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What Are Trump’s Odds, Really?

July 23, 2020
What Are Trump’s Odds, Really?
(Hannah Yoest / Photo: GettyImages)

1. Welcome to the Matrix

I’ve spent a lot of time recently talking about the future of American politics post-Trump almost as an assumption that Trump is going to lose.

I want to clarify my thinking here, for myself as much as for you guys.

I don’t like talking about electoral outcomes in terms of predictions so much as probabilities, because that’s how the world actually works. When someone says, “Candidate X is going to win” what they really mean—or what they should mean—is “The odds are highly in favor of Candidate X winning.”

My thinking on the race has remained basically unchanged for the last 16 months or so:

  • The most likely outcome is that the fairly popular vice president of the last very popular president will defeat the historically unpopular incumbent.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just the Occam’s razor view of the election. Most of the time when you hear hoofbeats, they’re horses, not zebras, etc.

This isn’t to say that circumstances haven’t shaped my thinking about the probability of the various outcomes. They very much have.

For instance, the twin monsters of the pandemic and Trump’s response to civil unrest have increased the chances that Biden’s margin will be large and the ticking clock has reduced the chances that Trump has room to change the dynamic of the race. Six weeks ago I ventured that the cake was already mostly baked. What was true then is more true now.

So here’s what my outcome matrix looks like as of late July:

(1) Biden wins a mid-size victory of roughly +6 points: 1-in-2 odds

The natural equilibrium of this race is more or less Biden +6. It’s been that way since before Biden declared his candidacy and was like that through the pre-primary and primary stages. Until May, the exact size of Biden’s lead over Trump moved around a little bit, but never got much closer than +4 / +5.

I would be mildly surprised if the race does not tighten down the stretch, because one of the iron laws of politics is that All Races Tighten. So my assumption is that at some point in the fall, we’re likely to be back to Biden +6. And then it’s a coin flip as to whether the race moves again (in either direction) or finishes at its natural level.

(2) Biden wins a large victory of > +8 points: 1-in-4 odds

Pre-pandemic I would have said that a landslide election was lower-probability because of the polarized nature of the electorate. In the environment we’re in now, with Trump’s approval ratings what they are on the two most salient issues of the day, the odds are pretty fair for a blowout.

There are two ways to get to a landslide.

The first is that Biden’s lead since May turns out not to be a temporary jump in valence but a new equilibrium point. And he just holds the position from here to November.

The second is that the race tightens down the stretch and then, in the final two weeks or so, if Trump is clearly losing, the bottom drops out as people come off the fence against the incumbent, and the bandwagon effect takes over.

That’s what happened in 1980 and if we do get a landslide, then I think this is the more likely trajectory for it: By mid-September we’re at Biden +6 and then, two weeks before Halloween, things open back up for him as it becomes clear that Trump just can’t get any closer.

(3) Trump wins a narrow victory in the Electoral College with a small popular vote loss of < -3 points. 1-in-8 odds

This is the the 2016 replay. It requires a bunch of things to break Trump’s way and also for Biden to kind of implode. Currently Biden is winning huge margins among voters who dislike both Trump and Biden; Trump would have to entirely reverse those numbers by making Biden as toxic as HRC was. And then Trump has to get lucky again on the distribution of votes.

Of note: Even in this scenario, Trump isn’t in control of his own destiny. He needs help both from events and from Biden and then needs a break on turnout, too.

(4) Biden wins a small victory with <+4 points: 1-in-8 odds

In this scenario, Biden improves slightly on Clinton’s 2016 popular vote margin and then Trump fails to pull the cards he needs for an inside straight in the Electoral College.

I have both (3) and (4) as 1-in-8 odds, but if someone was going to force you to bet $100 on one of them, I’d probably lean toward (3) because I have a hard time believing that the momentum of the race could shift that far from where we are today to Trump’s direction without tipping the incumbent into victory.

(5) Trump wins a large victory including a plurality of the popular vote: Impossible-to-1

Look, I don’t want to tell you that something is literally impossible. Anything is possible because, as someone in The Expanse once said, nature is always stranger than you can imagine.

And yet: I do not see any realistic path to Donald Trump improving his vote share from 2016. Just look at his job approval and personal approval ratings. People do not like him. At all.

Further: I see absolutely no path—zero, zilch, nada, none—to him winning more votes that Joe Biden.

That simply is not going to happen.

The very fact of this tells you something about how bad a spot Trump is in. Because here is a serious question:

When is the last time a major party presidential candidate had basically conceded the popular vote 16 weeks from Election Day?

