Hello everyone! If you missed Part 1, you should read it now–it covered the historic narrowness of the 2020 election, the increase of Electoral College-popular vote gap, and how accurate my forecasts actually were of 2020. Part 2 will discuss three primary subjects: electability (and whether other candidates would have won in the primaries), why intuitions aren't that great at predicting politics, and will wrap up with more thoughts on why Republicans had a chance at all.
Let's do this!
Would __ Have Won?; or, The Merits of Electability
Longtime readers of this blog will know that I said a lot of negative things about the concept of electability. In "Don't Settle for Biden," for instance, I stated that "we should compare Democratic primary candidates to other Democratic primary candidates, not to Trump. Biden's appeal seems to stem from the fact that he is 'electable,' but if you prefer Biden to the rest of the Democratic field, that's fine with me. My problem is when you vote Biden because you think he's the most electable."
Later, in "Klobuchar is Super Effective," I said that "Electability gives us an excuse to look at optics. For instance, there is a widespread perception that women and minorities are less electable, and this gives primary voters an excuse to discriminate against them. However, if effectiveness is used over electability, optics are irrelevant."
The problem, of course, being that optics are relevant. Especially in an election which–what did I say?–was ultimately decided by 0.02% of voters, and the smallest of advantages could have been pivotal. Of course, people did, in fact, settle for Biden, but it begs the question: would other candidates have won?
Despite the obviously-true fact that they would make a better president than Joe Biden, I'm a little worried about what might have happened if Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg was the nominee.
So let's break out the head-to-head polls. To be unbiased, I'll use the RealClearPolitics average from late February, 2020 and recalibrate them to the tipping-point margin in the real election, which was approximately 0.6. Note that I am remapping national results onto state results (which includes Electoral College bias), but it's fine because I'm doing it to Biden too.
Here's the chart:
Again, I wouldn't take any of this too seriously, especially due to the back-of-the-envelope-ness of the calculation and the relative unpredictiveness of early general-election polls. Some of this effect is also probably name recognition, comparing the number of undecideds in, say, the Klobuchar average with the Sanders and Biden averages. It's hard to imagine that Amy Klobuchar, given her quite good electoral track record, would lose Midwestern states like our friend tipping-point Wisconsin (neighboring her home state of Minnesota!) that Biden won.
And I'm still not saying that the way people talk about electability–which is steeped in gender and race–makes any sense at all. (Citation: Obama.) What I am saying is this: despite the obviously-true fact that they would make a better president than Joe Biden, I'm a little worried about what might have happened if Elizabeth Warren or Pete Buttigieg was the nominee. I think it's more arguable that Bernie would've won, given those head-to-head polls, but it's maybe a bit counterintuitive.
More Uncertainty, Less Intuition (when predicting world events)
Then again, my intuitions were pretty garbage in the 2020 election. I thought Democrats would win in a landslide; then I thought that Republicans would win the Georgia Senate races. Just this weekend, I was totally shocked by the seven Republicans that signed on to Trump's second impeachment–I expected more like three. (I just realized I haven't even gotten to the storming of the Capitol yet. I don't think I'm going to, since this post is already getting long. The last few months were quite a news typhoon.) And my poor little brain couldn't just get its head around the fact that it wasn't totally sure what would happen.
My biggest macro-level recommendation here is this: Put less stock in the current news narrative.
My biggest macro-level recommendation here is this: Put less stock in the current news narrative. Ideas fade from memory, previously-unnoticed flaws and benefits are revealed, and things generally regress to the average. Such is the way of the world.
You can see this fallacy in virtually all my politics posts, but the one that comes to mind here is "Harris and Gillibrand Way Underperformed," where I made the great decision of talking about which campaigns did better or worse than expectations before any votes were counted. (Also, the method of counting this makes no sense, since it would currently suggest that everyone underperformed relative to expectations except for Biden, which is obviously ridiculous.) "Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand weren't tried-and-true," I said. "They just looked good in the moment America was having in 2018." Of course, Harris just looked bad in the moment Past Jacob was having when he wrote this idiotic post. And she's now, of course, the vice president.
Nate Silver, of FiveThirtyEight, did a tweet about intuitions back in November:
A Defense of FiveThirtyEight
Speaking of FiveThirtyEight: their 2020 coverage turned out to be essentially spot-on. (I know I've already linked to them a lot in this post.) Their very last pre-election story, also written by Nate Silver, was titled "Biden's Favored In Our Final Presidential Forecast, But It's A Fine Line Between A Landslide And A Nail-Biter." The article makes a lot of points, but here's a section I think aged particularly well:
"But with a 3-point error in Trump’s direction — more or less what happened in 2016 — the race would become competitive. Biden would probably hold on, but he’d only be the outright favorite in states (and congressional districts) containing 279 electoral votes. In Pennsylvania, the tipping-point state, he’d be projected to win by 1.7 percentage points — not within the recount margin, but a close race.
