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Predicting Who Will Be the Next U.S. President

The results from the Iowa caucus are in, with Hillary Clinton clinching a narrow victory over Bernie Sanders in the race for the Democratic nomination and Ted Cruz cruising to victory ahead of his rivals in the race for the Republican nomination. The biggest winner of the night was Marco Rubio, who signalled his credibility as a candidate for the GOP by finishing a strong third in a state in which he was expected to garner few votes. The biggest loser? Donald Trump, who once tweeted the phrase “No one remembers who came in second” and who, in the Iowa Republican caucus, came in second.

With all the media attention focused on the theatre of the campaign – the ups and downs, the winners and losers – it is easy to forget what really matters: who actually has a chance of becoming the next president.

The Contenders

The Democratic nomination is a two-horse race between the “establishment” candidate – former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who narrowly lost the nomination to Barack Obama in 2004 – and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who only registered as a Democrat in 2015, having previously served as an independent.

On many key issues the pair have similar views. Both want to see the overturning of Citizens United, a Supreme Court ruling that allows politicians to circumvent rules on maximum donations to political campaigns by raising unlimited sums of money through the use of political action committees. Both support an increase of the federal minimum wage from its current level of $7.25 an hour – Clinton to $12 an hour, Sanders to $15 – and both are opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

But Sanders seems to have captured the zeitgeist, much in the way Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did in the UK, by promoting an unashamedly socialist platform that would normally be anathema to American voters. Much like Donald Trump, he has touted his independence from big money donors and Democratic voters are increasingly buying into his message, with the latest Democratic poll numbers showing Sanders on 45% to Clinton’s 48% – as narrow a lead as Clinton has had in the race so far.

In contrast, the Republican field has been dominated by several characters who have had their moments in the media spotlight.

Jeb Bush started his campaign as the strong favourite for the Republican nomination, in large part because of his family name and political connections. As of 1 February 2016, he had raised $155.6m – a sum that dwarfs the war chests of all other Republican candidates, his campaign having made use of the Bush family network to raise funds. But he has had little success in winning over other Republican donors. And it’s little wonder why – he ended up spending $5,000 for each vote received in Iowa, all the funding in the world not being able to make up for his lack of natural charisma and uninspiring message.

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson – a strange man who has a painting of himself with Jesus, keeps a room in his home dedicated to his awards and certificates, and has been put in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the truth of his claims that he once tried to stab someone – has had his moment in the limelight as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, but failed to capitalise on the media attention and faded into obscurity.

Throughout his campaign Donald Trump has been making the headlines, with each controversial comment inexplicably boosting his poll ratings. In his speech announcing his candidacy, Trump said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”, the qualifier seemingly expressing some doubt over whether it is possible that there might be some decent Mexican immigrants out there. His proposed solution to the issue is to build a “great wall” on the border and make Mexico pay for it. Other wild policies include a complete shutdown on all Muslims entering the U.S. and a plan to “cut the head off ISIS and take their oil”. Despite polling higher than all other Republican candidates, the Iowa caucus results suggest that his supporters haven’t been turning up to vote. The world breathes a sigh of relief.

Like Trump, the second-highest polling Republican candidate, Ted Cruz, is running on a platform of fear and is despised by the Republican establishment. But unlike Trump, his devout Christianity endears him to the Evangelicals who make up much of the Republican base. And it is this appeal that won Cruz the highest number of votes in Iowa and is expected to propel his campaign. In order to win the nomination, however, Cruz will have to show how he can win over swing voters who don’t share his socially conservative views.

Enter Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the darling of the GOP establishment, who many on the Right consider to be the best “mainstream” candidate in the field. Young and charismatic, he stands out among the Republican candidates – in image, not ideology. He hails from Florida, a key swing state in presidential elections that carries a huge number of electoral votes due to its high population (click here for an explanation of the Electoral College system). And his Cuban-American heritage would be an asset when courting the Latino community, who make up 12% of the electorate. Rubio would likely present the strongest opponent to Clinton but he is not hugely popular with the Republican base, his most recent poll average being just 13.8% – way behind Trump’s 36%.

Why this Election REALLY Matters

It is difficult to ever admit during a presidential campaign that that particular juncture is any less critical than any other. Threats are unending. But there is one huge reason to believe that this election really matters: the next president could appoint as many as four Supreme Court justices (out of a total of nine).

What does this mean in practice? Well, a conservative-dominated Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, a 1973 case that guaranteed women the constitutional right to abortion. It could reverse the recent ruling legalising same-sex marriage. It could block attempts to revisit the Citizens United ruling that allows corporations to spend unlimited sums of money influencing federal elections. And it could strike down the Affordable Care Act, which saw 17m uninsured people gain health coverage.

So Who Will Win?

Predicting who might win an election can be notoriously tricky. Over the years polling has become less accurate as it becomes increasingly difficult to reach people via phone at home. Political polls conducted by Pew Research had response rates of 35% in the 1990s, a number that has fallen to just 9% today. Estimating candidates’ popularity by looking at media coverage is also becoming less effective as people get their news from increasingly diverse sources.

There is one method, however, that has shown great accuracy in forecasting who will win an election: prediction markets. Such markets, in which people place bets on certain outcomes, have the advantage of incorporating new information in real-time, much in the way a publicly-known event is immediately incorporated into a company’s share price. And the markets benefit from a phenomenon called the wisdom of crowds, whereby the collective opinion of a group of individuals is more accurate than that of a single expert. Unlike political commentators and pollsters, people who bet on political outcomes put their money where their mouth is. If you are convinced Sanders is going to win the Democratic nomination, you can bet on it, and with pretty good odds, too. If you are certain that Trump could never be voted into office, you would be wise to bet on his opponents.

Using odds from Betfair, Election Betting Odds estimates the probability of each candidate winning their primary and the presidency. Accurate at the time of writing, Clinton is estimated to have an 80% chance of winning the Democratic nomination to Sanders’ 18%. Rubio has a 39% chance of winning the Republican primary, Trump has a 30% chance, Cruz has a 13% chance, and Bush has an 8% chance. Carson trails way behind with a 0.2% chance. As for who will be the next president, the odds suggest Clinton has a 51% chance, Rubio has a 19% chance, and Trump and Sanders – despite capturing so much media attention – have only a 10% chance and a 7% chance respectively.

So there it is. No doubt there will be twists and turns but the most likely scenario appears to be a Clinton–Rubio matchup. As for who will be the president? At those odds, my money is on Clinton.


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