Stop me if you’ve heard this one: predictions that Trump would do badly in the primary were wrong, so don’t listen to anyone predicting that Trump will do poorly in the general election.
That’s a fallacy, similar to the gambler’s fallacy or what poker players call “going on tilt.”
What matters is the underlying logic. Sometimes, good predictions prove incorrect because an unlikely outcome occurs (it happens, just not that often). And sometimes, the prediction was bad to begin with, because it relied on bad assumptions.
Predicting Trump’s Chances
Prognosticators underestimated Trump. Predictions that he would crash and burn have proven incorrect.
And they misread the Republican electorate. In 2016, it’s much more the party of Limbaugh, Hannity, and Breitbart than the party of National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall St. Journal.
But the biggest mistake of all was overestimating the Republican field. It was supposed to be really strong, filled with competent governors and charming Senators.
Scott Walker: thrice victorious in a blue state, took on the unions and won. Actually a one-issue candidate that couldn’t handle the national stage.
Jeb Bush: strong record as governor of a swing state, huge support network. Actually, a terribly unexciting politician and still a Bush.
Marco Rubio: young, gifted orator on the rise, great personal story. He looked so good on paper, but actually wasn’t all that smart and couldn’t handle unscripted moments.
John Kasich: twice elected governor of a swing state, federal and state experience, helped the people of his state instead of taking a self-defeating ideological stance on healthcare. Actually boring and somewhat abrasive, virtually no one’s first or second choice outside of his home state.
Ted Cruz: actually Ted Cruz.
And, to top it all off, the multi-candidate field split the Republican electorate, allowing Trump to win many more delegates than votes. Better candidates and/or quicker consolidation of the field, and the Trump-won’t-be-the-nominee predictions might have been right.
Predicting Trump’s Chances (Again)
The logic behind predictions of Trump’s chances in the primary misread the Republican electorate and overestimated the other Republican candidates, as well as the power and competence of the Republican establishment.
But general election predictions aren’t based on any of that. They’re based on state-by-state demographics (especially minority voters), women, Trump’s disapproval rating nationwide, and factors not specific to the candidates like the state of the economy.
In a divided country, any national election will be competitive. But Trump is definitely not the favorite. And winning the primary against a large field despite not being the early favorite tells us little about how he’d do in the one-on-one general election.