"So while Biden isn't a normal-sized polling error away from losing, he is a normal-sized polling error away from having a messy win that might not come with control of Congress." –Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight
Such a scenario would not be the end of the world for Biden. The extra cushion that he has relative to Clinton helps a lot; it means that with a 2016-style polling error, he’d narrowly win some states that she narrowly lost. Biden has polled well recently in Michigan and Wisconsin in particular and has big leads there. Still, this would not be the sort of outcome that Democrats were hoping for. For one thing, because Biden would probably be reliant on Pennsylvania in this scenario — a state that is expected to take some time to count its vote — the election might take longer to call. For another, it could yield a fairly bad map as far as Democrats’ Senate hopes go, as Biden would be a narrow underdog in several states with key Senate races, including Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and Iowa. So while Biden isn’t a normal-sized polling error away from losing, he is a normal-sized polling error away from having a messy win that might not come with control of Congress."
FiveThirtyEight emphasized over and over again the possibility of a systematic polling error–which could go both directions–and how Biden would probably still win. And that's what happened–a narrow win of the presidency, and what would've been a Senate loss if not for Georgia. (They also, by the way, nailed 2016, giving Trump a much bigger chance than other outlets.)
Remember how I said the Georgia runoffs were "one of the greatest political upsets in modern history"? FiveThirtyEight went against the conventional wisdom to say that Republicans didn't really have much of an advantage at all.
But Why Didn't Biden Win in a Landslide?
In October, YouGov did a poll of residents of various European countries on who they wanted to win the American election.
The results were not close. In Denmark, Biden was leading by a whopping 74-point margin. Even in Spain and Italy, countries arguably to the right of the USA, Biden led Trump 69-16 and 58-20, respectively. But not in America. Even if you go by polls instead of by the popular vote, Biden's lead was ten or twelve percentage points, tops.
Why? There's some evidence that Trump gained ground among Cubans in Florida, and there's some evidence it has to do with worries about communism. But while that explains the results in Florida to an extent, how does it explain the massive polling error in Wisconsin...while the polls were basically spot-on in neighboring Minnesota?
As if to answer this question, I'll leave you with a quote from the Slate Star Codex's fantastic article blog post "I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup". It talks about a lot of things, but here's a block quotation that I think is particularly relevant to the 2020 election:
"There are certain theories of dark matter where it barely interacts with the regular world at all, such that we could have a dark matter planet exactly co-incident with Earth and never know. Maybe dark matter people are walking all around us and through us, maybe my house is in the Times Square of a great dark matter city, maybe a few meters away from me a dark matter blogger is writing on his dark matter computer about how weird it would be if there was a light matter person he couldn’t see right next to him.
This is sort of how I feel about conservatives.
I don’t mean the sort of light-matter conservatives who go around complaining about Big Government and occasionally voting for Romney. I see those guys all the time. What I mean is – well, take creationists. According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.
"People like to talk about social bubbles, but that doesn't even begin to cover one hundred quintillion. The only metaphor that seems appropriate is the bizarre dark-matter world." –Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex
And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.
About forty percent of Americans want to ban gay marriage. I think if I really stretch it, maybe ten of my top hundred fifty friends might fall into this group. This is less astronomically unlikely; the odds are a mere one to one hundred quintillion against.
People like to talk about social bubbles, but that doesn’t even begin to cover one hundred quintillion. The only metaphor that seems really appropriate is the bizarre dark matter world.
I live in a Republican congressional district in a state with a Republican governor. The conservatives are definitely out there. They drive on the same roads as I do, live in the same neighborhoods. But they might as well be made of dark matter. I never meet them."
The fog of the future is vast and intimidating, and it encompasses all.
With all due respect, I would be astonished if a single Trump supporter reads this post, and orders of magnitude more astonished if they would admit it. And so our intuitions are not very helpful. Polls are, by far, more useful than nothing, but the key is to be much less certain of political predictions. The fog of the future is vast and intimidating, and it encompasses all.
I hope you enjoyed this look back at the 2020 election! If you're interested in reading more from my blog, I recommend you check out The Conflux 2020 (the best way to go through my archive), or simply browse the "2020 Election" category to read the analysis and opinions of Past Jacob.