An Election Everyone Is Too Scared to Call

Only three elected incumbent presidents in the last century have lost reelection. Polls suggest Trump will be the fourth, but the memories of 2016 have made pollsters leery.

By , a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy.
Voters fill out their ballots at an early voting center
Voters fill out their ballots at an early voting center
Voters fill out their ballots at an early voting center in Alexandria, Virginia, on Oct. 31. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

It takes an awful lot to unseat an elected incumbent president, even an unpopular one. It has happened only three times in U.S. politics in the last century—1932, 1980, and 1992—and despite Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s substantial, steady lead over President Donald Trump, pollsters and pundits alike are doubly reluctant to call this one.

That’s not just because Trump has been openly suggesting he might not accept the results—even declaring the first night of the Republican convention that the only way he could lose “is if this is a rigged election”—but also because the media and pollsters have still not recovered from their embarrassment over the titanic miscalls of 2016. There was a lot of crow eaten the week of that year’s election, and the bitter taste still lingers, as does concern over the damage to reputations.

Though some respected polling outfits such as FiveThirtyEight are now giving Biden almost as high a chance of winning as that 2016 prediction, TV networks and major news organizations such as the Associated Press are pledging to be restrained in their predictions and open up their data to the public. Because of the massive number of mail-in and absentee ballots this time, in part due to COVID-19 measures—and because of Republicans’ many legal challenges to them—some networks are suggesting they may not call the race by Tuesday night, as typically happens. “CNN is deploying resources to keep viewers apprised of updates on vote counts and reports, which may extend beyond November 3,” the network said in a press release.

It takes an awful lot to unseat an elected incumbent president, even an unpopular one. It has happened only three times in U.S. politics in the last century—1932, 1980, and 1992—and despite Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s substantial, steady lead over President Donald Trump, pollsters and pundits alike are doubly reluctant to call this one.

That’s not just because Trump has been openly suggesting he might not accept the results—even declaring the first night of the Republican convention that the only way he could lose “is if this is a rigged election”—but also because the media and pollsters have still not recovered from their embarrassment over the titanic miscalls of 2016. There was a lot of crow eaten the week of that year’s election, and the bitter taste still lingers, as does concern over the damage to reputations.

Though some respected polling outfits such as FiveThirtyEight are now giving Biden almost as high a chance of winning as that 2016 prediction, TV networks and major news organizations such as the Associated Press are pledging to be restrained in their predictions and open up their data to the public. Because of the massive number of mail-in and absentee ballots this time, in part due to COVID-19 measures—and because of Republicans’ many legal challenges to them—some networks are suggesting they may not call the race by Tuesday night, as typically happens. “CNN is deploying resources to keep viewers apprised of updates on vote counts and reports, which may extend beyond November 3,” the network said in a press release.

But the odds are clearly stacked against Trump. On Saturday, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote on his website that Trump has just a 10 percent chance of winning and “things aren’t likely to change all that much in our forecast between now and just after midnight on Tuesday, when we’ll freeze it.”

Biden’s other major advantage may be that not only is he well ahead of polling in the national vote, but that he is also ahead of where Clinton was against Trump in most battleground states at this juncture. Even so, Biden is still thought to be vulnerable in some of the same states that Democrats in 2016 described overconfidently as their “blue wall,” including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

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Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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