How Clinton vs. Trump Could Play Out
Now that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have all but secured their parties’ nominations, what is the best way to look at how their 2016 matchup is most likely to turn out?
In the past, political scientists and economists have used economic growth models to predict presidential election results. The overall record of this methodology has been fairly good. The book jacket blurb of a 2009 volume by UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck epitomized this confidence:
“The economy is so powerful in determining the results of U.S. presidential elections,” it proclaimed, “that political scientists can predict winners and losers with amazing accuracy long before the campaigns start.”
Then came the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama. The best-known predictive model, by Yale economist Ray C. Fair, missed the Obama win, as did another one, the well-regarded “Bread and Peace” model created by political scientist Douglas A. Hibbs Jr.
The question of why they missed the mark is beyond the purpose of this essay, but, essentially, in close elections the results can fall within what academics call “the error term”—a statistical cousin of polling’s “margin of error”—and therefore predict the wrong winner.
Ray Fair’s 2012 model estimated that Obama would garner 49 percent of the popular vote and he got 52 percent, well within the error margin. The point here is that in the United States’ current slow-growth environment, the economy alone will not determine the winner.
In part this is because, partisans will differ in their perception of the economy (see chart below). Recent surveys show a similar pattern of partisan evaluations of how well the economy is doing. In early 2016, more than 50 percent of Democrats believed the economy was getting better while only 14 percent of Republicans thought it was improving—with Independents being closer to Republicans than Democrats.
Ray Fair’s economic model combines the rate of economic growth, the consecutive quarters of growth over 3.2 percent, and the length of incumbent party stay in the White House. In 2016, this model predicts that without economic growth of 4 percent or more, the Democrats will get only 45 percent of the vote.
Other economic models show that present growth rates in the economy will make the election much closer. My own assumption is that 2016 will be similar to 2012 in regard to the economy’s effect on the election. So that raises the questions: How did Obama win in 2012? And how much of his formula applies to the 2016 race?
I believe that Barack Obama won because Democrats had a 5 percent or 6 percent advantage in party identification over Republicans and both parties basically held serve with those party identifiers. Mitt Romney did top Obama among true Independents, but not by enough a large enough margin to give him a majority.
Think of it this way: If the U.S. electorate had been made up of 100 voters in 2012, with 38 Democrats and 32 Republicans, and each candidate won 92 percent of his party, the Democratic candidate had 35 votes and the Republican had 30 votes before factoring in Independents. In order to make up that five-vote deficit, Romney would have had to win 18 of the 30 Independents. This represents 60 percent, significantly less than the 52 percent of nonaligned voters he actually won.
In short, for Republicans to win—then and now—they have to hold their own voters and then get more Democratic voters than they give up or win Independents. This is where Donald Trump comes in. Based on what we know now, what does a Trump-Clinton matchup look like, given this construct?
The April 2016 YouGov/Economist panel of voters shows Democrats leading Republicans by eight percentage points, 33 to 25, which is consistent with other poll results. How do Clinton and Trump do with their own parties and Independents? See the table below.
Clinton does better, retaining 82 percent of her party’s voters, while Trump has 73 percent of his. Both Clinton and Trump get 8 percent of the opposite party’s vote, much like Obama vs. Romney in 2012. As of last month, Clinton was getting a higher percentage of a larger number, while Trump gets a lower percentage of a smaller number. Trump, therefore, needs to do exceedingly well with Independents in order to win in November.
Roughly speaking, given the partisan support differences, Trump would need to win 60 percent or more of the Independent vote to win and, as the table shows, he does not do that well. Trump beats Clinton, 31 percent to 27 percent, which would be insufficient to win the election.
A high number of Independents and other voters, 42 percent, say that, given these choices, they would not vote at all. This breakdown of the vote explains the Republican establishment’s concern about the 2016 elections, as at this point Clinton is doing better with Democrats than Trump is with Republicans, and Democrats are more numerous.
If partisans follow practice and vote for their party’s nominee, as the recent YouGov re-contact survey shows, then Republicans will lose the election. Trump says he will win a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters and that he will win over Clinton supporters. Is that likely?
Of the roughly 1,000 Democrats in our April survey, 39 percent preferred Sanders to be the nominee and, of these, 13 percent said they would vote for Trump, with another 16 percent saying they’d vote for another candidate—or would not vote. Thus, some 29 percent of Sanders’ voters say they won’t support Hillary Clinton, which would seem to lend credibility to Trump’s claim, except for two factors:
First, in the heat of a campaign, primary season partisans often express disillusionment with their candidate’s nemesis. In spring 2008, a high percentage of Hillary Clinton supporters said in exit polls that they would not support Obama. The autumn general elections results proved that they didn’t know their own minds: Most of these Democratic Party loyalists had returned to the fold by November.
The second factor to consider in 2016 is whether Republicans who supported Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or John Kasich will follow suit and end up backing the GOP nominee in the general election. Combining Cruz and Kasich supporters in the April poll showed that about 5 percent of Cruz supporters, 22 percent of Kasich supporters, and 9 percent of other candidate supporters would vote for Clinton. And 34 percent, 29 percent, and 27 percent of those who favored Cruz, Kasich or others, respectively, said they would vote for other candidates or not vote at all.
In short, Trump has picked up more Democratic votes than Clinton has Republican votes, but almost twice as many Republicans say they won’t vote for either Trump or Clinton than is the case for Democrats.
There has also been an increase in the Democratic Party identification relative to Republicans, with Democrats now having an 8 percentage point lead over Republicans. Moreover, since the beginning of the year, the Democratic Party has increased its approval rating, which is now within five points of its disapproval, 43 percent approval to 48 percent disapproval, while Republicans have sunk to 66 percent disapproval as compared to a 21 percent favorable rating.
Democrats have suffered less from the nomination season than have Republicans, and if the election were held today, Trump would not have enough Clinton and Sanders supporters and Independents to win.
There are six months left to campaign, and Clinton does have high negative ratings, so anything is possible. However, with key groups, Trump remains more unpopular among Democrats than Clinton is among the same Republican groups. Democratic women vote Clinton over Trump, 82 percent to 7 percent, while Republican women vote Trump over Hillary at 72 percent to 7 percent. Non-white Democrats choose Clinton over Trump at 83 percent to 5 percent while some 9 percent of Republicans who are non-white like Trump over Clinton by 51 percent-22 percent margin.
If the election were held today, Trump would not garner nearly enough support from Sanders supporters or Democrats in general, thus forcing him to win more than 60 percent of Independents. At this point he isn’t coming close. The party gap is growing and favors Democrats, while Clinton does better among Republican women and minorities than Trump does among those groups in the Democratic Party. In short, before The Donald goes after Bernie and Hillary supporters, he should shore up his own party’s voters if he expects to compete in the November.