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It’s the holy grail of presidential election campaigns: knowing which states will be decisive in the Electoral College. We have our guesses: States like Arizona, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin are widely expected to be among the top swing states for 2020. But how confident can we really be in those expectations five months before the election?
To find out, we went back and checked which states election handicapper The Cook Political Report thought would be swing states as of mid-June 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. We then compared those early ratings to what the actual swing states turned out to be after the election. (To be clear, Cook does great work, and we’re not trying to pick on them — we’re simply using them as a proxy to see where conventional wisdom stood at the time. It’s actually surprisingly hard to find historical sources for this, and Cook is one of the only outlets we could consistently find with early assessments of the presidential race dating back to 2004. In an email, Charlie Cook, the founder of The Cook Political Report, told us he thinks of its ratings as rough guidelines, particularly at this point in the cycle: “My view has always been that we are not trying to predict outcomes as much as help our readers see which states are safely in a party’s column, which aren’t but could get into play, which ones are competitive but one side seems to have an advantage, and which ones are really, really close.”)
Importantly, much of how accurate these early ratings are hinges on how you define what is a swing state. For instance, “swing state” could mean simply a state that is closely contested — a toss-up state in Cook’s lingo. But it could also mean a bellwether state — aka a state whose results closely match the national popular vote. This might sound like semantics, but it’s actually an important distinction: In a roughly tied election, toss-up states and bellwether states are more or less the same; however, in an election in which, say, one candidate leads nationally by 10 points, the bellwether states may not actually be very close. So how you define a swing state matters.
And as it turns out, early ratings are often wrong about which states will be toss-ups in November. But, as we will explain, that doesn’t mean they are useless or even bad. In fact, Cook does have a pretty good track record of identifying an election’s bellwether states early on, and arguably that’s more important.
First, though, let’s look at which states Cook expected would be toss-ups at this point in the cycle in the last four presidential elections and which states actually ended up being toss-ups.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/can-we-tell-which-states-will-be-swing-states-in-november/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
Expected toss-ups were those that Cook rated as toss-ups as of mid-June. However, since Cook does not actually define what makes a state a toss-up, we made up our own definition for which states were toss-ups after the election. For our purposes, these are states decided by a margin of 5 points or fewer.
“>1 The teal states in the chart below are those that Cook correctly rated as toss-ups; the pink ones are states that Cook rated as toss-ups but did not turn out to be that close; and the gray ones are states that Cook did not rate as toss-ups but ended up close enough to count as one.
As you can see, Cook’s record of calling toss-ups is mixed. In June 2008, Ohio was the only toss-up state it called correctly. In late May 2016, it correctly identified New Hampshire and North Carolina as toss-ups but missed nine other states that turned out to be tight. On the bright side, in April 2004,<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/can-we-tell-which-states-will-be-swing-states-in-november/#fn-2" data-footnote-content="
As far as we could tell, these ratings were still operative in mid-June 2004.
“>2 Cook correctly foresaw seven states’ toss-up status, missing only four and incorrectly calling toss-ups in just Florida and Missouri. And in late May 2012, it correctly pegged all four of the eventual toss-up states; while at first glance it appears they cast too wide a net by also rating Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania as toss-ups, those states all just barely missed the cutoff for being actual toss-ups (then-President Barack Obama won them each by 5 to 7 points).
But what went wrong in 2008 and 2016 wasn’t that Cook misread the electorate in specific states; it’s that it didn’t realize how competitive (or uncompetitive) the presidential race would be overall. (To be clear, this is not Cook’s fault; there was no way for anyone to anticipate that the economy would collapse in fall 2008, sending Obama to a landslide victory, or that then-FBI Director James Comey’s Oct. 28 letter to Congress seemed to bring the 2016 campaign within a normal-sized polling error of a Donald Trump victory.)
This is clear when you look at the states that Cook’s springtime ratings implied would be bellwethers: Most of them turned out to be actual bellwethers in November.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="3" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/can-we-tell-which-states-will-be-swing-states-in-november/#fn-3" data-footnote-content="
Cook doesn’t directly peg states as bellwethers the way they do toss-ups, but which states they think are bellwethers can be inferred from the states that have the same race rating as the median electoral vote. For example, in 2016, Cook’s expected bellwethers were the seven “Lean D” states because the states to their left combined for 201 electoral votes and the states to their right combined for 234. And how the “Lean D” states voted determined which side got 270 electoral votes. As for which states we considered bellwethers after the election, we judged a state to be a bellwether if the final margin there was within 5 points of the national popular vote margin.
In late May 2016, Cook was wrong to think former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was an overall favorite, but it did correctly anticipate that Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin would closely mirror the national popular vote (although three other states also did). Similarly, in June 2008, Cook’s ratings implied a presidential race that was too close to call, but even after the race shifted in Democrats’ favor, four of the six states Cook viewed as the likeliest bellwethers indeed turned out to be bellwethers (although so did four other states Cook missed). And in 2004 and 2012, Cook had even more success pre-identifying bellwether states than they did pre-identifying toss-up states.
