“Volatility” and why Trump’s odds of victory are higher than popularly assumed

A quick word on “volatility” and why I believe the presidential race is closer than popularly assumed.

The longtime pundit consensus is that Hillary Clinton safely leads Donald Trump in the polls, this trend has been evident for some time, and therefore she is the overwhelming favorite to win the presidential election. My longtime position has been to place Trump’s odds of winning the election marginally higher than the pundit consensus, for reasons I’ll briefly elucidate here.

My personal, rough “fix” on the pundit consensus — which I’ve been doing since Trump was the clear Republican nominee, after the South Carolina primary — is to tack on an additional 20% to Trump’s odds relative to the pundit consensus. So, if the pundit consensus holds that Trump has 10% odds to win the election, my personal adjustment would be to make his odds 30%. That doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is the favorite to win at any given time, it just means his odds are consistently higher than what is popularly assumed, at least according to this metric I’ve devised for myself.

The reasons for my devising of this metric are manifold. First and foremost, the state of the race is highly volatile. Though we should be careful to not dwell excessively on any individual poll, general trends and patterns do indicate that an inordinately great number of voters are undecided or stating their preference for a third party candidate. A poll released yesterday by PPP found that 21% of voters either said they were undecided, or preferred one of three third party candidates.

If between a fifth and a quarter of the electorate presently states that they do not intend to vote for either of the two major party nominees, to me that suggests the race is highly “volatile” and thus susceptible to potential unforeseen shifts. One impetus for such a shift could be the first debate, in late September. We recall that the first Romney-Obama debate did end up having a substantial impact on the polling averages, even though Romney still ended up losing the election. So that “shock” from last cycle could be seen as a precursor to potential “shocks” between now and November.

An important difference between 2016 and 2012 is that the 2012 campaign was never anywhere near as volatile as the current campaign. Romney was never favored to win by the 538 forecast. Conversely, Trump was favored to win for about a week-long span in late July, per the 538 forecast. Romney’s odds never came close to matching Trump’s by a whole host of metrics. The race was static — i.e., not especially “volatile.” Third party candidates and “undecided” never received as much support as they are receiving now. Additionally, Obama had a coalition ready to activate from his large, landslide win in 2008, which ended up carrying forth relatively in tact four years later — even though his popular vote margin of victory was about 4% smaller in 2012 compared to 2008.

Hillary has no good reason to expect that the Obama coalition will simply transfer neatly over to her. This is especially true among young voters, who are nowhere near as enthused about Hillary as they were about Obama in 2008, and even 2012. In fact, they are actively hostile to Hillary in large measure. The breadth of the dislike for Hillary among young voters continues to amaze (but not shock) me, both based on anecdotal experience and the broader data. Also, there is valid reason to suppose that support for Hillary among black voters will not be as robust as it was for Obama in 2008 and 2012. Though Hillary will likely win black voters by a large margin — upwards of 90% — overall turnout is likely to be sapped among that group, relative to 2008 and 2012.

The findings of the PPP poll were complemented this morning by a new ABC News / Washington Post poll, which shows that Hillary and Trump are now equally disliked. Hillary’s favorability rating has actually declined substantially while Trump’s is inching up somewhat. This seems like a bad omen for Hillary. As the election nears and polarization kicks in, we should expect disaffected Republicans to coalesce around Trump, in large part because they cannot bear to abide allowing for the election of another Clinton (whom they’ve loathed most of their adult lives.)

Hillary’s support among disaffected liberals, Democrats, and leftists may consolidate somewhat, but I doubt her consolidation potential has as high a ceiling as Trump’s. Then there’s the presence of third parties, which seem to harm Hillary at a higher rate than Trump. (Gary Johnson’s presence in the race tends to draw more voters away from Hillary than it does Trump. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it shouldn’t be — just examine Johnson’s platform and the type of people who tend to support the Libertarian Party.) Then of course Jill Stein will draw overwhelmingly from Hillary.

Hillary is campaigning specifically to court Republicans and conservatives — touting billionaires, military generals, CIA spooks, and so forth — so it’s hard to envision her favorability among the Left increasing all that much. She is doing little to solidify the newly-energized leftward element of the Democratic coalition whose consciousness was raised by Sanders. Further, there will be a steady stream of new emails, FBI investigation details, and related material trickling out in the coming weeks and months, so it’s hard to imagine her overall favorability numbers increasing all that much.

Then here’s another wildcard. Trump continually gets outlier-ish results to his favor in polling that uses unconventional methodology. Put another way: polling conducted by non-traditional methods — i.e. internet based — regularly puts Trump a few percentage points ahead of the overall polling consensus. Polls of this kind include the LA Times / USC tracking poll (in which Trump currently has a 3.4% lead), Morning Consult polls, and the Reuters/Ipsos tracking poll.

This is interesting because internet-based polls consistently showed “Leave” garnering a higher result than the overall UK polling consensus. Any easy “Brexit means Trump!” proclamations are too simplistic, but there are some parallels worth bearing in mind.

Now, all this being said, I still would not quite go so far as to say that Trump is the favorite. I just think his odds are higher than normally assumed, and have thought this for awhile.