What if everything you think you know about politics is wrong? What if there aren’t really American swing voters—or not enough, anyway, to pick the next president? What if it doesn’t matter much who the Democratic nominee is? What if there is no such thing as “the center,” and the party in power can govern however it wants for two years, because the results of that first midterm are going to be bad regardless? What if the Democrats’ big 41-seat midterm victory in 2018 didn’t happen because candidates focused on health care and kitchen-table issues, but simply because they were running against the party in the White House? What if the outcome in 2020 is pretty much foreordained, too?
To the political scientist Rachel Bitecofer, all of that is almost certainly true, and that has made her one of the most intriguing new figures in political forecasting this year.
Bitecofer, a 42-year-old professor at Christopher Newport University in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, was little known in the extremely online, extremely male-dominated world of political forecasting until November 2018. That’s when she nailed almost to the number the nature and size of the Democrats’ win in the House, even as other forecasters went wobbly in the race’s final days. Not only that, but she put out her forecast back in July, and then stuck by it while polling shifted throughout the summer and fall.
And today her model tells her the Democrats are a near lock for the presidency in 2020, and are likely to gain House seats and have a decent shot at retaking the Senate. If she’s right, we are now in a post-economy, post-incumbency, post record-while-in-office era of politics. Her analysis, as Bitecofer puts it with characteristic immodesty, amounts to nothing less than “flipping giant paradigms of electoral theory upside down.”
Bitecofer’s theory, when you boil it down, is that modern American elections are rarely shaped by voters changing their minds, but rather by shifts in who decides to vote in the first place. To her critics, she’s an extreme apostle of the old saw that “turnout explains everything,” taking a long victory lap after getting lucky one time. She sees things slightly differently: That the last few elections show that American politics really has changed, and other experts have been slow to process what it means.
If she’s right, it wouldn’t just blow up the conventional wisdom; it would mean that much of the lucrative cottage industry of political experts—the consultants and pollsters and (ahem) the reporters—is superfluous, an army of bit players with little influence over the outcome. Actually, worse than superfluous: That whole industry of experts is generally wrong.