Democratic strategists believe an unrelenting focus on the pandemic will propel Joe Biden to the presidency. Polls of swing state voters are released daily that favor Biden, but nagging doubts about voters’ real intentions remain because of the near-universal failure of polls to predict Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.
Real Clear Politics currently lists 22 states as leaning slightly toward Biden, leaning slightly toward Trump, or tossups. In total, 268 electoral votes are uncertain. When tossups are decided using aggregated polling data, RCP projects Biden to win 357 to 181.
Which way will the election go if the polls are once again wrong, Democratic strategists are correct, and battleground states are decided on the basis of Covid-19?
To answer the question I computed two kinds of “misery index” based on the progression of Covid-19 in each state.
Misery Index I is the pain of the virus itself — the death toll.
Misery Index II is the pain from the response to the virus — from the lockdowns.
I theorized that if Misery Index I is more prominent in voters’ minds, they will vote for a leader who will get the virus under control. Biden will win. If Misery Index II is more prominent, voters will vote for a leader who will get the country back to normal. Trump will win.
Real Clear Politics lists Arizona as a tossup state. But from a Covid-19 point of view, Arizona’s death rate peaked more than 3 months ago, and the current death rate is far below the peak. This raises the possibility that Misery Index II is more prominent in Arizona voters’ minds, and they might vote for Trump.
RCP shows Indiana leaning toward Trump. But the current daily death rate in Indiana is higher than its long-term average. Moreover, the death rate has increased 40% over the past four weeks. This raises the possibility that Misery Index I is more prominent in Indiana voters’ minds, and they might vote for Biden.
I n constructing misery indexes for each state, I reviewed the following factors:
Days since peak death day. How many days has it been since each state hit its peak Covid-19 death toll? If the peak was recent (and therefore still top of mind), that favors Biden. If the peak feels like it was long ago, voters will be tired of “unnecessary lockdowns”, and that favors Trump.
Daily death rate now vs. the peak. If the current daily death rate remains close to the peak, that favors Biden. If the current daily death rate has dropped significantly below its peak, that favors Trump.
Daily death rate now vs. long-term average. If the current daily death rate is higher than its long term average, that favors Biden. If significantly lower, it favors Trump.
Recent daily death rate trend. If the daily trend over the past 14–28 days has increased very much, that favors Biden. If it has decreased significantly, that favors Trump.
Using these considerations, I set the breakpoints for favoring each candidate as shown here.
This analysis produced very little gray area in the Misery Indexes. Of 22 states, only Nebraska stayed neutral. Of the remaining 21 states, two-thirds tilted strongly toward one Misery Index or the other.
The Misery Index analysis produces results almost entirely different from current polls.
When the electoral votes from this analysis are tallied, the outcome is not what Democratic strategists have in mind. The overall result has Trump winning by 3 electoral votes.
If you agree with Democratic strategists’ prioritization of Covid-19 as an election issue, and if you examine what that implies about the battleground states, this election looks like it will be a nail biter.
And that’s when it gets really interesting.
Maine and Nebraska use proportional electoral vote allocation. That means electors cast their electoral votes roughly proportionally to their state’s overall popular vote. Sometimes that results in splitting electoral votes among candidates. Nebraska might cast 3 electoral votes for Trump and 2 for Biden, or 4 for Trump and 1 for Biden.
According to the polls, Maine and Nebraska each have at least one electoral vote that’s undecided. With an election as close as this Covid-19 analysis predicts, we could end up with 4 electors in Nebraska voting for Trump, and Nebraska’s remaining elector casting the vote that decides the whole election for Biden. Or 3 electors in Maine could vote for Biden, and the fourth could cast the vote that decides the whole election for Trump.
November 3 could be an interesting night indeed.
The table below provides the details used to calculate the Misery Indexes. This data was taken from the Covid Tracking Project and was current as of 10/21/20.
“14-Day Death Rate vs. Average” refers to the most recent 14 days’ daily deaths rate compared to the daily average since each state’s first death.
“Recent Increase or Decrease” refers to the most recent 14 days’ deaths compared to the preceding 14 days’ deaths.
“Recent Death Rate vs. Peak Death Week” compares the most recent 7-days’ deaths to the 7 days around each state’s peak death day. Because of variations in state reporting, both the 7-day period ending on the day of peak deaths and the 7-day period with the peak death day in the middle were considered. The highest of those two 7-day totals was used for the comparison.