All the data – and every model and prediction based on them – are overshadowed by unusual factors that create enormous uncertainty.
First, we’ve had no real general election campaign yet. Most of the season has been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has had just a handful of his beloved rallies. Biden has mostly stayed at home. The in-person conventions were canceled, replaced by virtual conventions that recorded a collapse in voter interest (only 28% said they watched at least some of the 2020 Republican National Convention, compared with 64% four years ago) and that were virtually bounceless, the first time in modern history when neither candidate appeared to get a bump. In this campaign-less campaign, Trump has been the only player on the field, which has been to his detriment. This will change with the debates, which could be the most consequential of our lifetime and should provide a better sense of the race.
Second, to continue the sports metaphor, even as an abbreviated season gets underway, a dense fog is covering the playing field, making both the ground game and scoring difficult: No one knows how the pandemic will affect voter turnout or the actual casting of ballots. This is a big deal for forecasting and polling – an everything deal when swing-state poll margins are within five points, which is where most are today. Moving turnout share just a few points here and there among Republicans and Democrats could have changed three of the past five presidential outcomes. A measurable disparity in whose supporters’ votes are actually counted – because of higher rates of disqualification of mail-in ballots, pandemic-related difficulties at the polls or even partisan malfeasance – could have a similar effect.
Now, a Supreme Court nomination fight has burst onto the campaign playing field with less than two months to go. With it comes a new layer of unpredictability. There’s no modern precedent to help us forecast how this will affect the contest.
Finally, there is an additional significant factor of uncertainty unrelated to the pandemic or the Supreme Court – the dimensions of the playing field itself.
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