If Donald Trump screws this thing up for Helmut Norpoth, he’s not gonna be happy about it.
“He’s sabotaging my model!” Norpoth says, laughing.
If you’ve been watching Fox News in the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen Norpoth. And this is weird, because Norpoth is a relatively reserved, charming Ph.D. who’s been teaching at Stony Brook University for about 40 years, and he’s there to talk about data.
Or, in Foxspeak, he’s a member of ivory tower academia.
Still, Fox News and Fox Business can’t seem to keep him off the airwaves. Norpoth is with me in a bar four blocks south of the network’s New York City headquarters. He just finished a nice, happy chat with Lou Dobbs. He’ll be back here in a few days to laugh it up with the folks of Fox & Friends.
“Four years ago, it was nothing like this,” he said. “Now I’m drowning in interview requests. All from right-wing places.”
So why are all of these outlets suddenly in love with a Long Island political scientist who bet it all on Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012?
Because he holds the key to their wildest dreams.
“The model says Trump has between an 87 and 99 percent chance to be president,” he said.
Put down your pitchforks for a second.
As you’ve likely heard, Trump is down in nearly every national popular-vote poll, sometimes by double digits. He’s down in every single reputable poll that tracks the electoral map. For weeks, betting and prediction markets have been giving Hillary Clinton a more than 80 percent chance to win the White House. The nerd supremes of 538 have given her even better odds.
Reports from Clinton’s campaign now seem to indicate she’s focused on trying to win the House and Senate, in between drape-measuring sessions.
But Norpoth has been right every single time he’s done this—five for five over the last 20 years.
“It focuses on historical swings of the pendulum,” Norpoth explained. He uses data going back to 1912 that primarily has to do with two central tenets.
First, the setting has to be ripe for a “change” election—where the party in power for an extended period of time appears ready to lose it. And second, the model substantially weights primary popularity for each candidate.
After eight years of a Democratic president who has been relentlessly demonized by the far right, and a walloping even the GOP couldn’t stop with every procedural check and balance imaginable in the primaries, Trump, naturally, dominates this model.
“You saw this, for example, with Carter in ’76. He had no money, no endorsements. People said he didn’t have a chance. Nobody had a clue who he was going in,” Norpoth said.
Carter carried 30 states and won almost five times more votes than second-place primary finisher Mo Udall. It was in a crowded field, too, just like the one Trump faced. And Carter was running against a party still fighting off a scandal involving leaks it could not control.
“In the general, he was it,” said Norpoth.
Of course, far-right websites are now tripping over themselves to talk to Norpoth, whose model presents a utopian fever dream of wishful thinking—a blowout for the fascist prince of conservative talk radio!—until they actually look at the math. The model still shows a pretty narrow victory—52.5 percent to 47.5 percent for Trump.
“I used to highlight that part in other elections,” said Norpoth. “This time, I put [Trump’s chances of winning] at the top and it went crazy.”
Breitbart wrote him up. So did the New York Post, which called him an “election wiz.” The headline superlatives are quite an ego boost in themselves: He’s a professor with an “excellent,” “phenomenal,” and “remarkable” prediction record, according to an amalgam of conservative media websites.
And it’s all true. The model is a perfect, solid machine.
Unless someone pours a bunch of beer all over this machine, which Norpoth concedes Trump might have done.
“If he ultimately loses, it’s because he was unwilling to make the transition from the primary to the general election. He had a big message for change, but he couldn’t lay off of anyone who’s ever slighted him,” Norpoth said. “He’s had so many self-inflicted wounds.”
So Trump’s messing with the model?
“He’s had so many personal quirks and follies. Most candidates manage that better,” he says.
Norpoth then quotes Richard Nixon, who once told Bob Dole to “run as far as you can to the right because that’s where 40 percent of the people who decide the nomination are. And to get elected you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle, because only about 4 percent of the nation’s voters are on the extreme right wing.”
Usually, that’s what happens. Just before the first debate, when campaign manager Kellyanne Conway jumped on board for what pundits kind of disgustingly called “the softening,” Trump pulled into a virtual tie with Clinton in some poll averages.
“It was at about 50-50,” Norpoth remembered.
Then Trump started getting into Thriller-hour Twitter wars with Miss Universe.
“He should’ve laid off. Instead he was threatening to jail his opponent and these accusers,” Norpoth said, referring to the numerous women who have alleged Trump sexually assaulted them.
In other words, when Trump needed to stick to the middle, he swerved as far right as he could, directly into Norpoth’s prediction model.
“He’s not doing what he’s supposed to do,” he said.
Still, Norpoth has money on Trump in the Iowa Electronic Markets, where people put up real cash on this election.
Why not? It’s made him some cash before. And think about it: This would be quite a feat. Somebody’s trying to actively set fire to The Primary Model in real time. What if it’s right?
That, he acknowledges, is his hope.
Later, his son swings by the bar. He’s a bassist and a music educator in the city, and his wife’s quartet just played on Colbert. They took a trip a few weeks ago to see the elder Norporth’s alma mater, Michigan, embarrass Rutgers in a football game, 78-0. Life’s good. Family’s good. Go Wolverines.
Norpoth’s a little worried about Trump on the button. “He can’t let anything go,” he said. He’s still trusting the model that hasn’t failed him yet. But he’s not sure.
“When Reagan ran the first time, he framed the election around that one phrase: ‘Ask yourself, are you better off now than you were four years ago?’ That’s a change message. With who [Trump] is running against, he has so much ammunition. So much stuff to run against,” he said.
“But he just squanders it.”