Predicting the President

When he addressed the Middlesex community in April 2016, Dr. Matt Dickinson – a professor of political science at Middlebury College – leaned toward a Clinton win in that year’s presidential election. Speaking this time via Zoom to an entirely different student audience on October 23, 2020, he discussed the factors on which such projections are based, focusing on the topic, “What Can Political Science Teach Us About 2020?”

Regarding the upcoming election as an unusually important one that is taking place in the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, Dr. Dickinson wondered, “Is what has happened in the past relevant for the future?” Historically, he noted, polls of voters taken 12 days before an election provide highly reliable estimations of results, even if they don’t reveal anything about why voters are making their choices. In examining voters’ motives, political scientist V.O. Key found that most elections could be forecast based on “fundamentals,” such as whether the country was at peace or war and whether the economy was growing or shrinking. Finally, once the ballots are cast, “Normally the popular vote is a good predictor of the Electoral College vote,” Dr. Dickinson said.

But can any forecasts be trusted, given that the November 2016 results defied each of these assessments? Reflecting on his own incorrect conclusion back then, Dr. Dickinson observed that significant polling errors, along with Trump’s close wins in major Electoral College states, account for much of the difference in expected outcome. Given those circumstances, he acknowledged having more questions that confident answers about the potential 2020 winner.

Putting the significance of this election into context, Dr. Dickinson explained that the last three decades have seen impressive two-party competition, leading to today’s intense period of partisanship – and leaving winning candidates facing an oppositional Congress. “The question is not only who is going to win,” Dr. Dickinson summarized, “but can he win with a margin that will allow him to govern.” Judging from Middlesex students’ astute questions about polls, polarization, and the two-party system, many are eager to learn what November 3 will bring.