The other day, I was reading something where Nate Silver wrote (roughly), “Clinton has ‘only’ an 80 percent chance of winning the presidency.” His point with the scare quotes was that 80 percent is huge. Still, most people find the idea that Donald Trump has a 20 percent chance of winning the presidency absurd. After all, if you look at the polls, Clinton is winning everywhere. And there are only 24 days until the election. Surely, Clinton has more like a 95 percent chance of winning. Right? Wrong.
There are two major reasons why Donald Trump will never manage to get down even to a 10 percent chance of winning. Let’s start with the more obvious one: the polls could be wrong.
Polling is a science. And the people who do it professionally are really good. If you want to know how many adults support Clinton vs Trump, they can tell with with a high degree of accuracy. But no one cares how many adults support Clinton. We care about how many registered voters will actually go to the polls and vote for her. And figuring that out is really hard. As Sasha Issenberg explained of one pollster regarding the 2008 election:
How Much Are Polls Off?
Is it likely that the polls are off by that much? No. But with fundamental unknowns about who will actually vote, we have to say that Trump has some chance.
The bigger reason that Trump will always have what seems like a bigger chance than seems reasonable is just that something might happen. The Trump campaign has pushed hard on Clinton’s recent illness. If she fainted on stage a week before the election, it could propel Trump into the presidency. Stranger things have happened.
Random Acts of Voting
Matt Yglesias wrote a very interesting article yesterday, This Is the Best Book to Help You Understand the Wild 2016 Campaign. The book in question is Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels. And what it shows is just how dependent voting patterns are to totally unrelated things.
An old example of this is how shark attacks affected the 1916 presidential election in a New Jersey coastal community. But a new example is how NFL games affect voting. So if the Pittsburgh Steelers win the Sunday before the election, it might give Clinton an extra percentage point of the vote in Pennsylvania. On the other hand, if they lose, it will likely help Trump.
And you know: that is crazy.
Things Are as Good as They Could Be
But that is the nature of elections. I believe in democracy, but only because I don’t know of any system that is even as good, much less better. What’s important to know is that we really don’t know what’s going to happen. And that is terrifying. Donald Trump even having a one percent chance of becoming president is terrifying.
What’s important to remember is that Hillary Clinton is doing as well in this election as could possibly be expected. She almost certainly will be our next president. But there are so many things that could happen that we just can’t say. I’ll be worrying until the votes are counted.