David O’Connell was careful to use cautionary language to present his take on the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.
“Donald Trump is likely going to lose an election that he probably should win,” the assistant professor of political science told an audience of students, staff and local residents at Dickinson College Thursday night.
“The impact of his loss on the Republican Party will probably not be as big as people think,” he added, mentioning how all the research is based on statistical patterns that may not hold true every time.
O’Connell was one of four Dickinson professors to present their views at a nonpartisan roundtable discussion on Election 2016 hosted by the college’s Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues.
The 2016 campaign has seen the emergence of non-mainstream candidates in Trump and Bernie Sanders along with a shakeup of traditional partisan divisions that speak of a shifting electorate.
“Political scientists generally think four factors are key to understanding presidential elections,” O’Connell said. “I am one of the political scientists that tend to think that candidates have little control over their outcomes in many presidential elections.”
One factor is the distribution of partisanship among voters. While many claim they dislike political parties, most lean one way or the other and those that are “leaners” tend to exhibit voting patterns that mirror staunch supporters, O’Connell said.
This was especially true in the 2012 election that showed over 90 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats voted for Mitt Romney and Barack Obama respectively.
The job approval rating of the current president is also a factor in determining the next president, O’Connell said. He explained that if the sitting president enjoys an approval rating of 50 percent or higher in the summer before an election, his party benefits from that rating come Election Day.
Obama enjoyed a rating of 55 percent midway through his eighth year in office – a rarity among second-term presidents, according to O’Connell.
Another factor is the performance of the economy during the first half of the election year, O’Connell said. “Late economic growth doesn’t have much of an effect. People’s perception of economic performance gets baked into their minds early in the election calendar.”
The economy this year is offering a mixed picture, O’Connell said. Though consumer confidence is high and unemployment low, second-quarter economic growth is well below expectations and the country continues to struggle through the slowest rate of economic recovery in the postwar period, according to him.
“It’s not bad for the Democrats, but it’s not great either,” he told the audience.
The last factor is how long a party has held the presidency. “The American public has a general restlessness,” O’Connell said. “They tend to want to change partisan control of the presidency every eight to 12 years.”
This pattern has held true since the end of World War II, and if this regularity continues it would be bad for the Democrats, O’Connell said. However, given the situation of the election this year, he predicts a toss-up at worse if not a lean Republican election.
The American Political Science Association recently hosted a national meeting in which the majority of those in attendance predicted a close election Nov. 8, O’Connell said.
He mentioned how four models did not use polling data and relied more on the four fundamental key factors of the political environment. Three of those models predict an outcome more favorable to the Republican Party and Donald Trump than the Democrat Party and Hillary Clinton.
One model gave Trump an 87 percent chance of winning the White House based on his superior performance during the Republican primary compared to the highly competitive Democratic primary, O’Connell said. Another expert gave the Republican candidate a 66 percent chance of success based on the tendency of the electorate to change the party in control of the White House.
While history may suggest a Republican victory, O’Connell noted how Trump is underperforming in the very same fundamentals that define the political landscape.
Depending on the poll, Clinton has as much as a 9-percent lead on Trump among voters, O’Connell said. At this point in the race, with less than a month to go, it is almost impossible for Trump to make up that gap, according to him.
In presidential campaigns, voter preferences tend to solidify in the last 60 days with very little movement in the weeks leading up to Election Day, O’Connell said. “That fact that he is trailing at this point is really bad news because it would take an almost unprecedented change for him to overcome that gap.
“This election may be different because Trump is not a typical candidate,” O’Connell said. He added one reason Trump is not in a razor-thin battle for the White House is that the candidate has failed to consolidate support among a broad range of Republicans.
This lack of support was made worse by the recent release of a 2005 tape where Trump is using vulgar language to describe women, O’Connell said. Republicans are abandoning Trump, causing an erosion of votes.
Lastly, the fundamentals are most important when the candidates are running equally matched campaigns, he told the audience. Trump has only spent $31 million on TV ads compared to the Clinton campaign and its $144 million on ads.