Predicting Turnout in an Unpredictable Race

It’s clear that Hillary Clinton is winning. Beyond that, things get tricky.

By Charlie Cook – – – – – –

This pres­id­en­tial race seems to have sta­bil­ized at a point where the prob­ab­il­ity of Hil­lary Clin­ton beat­ing Don­ald Trump is very high, but the mar­gin is tough to pre­dict—as is the rate of voter turnout.

Sure, there could be an exo­gen­ous world event, ter­ror­ist at­tack, or eco­nom­ic calam­ity that could change the dy­nam­ics of this race, or there could be de­vel­op­ments in­volving the can­did­ates them­selves that could change the tra­ject­ory of this elec­tion. But for every chal­lenge Clin­ton faces, there is at least an equal one for Trump; think of Clin­ton’s emails versus Trump’s in­come-tax re­turns.

First, look at the na­tion­al horse-race num­bers: Us­ing the Real­Clear­Polit­ics.com poll av­er­ages, Clin­ton leads by 5.5 points in the two-way tri­al heat, 47.0 per­cent to Trump’s 41.5. On the four-way, in­clud­ing Liber­tari­an Gary John­son and Green Party nom­in­ee Jill Stein, Clin­ton is at 41.6 per­cent to Trump’s 37.1, a lead of 4.5 points. Leads this long after the two con­ven­tion bounces have settled gen­er­ally hold up.

Then look at the swing states, again us­ing the RCP av­er­ages. Clin­ton leads in every single state that Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried in 2012 and runs ba­sic­ally even in Ari­zona and Geor­gia. If a Demo­crat can win Ari­zona or Geor­gia, he or she doesn’t need to; it means the elec­tion is already won, as oth­er states would have come across the fin­ish line earli­er. A Clin­ton win in either state would just be icing on the cake. And if a Demo­crat is feel­ing com­fort­able enough to scale back ef­forts in Col­or­ado and Vir­gin­ia, that’s quite something, giv­en both states’ re­cent his­tory of close con­tests.

Third, look at how the can­did­ates are per­ceived, again us­ing the RCP av­er­ages of all of the ma­jor na­tion­al polls. Clin­ton has 43 per­cent view­ing her fa­vor­ably, 53.5 per­cent un­fa­vor­ably, for a net-minus 10.5 points—deadly in any oth­er race, but not against Trump’s 33 per­cent fa­vor­able, 62.7 per­cent un­fa­vor­able, for a tox­ic net-minus 29.7 points. It’s aw­fully hard for someone with neg­at­ives that high to turn a race around.

Fi­nally, think about the cam­paigns: One side ac­tu­ally has one; the oth­er has out­sourced its es­sen­tial func­tions to the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee. If the race were to get close, hav­ing a full-fledged field or­gan­iz­a­tion could well make the dif­fer­ence of a point or 2 in crit­ic­al states.

The fact that with­in two weeks of Labor Day, GOP can­did­ates are de­bat­ing the etiquette of ex­actly when it would be ap­pro­pri­ate to jump ship makes it pretty clear where the elec­tion is headed un­less something cata­clys­mic hap­pens.

Much has been said about Clin­ton and Trump hav­ing the highest un­fa­vor­able rat­ings of any pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees in his­tory, but few seem to have con­sidered what that really means. More Amer­ic­ans will be vot­ing for a can­did­ate they really don’t like or trust than ever be­fore. There will be voters who are not fans on Trump who will vote for him any­way be­cause they can’t bring them­selves to vote for Clin­ton. Polls sug­gest there are many more who don’t par­tic­u­larly like Clin­ton but can’t pos­sibly vote for Trump. We could have an elec­tion with al­most as many people vot­ing against someone as for someone.

With such a large pool of am­bi­val­ent or un­enthu­si­ast­ic voters, gauging turnout will be par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­at­ic. Many are sug­gest­ing an un­usu­ally or his­tor­ic­ally low turnout, but my own the­ory is that we are more likely to have an av­er­age to high level of voter par­ti­cip­a­tion. The in­tens­ity of the hatred for one or the oth­er is so high among so many that the op­tion of re­frain­ing from vot­ing at all seems ab­hor­rent to many of these voters. Some can’t see them­selves sleep­ing at night if Trump were to win and they hadn’t voted against him; oth­ers feel the same way about Clin­ton. Giv­en that elec­tion of­fi­cials do not sep­ar­ate the bal­lots of those vot­ing against someone from those vot­ing for someone, a vote is a vote, no mat­ter the motive.

The polling is clear that Amer­ic­ans are watch­ing this elec­tion closely, and that while many are un­enthu­si­ast­ic about their choices, there is a strong sen­ti­ment that the out­come is im­port­ant, that who wins mat­ters. That points to pretty good turnout, even if voters don’t have a real spring in their step walk­ing up to the polling place or mark their bal­lot with a flour­ish.

In con­ver­sa­tions with poll­sters and cam­paign op­er­at­ives, it’s in­ter­est­ing to de­vel­op pro­files of what kind of voters are or are not likely to be Trump sup­port­ers. Trump back­ers are far more likely to be white than non­white, they are more likely to be male than fe­male, they are more likely to have less than a col­lege de­gree, and are more likely to be 45 years of age or older. But less dis­cussed is that they are more likely to live in small-town or rur­al Amer­ic­an than in or any­where near a city.

I real­ize that someone is about to point out to me a young, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an or Latino wo­man with a PhD liv­ing in a three-story brown­stone walk-up who loves Trump, but those are the ex­cep­tions, not the rule. In­deed, among voter groups that com­bine sev­er­al at­trib­utes—white, male, no col­lege de­gree, over-45, and liv­ing out­side urb­an areas—Trump will likely over-per­form Mitt Rom­ney, while greatly un­der­per­form­ing Rom­ney among col­lege-edu­cated whites, par­tic­u­larly those who are wo­men.

Demo­graph­ic­ally, Trump has painted him­self in­to a corner. That doesn’t mean that there is no way for him to es­cape that corner, but it will re­quire con­sid­er­able ath­let­ic abil­ity and agil­ity to pull it off—more than he now ap­pears to have.

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