Presidential Election Predictions, Are They Accurate? | Predicting Elections 2020

by Joe Fuld (He/Him)

Presidential Election Predictions Crystal ball sitting on a map

Presidential Election Predictions for 2020 

We are often asked to predict the future in politics—especially when it comes to Presidential Election Predictions However, being a political consultant does not mean being the best judge of what will happen on Election Day. We are determined to help our candidates win, and that can make us less objective in predicting electoral odds than we should be. In other words, wanting to win is not always a predictor of actually winning. Check out our podcast on presidential election predictions

It is tough to make presidential election predictions, and they are not always accurate even when they come from people we say as “the experts”. Every four years, many of us turn to academic and economic models that predict the presidency. Some of these models are more predictive than others and have worked well over the years. Others have missed the boat a few times, making it clear that being an academic does not guarantee success in election forecasting either. With the constant changing landscape of politics and the polarization of our political dialogue, it makes sense that past predictors of elections may not hold true today.

Below, we list some of our favorite, most popular, and not-so-favorite presidential election predictions models so that you can take a glimpse into the crystal ball ahead of November 3.  This post includes 2020 presidential election models as well as how the model performed in 2016.

Happy election forecasting!

*Note: Many of these models update in real-time. These numbers are a snapshot of what we saw across the models on August 21,2020

Betting Market Model

PredictWise, a site run by Microsoft Research economist David Rothschild, aggregates betting market data to predict in real-time who will win the presidency. The logic in Rothschild’s model is this—why rely on traditional polls to unreliably capture the public mood (given the typical margin of error in these polls) when real-money markets can serve as a more accurate indicator of how the election will swing?

2020 Presidential Election Prediction: Trump (2016: 86% chance of a Clinton victory)

TCW’s Take: Polls aren’t perfect, but neither are political betting markets. Since these markets have gained credibility in predicting elections, they have started taking changes in public opinion polls less seriously. Overconfidence in betting markets makes the markets look misleadingly stable, and that false sense of stability makes it harder for them to predict events that shake up the status quo—such as the outcome of the Brexit referendum, or Trump’s election in 2016. As Rothschild himself pointed out, “prediction markets have arrived at a paradoxical place: Their reliability, the very source of their prestige, is causing them to fail.”

The Fair Model 

Ray Fair, a Yale economics professor and the author of Predicting Presidential Elections and Other Things, has a market-based model first used to predict the winner of the 1980 presidential election. The Fair Model predicts the popular vote by looking at the strength of the economy between presidential election years. However, as Fair himself admitted in 2016 addressing the possible limitations of a market-driven model, “If there’s any time in which personalities would trump the economy it would be this election.” This still holds true in 2020. 

2020 Presidential Election Prediction: Biden 50.5/49.5 (2016: Trump winning with 55% of the vote to Clinton’s 45%) 

TCW’s Take: There are many ways to create market-driven models. Fair and Moody’s are both market-driven but have different outcomes.

FiveThirtyEight Model  

Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight have made a huge impact on real-time presidential predictions since the 2008 election when Silver’s statistical model nailed the popular vote within a percentage point and successfully predicted presidential outcomes in all but one state.

2020 Presidential Election Prediction: Biden 71% chance (2016: 69% chance of a Clinton victory)

TCW’s take: We are big Nate Silver fans, and what he has done to get people to think about polls, models, and election forecasting has made a difference in how we all look at polling and presidential election predictions.

Lichtman’s Model 

Allan Lichtman has been said to have predicted the outcome of every presidential election since 1984. Rather than relying on indicators such as polling, candidate likeability, or issues, Lichtman’s model draws upon a series of 13 questions that seek to determine the popularity of the party that controls the White House. Prevailing attitudes toward the in-party measured in this model help to determine which candidate will win the next election.

2020 Presidential Election Prediction: Biden (2016: Trump)

TCW’s take: Lichtman’s true-false questions can be viewed as subjective. Lichtman has also wavered in his 2016 prediction, initially leaning toward Clinton early in the year, but now pointing to a Trump victory at the polls.

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball 

Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics has managed a frequently updated map of how states will cast Electoral College votes to forecast the presidency (and to predict how gubernatorial and congressional races will shape up as well). These projections have been highly accurate, predicting an Obama victory in the Electoral College in 2012 when several pollsters pointed to a Romney win.

2020 Presidential Election Prediction: 268 Electoral College votes for Biden, 203 for Trump (2016: 293 Electoral College votes for Clinton, 214 for Trump

TCW’s Take: Larry Sabato has broken a lot of ground in his practical approach to politics and really embraced practitioners of politics and modern tactics.   

Moody’s Model

Moody’s Analytics has successfully predicted every presidential contest since 1980 by focusing on two-year changes in income growth, home prices, and gasoline prices, among other factors.

2020 Presidential Election Prediction: Biden (2016: Clinton victory)

TCW’s Take: We like economic-based models, but they aren’t perfect.  In 2016 this model came to a different conclusion than the market-based Fair Model, this year the conclusion is the same. 

The Primary Model

Helmut Norpoth’s model looks at how candidates performed in the presidential primaries to predict how they will fare in the general election. This primary-centric approach has picked the winner of the popular vote in every presidential election since its 1996 inception. The model also considers in-party fatigue among the public, taking into account the likelihood that the opposing party will win if the incumbent president’s party has controlled the White House for two terms. In other words, is the public sick of the current president?

2020 Presidential Election Prediction: 91% certainty of a Trump victory (2016: 87-99% certainty of a Trump victory)

TCW’s Take: While this model has been a successful predictor in the past, including 2016. We don’t find this year’s Republican primary to be a great predictor of the general election, and therefore find this year’s prediction to be unrealistic.

Princeton Model

Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium runs a statistical model to project Electoral College outcomes in presidential elections. This model relies on state-level polls to provide a snapshot of which candidate would win the Electoral College if the presidential election were to be held today.

2020 Presidential Election Prediction: + 6% Biden (2016: +2.6% Clinton)

TCW’s take: If you have not read any of Sam Wang’s writing, you should. We found his 2016 article on the effect of the Comey letter to be a clear voice in the chaos of electoral noise.

Overall: 2020 models 6 Biden, 2 Trump (2016 models: 5 Clinton, 3 Trump)

Of the 8 presidential election predictions models we featured in 2016, 5 predicted President Clinton and 3 predict President Trump. In general, we think the work to make accurate presidential election predictions should be commended. In 2020 the same seven models have predicted Biden and one predicted Trump, but we will see what happens on November 3. 

These academic polls are interesting, but it’s important to remember that the only real way to determine what will happen is to mail in your ballot or head to the polls before November 3 and encourage your friends and family to do the same.