social Unrest: There is no sustained social unrest during the term. FALSE
  • Incumbent Charisma: The incumbent party candidate is charismatic or a national hero. FALSE

Here Are the Keys to Presidential Victory That Are Considered True:

  • Incumbency: The incumbent party candidate is the sitting president. TRUE
  • Challenger Charisma: The challenging party candidate is not charismatic or a national hero. TRUE
  • Long Term Economy: Real per capita economic growth during the term equals or exceeds mean growth during the previous two terms. TRUE

Here Are the Keys to Presidential Victory That Are Incomplete, Where We Have Yet to See What Will Happen:

  • Contest: There is no serious contest for the incumbent party nomination. TRUE SO FAR
  • Third Party: There is no significant third party or independent campaign. TRUE SO FAR
  • Short Term Economy: The economy is not in recession during the election campaign. TRUE SO FAR
  • Policy Change: The incumbent administration effects major changes in national policy. FALSE SO FAR
  • Foreign/Military Failure: The incumbent administration suffers no major failure in foreign or military affairs. TRUE SO FAR
  • Foreign/Military Success: The incumbent administration achieves a major success in foreign or military affairs. FALSE SO FAR

As you can see, the race is a lot closer for Democrats than they might realize, if this historical model is accurate. So far, no serious party challenger has emerged. We’ll see if Governor William Weld gets any traction, but he’s unlikely to do so. Third parties may be more likely to hurt Democratic candidates; a leftist would hurt a Biden nomination, just as a centrist would undermine a Sanders campaign.

So far, the economy has not gone into a recession. Should it do so, it would likely tip the election to the Democrats. Similarly, Democrats can count on the fact that Trump has not enacted major policy change; the tax cuts, much ignored by the GOP in the 2018 election, seem poised to actually cost the Republicans some votes.

Of course, the president could achieve a major victory in foreign policy, such as peace with North Korea, a U.S.-China trade deal, or a revision to NAFTA. Then again, he could just as easily suffer a foreign policy setback, making this category a wash.

Sure it’s unclear whether Trump will get a policy victory or dodge a recession, or see something happen in foreign affairs. But regardless, those odds are better for him in Lichtman’s model than they are in today’s polls, which tell a more grim tale. Perhaps Trump’s campaign may wish to study these political science theories to see how presidents have been historically elected, or reelected. 

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here.

Trump’s 2020 Odds Are Better Using Political Science Models Than Polls