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Forecasting the 2024 Presidential Election: The Data Says … Who Knows?

FiveThirtyEight host and podcaster Galen Druke uses data to dive into next year’s race.

By Lesley Kennedy  |  December 6, 2023

AUSTIN, Texas—No, Galen Druke can’t simply gaze into a crystal ball to announce who will win the 2024 presidential election. 

But what the FiveThirtyEight host and podcaster can do is use data to give context to what may happen in what’s shaping up to be a particularly contentious campaign season. 

Speaking at the NCSL Forecast ’24 meeting, the political analyst who also hosts FiveThirtyEight’s “The United States of America” video series says, although polls have not always been reliable in recent years, data still matters.

“We don’t have the thousands of data points that you have in, say, baseball in order to make predictions.”

—Galen Druke, FiveThirtyEight

Of course, it’s important to remember, he says, that the modern primary system only started in the 1970s, with just a dozen presidential elections since then. 

“We don’t have the thousands of data points that you have in, say, baseball in order to make predictions,” Druke says. 

According to FiveThirtyEight’s national averages, today’s race for the Republican presidential primary shows Donald Trump with 67% support, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at 13%, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at 10%. 

Historically, candidates leading by as much as Trump win the nomination. Still, looking at states with early primaries, such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where Trump support is sub-50%, Druke says there is theoretically a majority out there who could support someone other than Trump. 

“Of course, we have a sequential primary,” Druke says. “So, what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire will shape what happens in Nevada and South Carolina.”

Unsurprisingly, Democratic primary polls show President Joe Biden will be the party’s nominee. Druke says a second Trump and Biden contest is virtually a dead heat, according to today’s polling, considering an average 10 percentage point polling error since 2000.

“By looking at the polling,” he says, “I can’t tell you who’s going to win.”

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However, Druke says, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing more to say about the election. While today’s polls may not be predictive, the unique fact that both likely nominees have virtually 100% recognition gives reason to believe they may be more accurate than in other races. 

The 2024 matchup also erases the idea that the incumbent will have an advantage.

“We can see that voters are thinking of both Biden and Trump as incumbents,” he says. “Americans know what life is like under the presidencies of both Biden and Trump. They can point to what gas prices were like or are like. They can point to what foreign entanglements we were involved in or were not involved in. They can point to what the news environment was like, what the civil society environment was like.”

Still, Druke says, many voters today say they don’t know who they’re supporting or that they’re not supporting somebody else. And, if Biden and Trump are indeed the nominees in 2024, it will be a race where both presidential candidates are uniquely disliked, which injects more uncertainty into the situation.

“What do those who dislike both Biden and Trump do?” he asked. “Do they stay home? Do they vote third party? Do they hold their nose and vote for one of the candidates that they don’t like?"

In the 2022 midterm elections, Druke says people who says they disliked both Trump and Biden in the polls ended up voting more so for Democrats. 

By comparison, in 2016, he added, voters heavily disliked Hillary Clinton and Trump, but in the final days of that election, voters broke for Trump. 

All this is to say that once again, swing votes in 2024 will be key, he says. 

Besides horse race polling, Biden’s historically low net approval rating provides another data set to look at, Druke says, but so do special election outcomes. “If you look at the average of special election outcomes since January of 2023, there is a nine-point Democratic over-performance.”

“If anyone points to one data point in particular and says, ‘I know what’s going to happen in the 2024 election,’ don’t believe them,” he says.

Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.

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