Here is what I’m watching between now and Halloween in the 2016 presidential contest:
▪ Will any Republicans drop out? Rick Perry, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal fit the profile of an early-exit candidate (or it could even be a rival who appears to be doing better right now). If that happens, it would be a sign that the natural winnowing of candidates is working the way it has for decades.
▪ Will Republican Party actors – the insiders and others who wield influence – finally pick a horse, or perhaps two or three? The party’s choices are what matters in deciding who eventually wins the nomination, and have been since the mid-1980s. So far, we’ve seen only a trickle of such commitments. Hillary Clinton has far more congressional and gubernatorial endorsements than all 17 Republicans put together. Sooner or later, leading Republicans will have to choose.
▪ Will any of Clinton’s supporters defect? If they do in any significant numbers, that’s how we’ll know the nomination will be open. But just because a lot of people (the press, Republicans, even perhaps rank-and-file voters) are concerned about the continuing scandal over her e-mails, for example, it doesn’t mean Democratic politicians, donors, interest-group leaders and other party actors will be worried enough to jump ship. (A historical parallel: Back in 1987, many believed the Iran-Contra scandal, which knocked 15 percentage points off Ronald Reagan’s approval ratings, would be the end of George H.W. Bush’s hopes. Republicans ignored it and nominated the vice president anyway.)
▪ How is President Obama doing, and how is the economy doing? Candidates, campaigns and the issues aren’t irrelevant to election outcomes. But they’re less important than whether people are looking to throw the bums out or not, and the two most important indicators of this are found in presidential approval ratings and economic statistics. Right now, both point to a fairly close election, perhaps with a small advantage for the Republican ticket. But as today’s stock-market turmoil reminds us, it’s still early.
I’ll be looking at all the polls, I admit. But I know even the Iowa and New Hampshire voter surveys aren’t going to tell us anything until around Thanksgiving.
I’ll also listen to what the candidates say and watch their debates. I’ll follow political advertising and look at patterns in ad buying. But these factors aren’t going to be as reliable an indicator of who will win the White House as the answers to my questions.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.