Democrats in strong position ahead of muted conventions

Democrats in strong position ahead of muted conventions

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Donald Trump with Joe Biden and Barack Obama after being sworn in as the 45th president of the U.S., Washington D.C., January 20, 2017. (Reuters)

The Democrats will next week hold their presidential nomination convention before the Republicans seize the reins a few days later. The convention season will kick-start the last leg of an already remarkable election campaign, but the impact of the two events this year may be much more muted than usual.

While many pollsters highlight the significance of good or bad conventions for the rest of the campaign, this year’s events will be a pale shadow of their former selves given the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Joe Biden is not even traveling to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, while the Republican event has also been scaled down.

Another reason why this year’s conventions will be more muted than usual is that Trump already has his running mate (Mike Pence) in place, while Biden on Tuesday selected Sen. Kamala Harris. This contrasts with Hillary Clinton in 2016, who selected Tim Kaine as her pick on the Friday before the convention to bring a burst of publicity to that event.

Biden’s choice of Harris has instead been made to try to dominate the media in the week before the convention. She was the “safest” pick from the array of women Biden had considered for the role, and Democrats now hope that she will hit the ground running and build momentum for the Democratic ticket.

She will probably be a formidable candidate thanks to her political experience not just as a senator, but also as a former state attorney general. Aside from that, she is also biracial (the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants), allowing her to reinforce Biden’s already strong appeal to non-white voters. Moreover, the east coast-based Biden (his home state is Delaware) will seek to use Harris’s Californian base to boost the campaign in the west. 

So, with this year’s conventions being more muted, the wider historical context of the campaign is likely to be even more important than usual in determining the result. This is underlined by two of the very few pundits who correctly predicted Trump’s shock win in 2016. 

Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University, has correctly called every presidential election since 1984. His method for assessment largely ignores the plethora of polls that are often prioritized in modern politics. From this perspective, even the campaign’s biggest moments — including conventions — are often less important than a wider verdict on the incumbent vis-a-vis the challenger. His model, which this year indicates a win for Biden, looks at 13 different “keys” to the White House. His assessment is that seven of the keys favor the Democrats.

First, the incumbent party in the White House holds fewer seats in the House of Representatives after the midterms in 2018. Second, there is no major third party challenger to siphon off votes from Biden, meaning the 2020 vote is therefore a straight race with Trump. Third, the economy is now in recession. Fourth, real annual per capita economic growth during the last three-and-a-half years is less than that during the previous two terms. Fifth, there is significant social unrest, as seen during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Sixth, Trump has been hit by several scandals and was impeached. And finally the president has had no major foreign policy victories during his time in office.

It is on these measures that Trump is assessed by Lichtman as likely to lose. However, the president still wins out on the remaining six keys, which indicates that the election may be closer than the polls currently suggest.

Another scholar who both predicted Trump’s triumph in 2016 and dismisses the importance of conventions and campaigns is Stony Brook University political science professor Helmut Norpoth. Unlike Lichtman, however, he argues that Trump has an overwhelming (91 percent) chance of winning in November.

Norpoth, who claims his model would have correctly predicted 25 of the 27 races since 1912, calculates the winning candidate based on early presidential nominating contests. He places particular emphasis on how much enthusiasm candidates are able to generate early in the process. On this measure, Biden is at a disadvantage due to his losses in his party’s first two presidential nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Norpoth thinks Trump will not just be re-elected, but will significantly expand his margin in the Electoral College compared to 2016.

Democrats hope that Harris will hit the ground running and build momentum for the Democratic ticket.

Andrew Hammond

While some dismiss the Norpoth model as overly optimistic for Trump, what it does underline is just how unwise it would be to count the president out completely, even though some national polls now have him 10 percentage points down. Despite the many controversies of Trump’s presidency, recent history generally favors presidents winning a second term, with the last three incumbents all earning re-election. 

This pattern is given more historical support by the fact that, since the 1930s, the party that wins the presidency generally holds the White House for at least two terms of office. There has been only one exception: When Jimmy Carter failed to get re-elected in 1980.

So, even if Trump might not win, the odds are that he will get back on the front foot in the coming weeks, especially if there are any big “surprises,” such as an unexpectedly fast and effective COVID-19 vaccine or a stronger than anticipated economic rebound, which could help tighten the polls.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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