A humble guide to the election: What we don't know, and what we do

A humble guide to the election: What we don't know, and what we do

Three words rarely uttered in Washington should become its new mantra. They are: “I don’t know.”

The 2016 presidential election and the timing of this year’s pandemic should have cured the nation’s capital of making predictions. Yet prognostication remains a staple of public discourse.

That’s a shame. When someone confidently projects who will win the presidential election this year, the appropriate response is to politely turn away and do something else. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.

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At the same time, a few considerations grounded in past elections — but short of soothsaying — have a chance of holding up.

The first is: Whatever is important today won’t be as important five months from now.

The public’s attention is riveted by something new almost every week. But that changes all the time. Injustice against Blacks, the economy’s decline, and the need to defeat COVID-19 are challenges that won’t disappear. But significant new issues surely will emerge by November and, to repeat, we don’t know what they’ll be.

Second, watching the news is not a good way to guess who will win the election.

Most voters don’t see issues the way media outlets present them. The urban-based journalists who produce the national news too often fall back on the expedient yet entertaining political angle. They ask: “Will the pandemic sink President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump on Kanye West's presidential run: 'He is always going to be for us' Marie Yovanovitch on Vindman retirement: He 'deserved better than this. Our country deserved better than this' Trump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' MORE?” But most voters care about the pandemic itself and how they can live through it, not its political implications. Except for activists who already know how they’ll vote, people are focused on living their lives. They don’t think much about politics until Election Day nears — if then.

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Third, the fate of politicians is largely the result of events out of their control.

A lot of attention is paid to what politicians do or, more precisely, what they intend to do. But if history is guide, the election probably will depend on how well or how poorly the American people deal with their hardships. If managers and workers find ways to overcome the pandemic and whatever else they face (and we don’t know what that will be), then the incumbent will have an advantage. But if individuals and their governments stumble, the challenger will get a boost.

But that won’t determine the outcome. One reason is Consideration No. 4: The presidential election is a binary choice.

News organizations painstakingly assess the candidates — as they should — but voters tend to act on instinct and their overall impressions. In the end, many ask: “Which candidate do I like less?” By default, they choose the other one.

Guessing at this stage about which is the lesser candidate is fraught with peril. Republicans have just begun to attack the presumptive Democratic challenger, Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says Biden has been 'brainwashed': 'He's been taken over by the radical left' Trump says he'll wear mask during upcoming trip to Walter Reed Latino group 'Mi Familia Vota' launches M voter turnout campaign targeting swing states MORE. President Trump, by contrast, is dumped on every day. 

The fifth point to consider is a question: Can President Trump continue to define himself as an outsider even though he’s the most important person in Washington?

Like many populists, Trump is a multimillionaire who can afford to — and, in fact, revels in — telling authority figures to buzz off. His freedom to act “irresponsibly” in this way is part of his charm but also could lead to his downfall. How can he tame the establishment if he’s also the man in charge? The way he handles this conundrum is likely to be a key factor in the presidential race. It’s also a reason Republicans are starting to portray former Vice President Biden as the ultimate Washington insider, a designation most voters abhor.

Consideration No. 6 is a question that Democrats and even some Republicans are asking: “How can anyone vote for a crazy person like Donald Trump?”

Deep-blue Democrats ask this a lot, but the question misses what happened in 2016 and could happen again this year. Enough voters were eager back then to try something new — even if it was wildly unconventional — because they were hungry for change. They chose Trump because they thought he was crazy in certain ways. They preferred his brazenness and blatant exaggeration to the boring and disappointing sameness of the past.

Besides, voters instinctively understand that anyone who runs for president has to be at least a little crazy. No sane person can wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, “I’m the one,” as presidential candidates do.

A little humility is a good idea in these uncertain times.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, an author and former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal, Time, Fortune and the Washington Post, is president of BGR Public Relations, a division of BGR Group, a Washington-based lobbying and communications firm. As a journalist, he worked as a White House correspondent, Washington bureau chief, senior political correspondent and columnist, and he is the author of four books, including “The Money Men: The Real Story of Fund-raising’s Influence on Political Power in America” (2000).