Donald Trump started this cycle in a 3-million-vote hole. By every possible measure, he has repelled voters since taking office. He is historically unpopular; he is much less popular than his opponent. Put all of this together and you realize that he has no path to winning a plurality of votes. So he has banked his one chance of victory on only losing by 3 million to 5 million votes.

That is not a high-percentage play.

2. 1A and 2A

On Monday I talked about the depressing overlap between the First and Second Amendments and the realpolitik which suggests that the way to get the police to take your free speech rights seriously is to be armed.

Reader M.H. wrote in to disagree with me and I wanted to share his thoughts:

I think you’ve taken entirely the wrong lesson from comparing the armed and unarmed protesters.

Carrying guns into a legislature completely undermined whatever goals the protesters of Lansing and Richmond were trying to accomplish. The only response from the rest of the nation was ridicule (granted, the Confederate flags and Qanon paraphernalia didn’t help either). The police knew that these protesters weren’t actually going to push for lasting change nor did they have the wherewithal to start a larger movement. They knew that letting them scream, march around, and put on performative displays of aggression would placate them. Leave them alone today, and they won’t be back tomorrow.

On the other hand, the unarmed protesters inspired by George Floyd’s death have started a national conversation about the proper role and conduct of the police. Carrying arms would have undermined their moral message. The brutality of the police against unarmed protesters (over 800 video-recorded incidents catalogued by T. Greg Doucette) is self-evident support for the protesters’ message. If the protesters had been armed, the police could have credibly shown (to the eyes of the rest of the country) that the violent reaction was necessary. The unarmed protesters have a moral weight in their cause that is entirely lacking in the armed anti-shutdown protests. . . .

The target of the protesters are the people who are going to vote in November. The sustained, non-violent nature of the protests in the face of the brutal response by police (and now federal authorities) is what gives them their power. The nation can see that the police as they are now are incapable of refraining from unjustified and unjust violence. Now, a majority of the rest of the country is on the side of the protesters. This is the opposite of the response to the armed protesters.

If realpolitik is defined by what works, the unarmed protesters have a better case.

Two more examples:

(1) The death of Rep. John Lewis forcefully calls to mind the 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Can you imagine what would have happened if those marchers had been armed? Taking up arms would have only brought even more overwhelming state violence as a response; and the rest of the country would have seen it as justified. It was the pictures of brutal police violence against the unarmed and peaceful marchers that shocked the nation and government enough to change the law.

(2) In 1967, the California legislature was considering the Mulford Act, which would have made the open carrying of loaded firearms illegal. The Black Panthers, whose carrying of firearms in Oakland prompted the legislation, protested by carrying guns into the statehouse. The bill was subsequently passed with an even larger majority than before the protest (greater than 2/3) in each house and signed by Ronald Reagan. Armed protest lost rights for California citizens.

Real lasting change comes from the voting booth and the pressure put on elected officials to change the law. This requires direct action from protesters with credibility. Armed protesters are not credible in the eyes of Americans watching the news. Instead, they are considered to be only thugs, as they were in Lansing and Richmond.

The carrying of guns by protesters may purchase a little temporary safety, but if the protesters were only trying to avoid abuse by the authorities, it would have been easier to just stay home.

No, putting your body in the line of fire, with nothing but a sign and a chant to protect you, is what exposes the violence and brutality of the governing authority, delegitimizes it, and brings about the necessary reforms.

Consider me convinced.

3. Neighbors

This is a pretty interesting longread from Aaron Gell at Medium:

Steven “The Worldwalker” Newman found himself in some unnerving situations while circumnavigating the globe on foot as a young vagabond and writer. On a journey that began on April 1, 1983 — because people said he was a fool to do it — and ended on the same day four years later, he saw British troops patrolling the streets of Belfast in armored vehicles, narrowly escaped a robbery by machete-wielding bandits in Thailand, and was arrested and beaten by Turkish police as he made his way toward the Iranian border.

But none of this shook his faith in humanity like the sight he witnessed recently in the small hamlet of Bethel, Ohio — the town where he’d spent his formative years. It was from Bethel that he’d set off on his adventure, and it was Bethel that greeted him with a hero’s welcome on his return. The town had thrown a parade in his honor, and to this day visitors are greeted by six-foot-tall engraved wooden signs proclaiming the rural burg the “Home of the Worldwalker.”

Last month, Bethel acquired another, less illustrious claim to fame when it became the site of a violent political clash that made national news. On June 14, a modest event intended to “honor Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the many others who have lost their lives due to systematic oppression and racism” turned into an ugly spectacle of bigotry, generating a cavalcade of stomach-turning viral videos and headlines casting Bethel as a modern exemplar of the racist hostility of the nation’s rural white working class.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.