There’s Something Fishy About FiveThirtyEight’s Election Projection Model

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There are two key things we have at our disposal to assess the state of a presidential election. The first, of course, is match-up polling. The second is approval ratings. Even when an incumbent isn't seeking reelection, the approval ratings of the incumbent party are still informative.


If you're following the approval and match-up polls at all this campaign, you know two things: Joe Biden isn't very popular, and Donald Trump is leading in most of the battleground states. Considering these two factors alone — and there are plenty more that suggest Trump is favored to win — things look darn good for President Trump in November.

Except, according to FiveThirtyEight, Biden is more likely to win than Trump.

Technically, Nathaniel Rakich, the senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight, calls it a toss-up, but, as the graphic he posts shows, out of the 100 simulations FiveThirtyEight ran, Biden won 53 times, and Trump just 47 times. In a separate post on X, he insists that FiveThirtyEight's model is based on polls and fundamentals.

How is that possible? A day earlier, Rakich noted that Joe Biden's approval ratings hit an all-time low in FiveThirtyEight's average.


"Historically, all incumbents with an approval rating of 50% or higher have won reelection, and presidents with approval ratings much lower than 50% have lost," noted Jeffrey Jones of Gallup four years ago. For the mathematically challenged among us, 37.4% is well below that 50% threshold.

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According to a Tuesday article that accompanied the forecast, one of the fundamentals incorporated into FiveThirtyEight's modeling is economic factors. "To forecast the election, we rely primarily on polls asking voters whom they support. However, our forecast also incorporates various economic and political indicators that aren’t related to polling but can be used to make rough predictions for the election," the release says.

Right now, Trump leads Biden in most polls of the swing states that will decide the election, but the “fundamentals” favor Biden. The combined polls-plus-fundamentals forecast splits the difference between these two viewpoints and arrives at an essentially deadlocked race. Here’s what it looks like on the state level:


While some economic factors have suggested things are improving, I think it's hard to say that the fundamentals benefit Biden. For one thing, the most important economic factor impacting this election is inflation, which is still much higher today than it was under Trump. Meanwhile, recent polling suggests that even though we may not technically be in a recession, people think that we are. So, the "fundamentals" FiveThirtyEight is basing its projections on could be completely useless.

I don't doubt that the race is close and will ultimately hinge on the results of a handful of states. At present, it appears that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin will determine the outcome of the election, and there are reasons to be nervous about all three. But this election is also unique, in that voters can directly compare life under Trump to life under Biden. And that benefits Trump.

Even Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight, said earlier this week that Democrats would have been "better served" had Biden decided not to seek reelection. But we're supposed to believe that Biden has a marginally better chance of winning in November than Trump?

Look, it does no good for me to give anyone a false sense of hope that Joe Biden can't possibly win. Let's be honest about the situation: he can. There's plenty of time for the dynamics of this race to change in his favor. I don't think they will — and I expect that a recession is likely to happen before the end of the summer — but it's all guesswork at this point.


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We shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of complacency about this election. From where I sit, based on all the polls and "fundamentals" I've covered, Trump is in a much stronger position to win in 2024 than he was in 2020 or even 2016. But this is still a victory we're going to have to fight tooth and nail to win because we know that Democrats will stop at nothing to preserve their own power — especially when it comes to stopping Donald Trump.


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