You can pretty much count on several important mileposts to pop up along the presidential campaign trail.
Those traveling that foggy and winding path can first count on the primaries. They weed out pretenders from the real thing, and this year gave us Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
Next come the conventions at midpoint along the trail. That’s where Trump honed his message of “strength,” of a builder who “gets things done.” And Clinton produced an array of stars culminating in President Obama and his declaration that she was the “most qualified” candidate to ever seek the White House.
Toward the end of the trail, the presidential and vice presidential debates provide a final definition – the opportunity for those still undecided (and how could anyone still be on this fence?) to make up their minds.
But a new signpost has appeared in recent years, the one provided by Jim Campbell, distinguished professor of political science at the University at Buffalo. Over the past several years, Campbell has summoned all of his powers as a political scientist and predicted the popular vote in what has become one of the election’s most anticipated events.
Campbell has been quoted by CNN, CBS and NPR, and authored pieces for the Washington Post and other major publications. He ranks among the top political scientists in the nation, explaining why his UB classes in presidential elections close out so quickly.
His latest book – “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America” – has just been published by Princeton University Press.
But Campbell’s biggest splash arrives with his presidential prediction juggling all kinds of numbers through a complicated formula that explains why some political nerds earn doctorates and others write the Politics Column.
He plugs the results of the Gallup Poll immediately after the political conventions, the second-quarter gross domestic product and a host of other factors into a formula that – for the most part – accurately predicts the contest.
His model stumbled in 2008 when he predicted in September that John McCain would defeat Obama with about 53.8 percent of the national popular vote. Barring an “October surprise,” he said back then, McCain would prevail.
But the catastrophe that afflicted the world financial markets just as he issued his report constituted exactly such a “surprise,” and the string of accurate predictions was disrupted. But for the most part, it has proven eerily accurate when applied retroactively all the way back to 1948.
So fast forward to 2016 and his ultimate prediction: 50.7 percent of the national popular vote for Clinton and 49.3 percent for Trump.
That constitutes an official close election.
But then Campbell adds this: “The probability of correctly forecasting that Clinton will receive more than 50 percent of the national popular two-party vote is 69 percent,” he writes. “The probability that Trump will receive more than 50 percent of the national popular two-party vote is 31 percent.”
Lots has been written about last week’s debate and its effect on the real poll taken on Nov. 8. But the history behind Campbell’s model points toward its reliability and a Clinton victory, though he notes that an “October surprise” may loom, and that Trump’s historic candidacy has demonstrated staying power even though nobody except for Trump himself ever predicted it.
“He has made a strong case; people want change,” Campbell told the Politics Column. “Hillary has been part of it for 30 years, and you won’t get change with 30 years.”
Campbell points out one other crucial factor: His professorial prognostication does not take into account that peculiar institution known as the Electoral College. The popular vote his formula measures provides an important forecast, but the 270 votes tallied by the college will determine the next president. The Electoral College means everything. Just ask Al Gore.