There's good reason to believe that Hillary Clinton is going to be America's next president, and some are wondering whether this election would have taken a different course if Donald Trump wasn't the Republican nominee. He does, after all, have the highest unfavorability rating of any presidential candidate in American history, and his seemingly endless reservoir of scandals and unforced errors have set Clinton up for what may well be a landslide victory. Would things be different if the GOP had nominated someone other than Trump?
There's good reason to think the answer is yes, and the question itself gets to the heart of a long-running debate among political scientists.
Some, such as professor Alan Abramowitz, believe that campaigns are largely irrelevant, and that the "fundamentals" — things like the state of the economy, historical trends, and other factors separate from the actual candidates — determine who becomes president. Others insist that the strength and professionalism of individual campaigns and candidates really do matter.
This election offers an interesting case study for both theories. The fundamentals of this election broadly favor Republicans: The economy is good but not great, political parties rarely win three consecutive terms in the White House, Republicans won huge in the last midterm election, and so on. But the Republicans also nominated a weak and extraordinarily divisive candidate, one with historically low favorability ratings who's running a shockingly unprofessional campaign.
We won't be able to conclude anything until after the election, of course. But we can look at how Trump's poll numbers compare to what we might expect from a "generic" Republican candidate — that is, if we only look at the fundamentals. That's exactly what the folks at Vox did, and they determined that the GOP is paying a "Trump tax" of about five percent. In other words, Trump is polling about five points lower than the average Republican presidential candidate would be expected to in this race, given the fundamentals. That may not sound like much, but five percent is often the difference between winning an election and losing one.
Some aren't wholly convinced by this, however. Abramowitz is one of them: His "Time For Change" forecasting model predicts that Trump will win the popular vote by 3 percent. But in yet another illustration of how unique this election is, Abramowitz has cast doubt on his own model because, well, Trump.
"There are good reasons to be skeptical about the 2016 forecast," Abramowitz wrote. "The Time for Change forecasting model is based on two crucial assumptions — first, that both major parties will nominate mainstream candidates capable of unifying their parties and, second, that the candidates will conduct equally effective campaigns so that the overall outcome will closely reflect the 'fundamentals' incorporated in the model." He goes on to say that, of course, Trump isn't a mainstream candidate, and the two candidates haven't run equally effective campaigns.
Professor Allan Lichtman, another proponent of the "fundamentals" theory, is in the same camp. His model also predicts that Trump will win, and yet he thinks this could be the year that his model fails.
"I believe that given the unprecedented nature of the Trump candidacy and Trump himself, he could defy all odds and lose even though the verdict of history is in his favor," Lichtman told the Washington Post. "So this would also suggest, you know, the possibility this election could go either way. Nobody should be complacent, no matter who you're for, you gotta get out and vote."
The results of the election will shed some light on how much credence each of these theories deserves. But if Trump does lose, it will be a strong sign that, while the fundamentals of a presidential election are important, they can't make a winner out of a loser.