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Perspectives

U.S. Election 2020: Amidst historic levels of turnout, who will claim the Oval Office?

  • The U.S. Presidential Election is shaping up to be a divisive, rhetoric-driven affair, with two polarising figures (albeit not equally) vying for the Oval Office; yet, this could serve just as well as a summation of the contest in the previous election - raising the question, how do you predict the outcome of a thoroughly unpredictable affair?
27 Oct 2020
President Trump and his main competitor former Vice President Joe Biden engage in a raucous first debate. 

Source: Reuters
President Trump and his main competitor former Vice President Joe Biden engage in a raucous first debate. Source: Reuters
62 million Americans have already cast their votes through mail-in ballots and early-voting alone, shattering previous voting records, and setting up the 2020 Presidential election for historic levels of turnout.

Source: Reuters
62 million Americans have already cast their votes through mail-in ballots and early-voting alone, shattering previous voting records, and setting up the 2020 Presidential election for historic levels of turnout. Source: Reuters

The U.S. Presidential Election is shaping up to be a divisive, rhetoric-driven affair, with two polarising figures (albeit not equally) vying for the Oval Office; yet, this could serve just as well as a summation of the contest in the previous election - raising the question, how do you predict the outcome of a thoroughly unpredictable affair?

If polls are an accurate reflection of the complex voting sentiments of the American general public, one which not only suffers from increasing economic and social disparity, but also wildly contrasting opinions driven by partisanship - Democratic candidate Joe Biden continues to lead President Trump by a modest margin, with a 50.75% aggregated approval rating for the former, and a 42.64% approval rating for the incumbent. 62 million Americans have already cast their votes, having cast 45% of the overall votes in the previous election through mail-in ballots and early-voting alone, shattering previous early voting records, and setting up the 2020 Presidential election for historic levels of turnout.

According to Allan Lichtman, a professor of American history who has accurately predicted every single Presidential election since 1984, “polls are not predictions, they are snapshots - and those snapshots unpredictably change”. In the 1980s, Allan Lichtman collaborated with Vladimir Keilis-Borok, a Soviet seismologist, to develop a model that could accurately forecast the outcome of a Presidential election without the use of aggregated polls - Lichtman was one of the few who predicted Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, and develops a comprehensive case for his subsequent impeachment in “The Case for Impeachment” in 2017. In “The Keys to the White House”, Lichtman looks at variables such as economic and foreign policy performance, social unrest, scandals, as far as the charisma of the candidates - while ignoring any current polls, political pundits, campaigning and televised debates - to make a prediction on the outcome of the election.

In an interview for the International Politics and Society journal, Lichtman presents an interesting insight into the nature of electoral polls which are used to predict any outcomes, stating that “..they don’t actually poll voters - they poll something called likely voters, which requires an estimate which leads to error”. Furthermore, he mentions that “[the polls] don’t take into account the errors from estimating likely voters, or people not having made up their minds”, indicating that these statistical discrepancies fail to get a reasonably accurate reflection of voter sentiments across the country.

Lichtman argued that “In 2016, Trump was the challenger”, as six or more of the variables were more favourable towards the Republican Party, not to mention the middling appeal of Hilary Clinton as a potential Presidential option, considering the controversy surrounding her political career - accurately predicting that Donald Trump would eventually ascend to the Presidency. However, this time round Lichtman’s model has predicted that Donald Trump will lose his presidency, stating that “never in the history of the United States has the party holding the White House ever suffered such a sudden and dramatic reversal of fortune, in just a matter of a few months”, adding that “Trump has no one to blame but himself, because when you are the incumbent, it’s governing, not campaigning that counts”.

The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled this election, as the Trump Administration’s handling of the pandemic, their subsequent withdrawal from the World Health Organization, the economic ramifications of the virus and the surge in race-related civil unrest pertaining to criminal justice reform, has brought the President under scrutiny - not simply in the eyes of the international community, but the multitudes that thronged to his support. According to Allan Lichtman’s model, it would be amiss to suggest that the President could pull “a rabbit out of the hat” and somehow snatch victory from a Presidency seemingly beyond his grasp.