So where does that leave us in 2020? Well, as of June 16,<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="4" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/can-we-tell-which-states-will-be-swing-states-in-november/#fn-4" data-footnote-content="
Although the ratings were last updated on March 9.
“>4 The Cook Political Report lists six states<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="5" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/can-we-tell-which-states-will-be-swing-states-in-november/#fn-5" data-footnote-content="
Plus the Nebraska 2nd District; Nebraska is one of two states that splits its electoral votes by congressional district.
“>5 as toss-ups: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And since Democrats have the advantage in states worth only 232 electoral votes and Republicans have the advantage in states worth only 204, Cook is therefore also expecting these six states to be bellwethers.
History suggests you can largely trust those bellwether ratings, too — though you should expect the election to still throw us a few curveballs. One or two of those states will probably not be that close to the national popular vote; two or three states not on this list probably will turn out to be good national bellwethers.
The toss-up ratings, on the other hand, should not be taken literally — at least not at this stage. And that’s because, while handicappers are pretty good at assessing how states will vote in relation to one another, it is more challenging to forecast the national political environment so far in advance. But in a way, that’s OK; the bellwethers are really what matter.
It doesn’t really matter if, say, Virginia or Texas is decided by just 1 point, because if either one of those scenarios comes to pass, the election is likely a landslide. Knowing the bellwethers in advance is arguably far more valuable because we can then focus our energy on watching who is leading in them — because whoever wins the bellwethers wins the election.
‘I don’t buy that locations (of party conventions) matter’: Nate Silver
In recent weeks, we’ve shared a number of stories about people affected by the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus. They’ve worked in a variety of industries, including vocational training, car service and arts and entertainment, which is reliant on ticket sales and live audiences.
But for all the life changes occurring as a result of COVID-19, there have been countless milestones that couldn’t take place because of the pandemic, too: Weddings are a hallmark of the late spring, summer and early fall, but the virus put a stop to such gatherings. Those cancellations and postponements are tough not only for the couples but also for those who would normally work to make those days special.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="1" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/many-couples-have-put-off-their-weddings-that-means-lost-income-for-this-photographer/#fn-1" data-footnote-content="
There’s no shortage of horror stories about couples who’ve had to fight to get their deposits back from venues when their wedding ceremonies and receptions have fallen through.
That’s the reality for Wendy Ott, a 45-year-old photographer who lives in suburban Milwaukee. Nine of the 10 weddings she was booked to shoot in 2020 have been either pushed to much later this year — with a fervent, almost desperate hope that there won’t be a second wave of coronavirus before then — or to 2021.
“Since I’m so used to doing what I do every year, I was at a loss for what to do at first. Everything kind of disappeared all at once,” said Ott, who has been self-employed for eight years. Her business relies mostly on word of mouth, and she was coming off her best-earning year in 2019, when she made between $55,000 and $60,000.<a class="espn-footnote-link" data-footnote-id="2" href="https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/many-couples-have-put-off-their-weddings-that-means-lost-income-for-this-photographer/#fn-2" data-footnote-content="
Asked for a rough estimate of what she charges to shoot a wedding, Ott said, “It’s in the thousands.”
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Perhaps most challenging for Ott: She generates almost all her income from shooting weddings, so she earns nearly her entire salary just during the wedding season. That means she has to conserve money through the winter, with the expectation that she’ll be able to earn again come late spring.
Her money from last year’s weddings carried her through to about mid-March, then things started to get dire and her bank accounts briefly went into the red. Without any income, it was difficult to pay her rent and bills. Ott feels fortunate that her sister and brother-in-law lent her money — and her federal stimulus payment was helpful — but the wait of more than two months after filing for unemployment was agonizing. Earlier this month, she finally started receiving a little more than $750 per week.
Now that she has some money coming in from unemployment insurance, Ott feels more breathing room than before. It helps that her landlord, who charges $900 a month, vowed not to evict any tenants, even once residential landlords in Wisconsin are legally able to do so. Similarly, Ott’s creditors have been understanding as she pays what she can for now.
Ott has managed to stay centered while quarantined by reaching out to friends and family she normally wouldn’t have as much time to keep in touch with — and by devoting more time to hiking and running to relieve stress. Yet there’s an obvious question that occupies her thoughts from one day to the next: Will the coronavirus numbers dwindle enough to allow weddings to take place later this year?
There are alternatives out there for couples who don’t want to put off their wedding dates any longer. Some may move forward with much smaller ceremonies and opt to hire high-level videographers to document the event. Others are biting the bullet and having virtual weddings over Zoom.
But for Ott to make money, she doesn’t really see a workaround. “I’m banking on the fact that fall [weddings] will happen,” she said, calling herself an optimist. “If fall doesn’t happen, I may need a temporary career.”
