In a different context, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld called them the “known unknowns,” the critical questions that must be answered in order to better forecast the results of a campaign. His campaign was a war; ours is war by other means. With more than a year to go before Election Day, I’ve got a hunch about which party will have an advantage, but it’s based on nothing but a bit of learned intuition and the wisdom of the crowds.
And yet, polls testing Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump or Joe Biden vs. Jeb Bush get headline treatment. That’s silly. We know we don’t know enough to reliably predict the general election.
Here are five of those known unknowns. When we can answer these questions, the crystal ball will begin to clear.
1. How’s the economy really doing? It’s hard to determine exactly which measure of the health of the economy matters the most in presidential elections. My three cents: it depends on the election. This cycle, the two I’ll pay attention to are fairly conventional. One is the unemployment rate. Come September 2016, is the jobless rate changing? If so, in which direction? Combine that with the amount of pre-tax income that voters claim in 2016. Is it appreciably higher among income groups who will matter the most? Or is it lower? If voters don’t feel that they have more personal income and if the statistics bear that out, the party in power will probably be at a relative disadvantage. On a macro — national — level, there’s some evidence for that proposition. On a county-by-county level, though, the effect does not seem to hold. (There’s older evidence that blue-collar voters are especially sensitive to changes in real income.) Bonus question: How much will voters punish (or reward) the Democratic Party for what President Obama has done, even though he’s not running?
2. Will the economy or foreign affairs top voters’ concerns? Well, let me amend that question. The economy is very likely to be the top issue. But will foreign policy be important enough to a large enough bloc of voters to sway the election? Will voters who list foreign policy as their most important issue feel more strongly about it than voters who worry about the economy? (Weirdly, a recovering economy might benefit the Republicans if enough voters focus less on what they don’t have economically — because they feel better about what they do have — and focus more on what physical threats exist to themselves and their nation.) Assume that the Islamic State group is running rampant in Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe hasn’t abated, and Iran is testing the limits of the new nuclear deal and acting provocatively. The Republicans might benefit from these dynamics. Assume, at the same time, that real wages are growing a little and unemployment remains low. The incumbent party — the Democrats — could benefit from that. But the argument headed into Election Day might not be about the economy. So if you can tell me what the argument is going to be, and whether foreign policy will trump economic security, I can give you a more accurate prediction of who might win.
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3. Can Hillary Clinton (or the eventual Democratic nominee) create her own base, separate from Obama’s? That question really asks a variant of this one: Are single women showing up as likely voters? Single women have become a bedrock Democratic constituency, and if Clinton is the nominee, and if Planned Parenthood battles remain in the news, the percentage of single women in the electorate could rise above the difference-making threshold. In 2007, about 50 million single women were eligible to vote; by 2012, the figure was 55.2 million. Their rate of growth was much faster than the other three gender-marital groups. The problem: getting single women to vote is harder than it should be for Democrats, compared with the effort it takes to turn out other groups. The percentage of voting-eligible married women (and men) who cast ballots in general election years is consistently about 10 percentage points higher than the turnout for single women. If that gap narrows to about 5 percentage points by fall 2016, Democrats will have an edge to re-create a winning coalition in states such as North Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
4. Who’s enthused? Here’s a metaphor for thinking about how independent or non-aligned voters respond to pressure. Think of the election as a bowl game. Team Red’s fans are on one side, and Team Blue’s fans are on the other. Which team was able to get more of its fans to the stadium? Who cheers louder? For fans who don’t have an affiliation — they’re someone’s brother who happens to be in town — how do they decide whom to root for? Chances are they’ll root for the team that feels more certain about winning, and they’ll feel social pressure to root for the team that is louder. But what makes a team more confident that it will win? Hope bias, sure, but also confidence in the ability of the team to perform well.
In close elections, it’s easy to overstate the importance of voter enthusiasm in the presidential race, and in the past few elections, the more enthused side hasn’t always won, perhaps because both parties have gotten quite good at dragging their partisans out to vote, no matter their level of passion. A better measure: are partisans happy with their candidate? If you can determine whether Democrats in September 2016 will be happier that Clinton (or her alternative) is their nominee than Republicans are with Donald Trump (or his alternative), you’ll take a step in the right direction. In 2012, the GOP led just about every enthusiasm metric except for two: Far fewer Republicans strongly supported Mitt Romney than Democrats did Obama, and Democrats liked Obama more than GOPers liked Romney. There is some evidence that these two data points are worth more than merely determining who cheers more loudly.
5. And finally: Whom do voters think will win? In 2012, a majority of registered voters believed that Obama would win fairly consistently over time. In 2008, too, Obama was seen as the likely winner by a small but clear majority. In 2004, George W. Bush was the favorite to win re-election. In 2000, the perception of who would win flip-flopped. A subtle signal, sent to voters who don’t pay attention until late, that the candidate they favor is perceived as having a disadvantage can depress turnout. (There is evidence that voters’ sense of efficacy influences how likely they are to make it to the polls.)
There are a number of other metrics we could look at, too. The point, though, is that presidential elections are run along many tracks. Some of these variables are static, but many change over time. When the media treats a single event or development as singularly critical, just remember that the election is more than a year away and keep these known unknowns in mind. And appreciate, too, that there are unknown unknowns — the stuff we don’t know we don’t know — that will influence who has an edge in 2016.
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