Research News

Presidential race too close to call, UB political expert says

Concept of the 2020 presidential election featuring the American flag, a calendar with Nov. 3rd circled and "I Voted Today" stickers.


Published September 25, 2020

Jim Campbell.
“This forecast analysis will not alleviate that angst, but might prepare us a bit for what we may be heading toward. ”
James Campbell, UB Distinguished Professor
Department of Political Science

While many national presidential election forecasts have Joe Biden leading Donald Trump in popular votes by a respectable margin, James Campbell reports that the presidential forecast model he uses shows a much tighter race.

It’s a contest that is too close to call, says Campbell, UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science, who adds there are indications that the election winner might not be announced on the first Tuesday in November.

Campbell announced his findings Sept. 18 on the political news website Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

“Entering the homestretch of this surreal presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, many of us are holding our breath and looking with anxiety and trepidation toward Election Day,” wrote Campbell. “This forecast analysis will not alleviate that angst, but might prepare us a bit for what we may be heading toward.”

Campbell utilizes two forecasting models in predicting the outcome of the presidential election. The Trial-Heat model is described as a simple, intuitively sensible, historically grounded, and transparent forecasting equation with a long history of accurate forecasts of the national two-party system. The Convention Bump model uses information taken from polls at various times during the campaign. Both models have an impressive record, accurately predicting the 2012 and 2016 elections by one point.

Here are some of the major takeaways from Campbell’s findings:

  • The forecasts, taking into account the economic indicator’s problem this year, indicate that the national popular vote division should be very close. Campbell finds it interesting that Trump’s current approval ratings are about 45%, right around the politically neutral point. More telling is that 50% of the public approve of Trump’s job performance as it relates to the economy. These are not remotely the numbers of a president widely blamed for a weak economy, much less a 31.7% nosedive in the economy.
  • The four versions of the forecast are quite consistent in predicting an even narrower popular vote margin for Democratic candidate Joe Biden than Hillary Clinton received in 2016 when she won the popular vote, but lost the electoral vote.
  • The electoral vote division could easily go either way, as there are tight races in these battleground states.
  • The real wild cards are the pandemic and the heavily bruised economy. Both are the great unknowns in predicting voter behavior.
  • It won’t be over. With such a close election, the overheated political climate and the controversies sure to follow additional adoptions of mail-in balloting, as well as the many highly anticipated campaign events to come, the whole nation may be on blood pressure medication before this is over (whenever that might be).

One thing is guaranteed from Campbell’s findings: The next 60 days and beyond are going to be a wild ride. The only thing known is the unknown.