RALEIGH — Roughly 12 months from now, we’re highly likely to know the major-party nominees for president and most other elective offices, including North Carolina’s governor and U.S. senator. By this time next year we may also have a clear sense of which party seems likely to prevail in the 2016 general elections.
Right now, however, to offer confident predictions about these events is a form of entertainment, not journalism or social science. There are too many variables. There are “known unknowns” — factors we can be sure will shape the outcome but can’t confidently offer predictions about at the moment, such as the performance of the economy. There are also “unknown unknowns” — factors that may well shape the outcome but are entirely outside of our ability to predict, such as terrorist incidents or international events.
I suspect but can’t say for sure that Hillary Clinton will indeed become the Democratic nominee for president. I suspect that her Republican opponent will be either Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio, but that’s about as far out on the limb as I’m willing to venture at the moment.
When it comes to the political buzz about the upcoming elections, however, I feel more comfortable making predictions based on past experience. For example:
— North Carolina will be one of the top four or five political battlegrounds of 2016. The two major presidential candidates will compete aggressively in our state. Pat McCrory’s re-election bid will probably be the most interesting gubernatorial race in the country. Democrats will come up with someone to take on Sen. Richard Burr, who will be favored for re-election but not a lock.
— Democrats will insist that their presidential nominee is heavily favored because of their party’s “blue wall” in the Electoral College. Since 1992, 18 states and the District of Columbia have consistently voted Democratic for president. They are worth 242 electoral votes. If the same thing happens in 2016, Democrats need only win 28 more votes to keep the White House. They can do it with Florida (29) alone; or with a combination of Ohio (18) and Virginia (13); or with a combination of New Mexico (5), Nevada (6), Colorado (9), Iowa (6), and New Hampshire (4).
As Nate Silver recently observed over at FiveThirtyEight.com, the “blue wall” claim is true as far as it goes but doesn’t really prove what some think it proves. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. The resulting Electoral College tallies were par for the course, with the only truly distinctive outcome coming in 2000. Before 1992, Republican presidential candidates won popular majorities in five of the six last presidential elections. There was, correspondingly, a “red wall” in the Electoral College of states that voted reliably Republican.
If Walker, Bush, Rubio, or some other Republican nominee is leading Hillary Clinton by a few percentage points this time next year, the Electoral College map won’t be the determining factor. That is, the implication of those polls will be that the GOP candidate will be ahead in many of the supposedly “blue wall” states. To illustrate the point, Silver re-ran the 2012 presidential results on the assumption that Mitt Romney had beaten Barack Obama by 3.9 percentage points in the national popular vote, rather than the other way around. In that scenario, Romney would have won 332 electoral votes, precisely the same number that Obama actually received.
— My final prediction is that both sides will raise and spend lots of money, generating all the usual fretting from all the usual suspects, and yet the election will ultimately be decided on the basis of how swing voters feel about the trajectory of the economy and the security of the nation. If they feel good about them, the Democrats will do well. If they are nervous or disaffected, look for Republican victories.
Yes, swing voters still matter. So do broadcast ads, which remain a key tool for reaching those voters. I confidently predict, however, that many otherwise sensible people will claim otherwise.