What We Don't Know About the November Election

This will not be a typical match-up.
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Hillary Clinton greets attendees at the conclusion of a roundtable discussion at the University of Southern California on March 24, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton greets attendees at the conclusion of a roundtable discussion at the University of Southern California on March 24, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Political observers are beginning to look past the presidential nomination battles and size up what the November election will look like. No, the nominations haven't really been settled, but Hillary Clinton is highly likely to end up the Democratic nominee, and, barring some convention dust-up, Donald Trump is looking pretty good to be the Republicans' choice. So can we make some guesses as to what that election looks like?

We should keep in mind that polls this far from the election (still eight months away) generally aren't very reliable. A great many voters still aren't paying close attention to the race, and their opinions may shift as they learn more about the candidates.

But what we do see in the early polling is pretty shocking. Match-ups between Clinton and Trump have been showing an advantage for the former that is growing by the week. Individual surveys can give a wide range of responses, but the aggregate polls are suggesting Clinton defeating Trump by at least 10 points. This would be one of the biggest wins by a non-incumbent presidential candidates in recent history.

Nate Silver has broken down some state-level projections, and his models suggest Clinton not only winning nearly all the states Barack Obama won in 2008, but also adding a few more: Arizona and Georgia. Needless to say, these are not states Democrats usually compete well in, no less win.

I want to offer some caution on these forecasts. I'm not saying they're wrong—they're the best available information we have right now. But our understanding of how this election unfolds is based to a great extent in how previous elections have gone, and there's good reason to believe that this election will simply be different. Below are a number of things to consider when trying to predict what happens this fall:

THE PARTY LOYALTY OF REPUBLICAN VOTERS

It's a longstanding finding in political science that the main effect of campaigns is to remind people of their partisan loyalties and to get them to vote in the way they were likely to end up voting anyway. Campaigns generally make Republicans feel good about being Republican and remind them of all the ways Democrats are wrong, and they have the precise opposite effect on Democrats. Clinton has certainly charted an unusual path to the White House but is in many ways a conventional Democratic nominee, ideologically very much in the middle of her party. There is really nothing conventional about Trump as a Republican nominee. Would increased exposure to Trump's messaging bring conservative independents back into the Republican fold, or just drive them further away? This may be determined in part by....

THE PARTY LOYALTY OF REPUBLICAN ELITES

Republican leaders have been all over the map this year, with some saying they'll rally behind their presidential nominee no matter who it is, and others saying they could never support Trump. Would a substantial group of elites refuse to back their nominee? Would they champion an independent or third-party candidacy? If enough of them do the latter, quite a few voters could follow them, as happened in Colorado in 2010. Most would no doubt recognize that this just makes a Clinton election all but certain, but for some, that would actually be better in the long run than a Trump presidency.

THE EXPLICIT USE OF RACE

Many presidential campaigns feature racial themes and undertones, but candidates are usually coy about it and can maintain some plausible deniability when accused of racist tactics. Trump's very explicit demonization of Mexicans and Arab Muslims goes beyond anything George H.W. Bush's campaign did with Willie Horton in 1988. Trump's could actually be the most overtly racist major party presidential campaign in at least a century. This might affect voter turnout in ways that are difficult to predict. Latinos could show up in record numbers to vote for Clinton. This could be matched by more racially conservative white voters, but a good many whites might just as easily defect to the Democrats, or simply refuse to vote, to avoid association with explicit bigotry.

THE EXPLICIT USE OF GENDER

The gender gap is usually pretty resilient to the gender of individual candidates; it didn't grow or shrink much with the vice presidential nomination of Sarah Palin in 2008 or that of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. But it's been a long time since a candidate has so explicitly suggested his rival is unsuited for the job precisely because she's a woman. It's entirely possible moderate Republican women defect to Clinton or simply refuse to vote rather than associate themselves with Trump.

We should keep in mind that party loyalty is a strong feature in voting behavior and generally outweighs candidate-specific concerns. But there are enough historical anomalies in play this year that we should be more cautious than usual in making predictions. We don't really know what this campaign will look like, and the outcome could end up surprising all of us.

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