One possibility Ott mentioned: As a freelancer, she could do more commercial photography. (Just before the pandemic, she had been in touch with a large Wisconsin bank about work.) She said she could also do some editing on the side for other photographers.
Ott views all these options as things that would merely fill the gaps until she can get back to her passion, though. “I don’t think wedding events will ever go away,” she said, adding that the one-time nature of such outings makes them different from theater or sporting events. “But all I can do is hope things will go up from here.”
FiveThirtyEight database journalist Dhrumil Mehta looks into how the national media has been covering the recent protests against police violence following George Floyd’s killing. We also speak to Danielle Kilgo, a University of Minnesota professor who researches social movements and the media, about how this coverage compares with that of similar protests in the past — and why this matters.
When the novel coronavirus began spreading rapidly throughout the U.S. in late March, 42 states and Washington, D.C., issued stay-at-home orders that shuttered all or most nonessential businesses for an average of nearly 50 days, with some orders lasting as long as 70 days (and counting). Over the same period, the U.S. has seen unprecedented job losses, with Thursday’s report of 2.1 million initial claims now part of a tally of 41 million Americans who have filed for unemployment insurance since the second week of March.
There are a few shreds of encouraging news in the most recently compiled jobs data, though. For weeks, we’ve been waiting for the sheer number of people on temporary layoff or furlough — as opposed to permanent unemployment — to return to work and no longer show up in the official unemployment data. And as the economy begins to open up in 36 of those 42 states with shutdown orders, one place they might finally be appearing is in the number of continued unemployment claims.
As opposed to initial claims, which represent the number of newly unemployed people filing for insurance, continued claims represent the total number of people — newly unemployed or not — whose claims were paid out in a given week. These claims run a week behind initial claims because we don’t know how many of those will eventually be insured. Now that we are months deep into the unemployment crisis, continued claims are arguably a better measure of the current state of joblessness in the U.S. than initial claims are — and for the week ending on May 16, total continued claims declined for the first time since the last week of February, before economic disaster hit American shores.
On top of laid-off workers potentially going back to work, this decline also speaks to companies’ beginning to hire slightly more than they have for most of the crisis. Total job postings on the employment-search website Indeed have increased in each of the past three weeks. Before we get too optimistic, though, those numbers are still sharply worse than in the same time frame in 2019: The volume on May 1 was 39.3 percent worse than on the same date a year ago, but it was just 35.1 percent worse than 2019 on May 22. Still, this is another data point showing that the unemployment situation has started to ever so slightly improve over the past few weeks.
Does that owe to states’ efforts to reopen? To look at this relationship, I asked Indeed for its job-posting trend data broken out by state and classified each applicable state according to how long ago it ended statewide stay-at-home orders.
The four states that reopened the earliest have been a mixed bag since lifting stay-at-home orders. The job-posting trend in Alaska has increased by 8.8 percentage points over the past four weeks, relative to its final week with orders in place; similarly, Montana’s trend is up by 4.9 points. But in the two more populous states, Colorado’s job postings are down 0.8 points, and Mississippi’s are down 5.7 points — meaning that job postings are down more now (relative to 2019) than they were when statewide orders were in place.
That’s just a sample of four states, of course — two of them ranking among the least populated in the country. But the group of states that reopened three weeks ago is larger (11 states) and has seen a similar pattern relative to states that waited longer to reopen:
There could be some selection bias here: States that waited longer may have been in a stronger economic position than those desperate to reopen sooner (although everything above is measured relative to each state’s own jobs trend for its last week in lockdown). And states that never issued stay-at-home orders are, on average, down less in job postings from 2019 (-34.5 percent, as of May 22) than states that still had orders in place as of May 22 (-38.3 percent). But those numbers are also indicative of how little power government orders may have to restart the job market anyway when compared with the power of the virus itself.
Polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans remain somewhat or very concerned that either they or someone they know will become infected with the coronavirus. That has reshaped people’s willingness to go to restaurants and otherwise spend discretionary income, even in states that have loosened restrictions on those activities. As economists have been saying for a while, the only thing that can fully inject life back into the economy is getting the virus under control, which is more true now — according to new daily cases — than it was a month ago, regardless of whether stay-at-home orders were loosened.
And even with the total unemployment situation improving slightly this week, more trouble is on the horizon. The first wave of companies that were granted loans under the Payroll Protection Program will have their expenses covered only through June 30, after which we could see more potential job losses — or temporary layoffs turned permanent. (The U.S. House passed a bill to extend the window to use PPP funds by four months and push back the deadline to rehire workers through December, though it will face opposition in the Senate.) And, of course, any economic progress could be derailed by the ever-present threat of another surge in cases.
It’s another reminder that the virus is what ultimately started this financial crisis — and it will largely dictate the terms of the economic recovery.