7 min read

A lot can change in a year

Or ten months, I suppose.
A lot can change in a year
Illustration by DALL-E

Good morning! It’s Monday, January 8, 2024. The 2024 elections are 302 days away. The Iowa caucuses are seven days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

The data nerds are crunching the numbers, and they can’t agree on what they say.

Decision Desk HQ, the respected election forecaster, says that based on current surveys and past polling trends, Donald Trump is on track to win the national popular vote by five percentage points. G. Elliott Morris, the new proprietor of FiveThirtyEight, says “the fundamentals” currently favor Joe Biden’s re-election.

It’s gonna be a long year.

The truth, of course, is that we are not yet at the point where polls are particularly predictive of election results. I’ve shared this graph by SplitTicket before, but it’s worth repeating:

Polls, as maligned as they are, have had a pretty good track record in recent election cycles; on average, by Election Day — as the above graph shows — they are able to predict a presidential race within three percentage points, an impressive feat in a country of 170 million registered voters.

But at this point in a cycle, the average polling error is still about five percentage points, a bit too large to confidently call what will certainly be a close race.

Still, the SplitTicket graph is instructive for another reason: it shows that polling error quite clearly shrinks over time.

Or, put another way: Campaigns change over time, and polls (roughly) accurately capture it. After all, two things can be true at once: a poll in January 2024 might not be terribly predictive of the results come November 2024 and a poll in January 2024 could still be a fair snapshot of where things stand in January 2024.

And that’s OK! Things can and will shift a lot between January 2024 and November 2024. I’ve seen an odd strain of campaign commentary recently that seems to treat the upcoming campaign like it’s all already settled — like everything is baked in and we already know everything we need to know to determine who holds the upper hand. Many pundits seem to have their preferred narrative — Biden is doomed! or Trump can’t possibly win! — and appear convinced that nothing could happen in the next ten months to change it.

But if that were true, there’d be very little point in waiting so long to hold the election. Although most people coordinating political coverage have likely made up their minds about whether they’ll vote in 2024 and for whom — and you probably have too, if you’re reading a political newsletter — not everyone has, and it’s those unicorn voters in a small number of jurisdictions who will decide the race for the White House.

Even in a race between a sitting president and his predecessor — both of whom have been on the national stage for decades — campaign messaging and intervening events can still change minds and shift the race. A recent study of elections in 10 countries confirms this: while things like debates were not found to be effective in changing opinions, a solid chunk of voters were nevertheless able to be swayed over the course of a campaign by political messaging, media coverage, and information shared by friends.

This was true of fewer voters in the U.S. than any of the nine other countries studied, but, then again, American elections are decided by fewer voters than elections in most countries. So try not to fall into the trap of thinking you can judge how the 2024 election will go based on January 2024 information. Just because there might not be information that could emerge between January and November that would be enough to shift your decision to vote or who you’ll vote for, that doesn’t mean that’s true of all of the electorate. Campaigns still matter, and they can change things.

The best recent evidence of this fact is the 2022 midterms, when polls did much better than pundits at predicting the campaign — partly because many commentators imbibed the same stale, pre-conceived notions about the cycle for months, even as events (the Dobbs decision) and messaging (Democrats’ ultimately effective 11th-hour pitch on protecting democracy) shifted around them. (Another lesson of 2022 to keep in mind: candidate quality mattered! Not everything can be judged by “fundamentals” alone.)

If there were any election cycle where events might be expected to shift things, it would be this one. We are in for a chaotic several months. The former president of the United States and likely Republican nominee is set to go on trial four times — something utterly without precedent — including for charges of hoarding classified documents and attempting to overturn the previous election. (And poll after poll tells us that this is one of the events that could have a serious impact on voter opinions.) The sitting chief executive and likely Democratic nominee, who is older and less popular than any modern president, faces impeachment proceedings; his son is set to go on trial as well.

The Supreme Court is being asked to decide key questions about the election, giving the justices more sway over any presidential race since Bush v. Gore. A potential government shutdown is looming. The world appears as fragile as it has been in decades, with a sudden uptick of armed conflict. Dozens of other countries (almost half of the global population!) are also set to hold elections, many of which threaten reverberations here at home.

And then there are the X-factors we can’t possibly predict this early in the year. 2022 and 2023 each brought major wars that experts failed to forsee, both of which have intertwined themselves with American politics. Who knows what we’re missing as we waltz into 2024?

So, buckle up. It’s going to be a big year, and a lot could change as it continues. As I cover these next 12 months, I’m sure I won’t get everything right. But I’ll do my best to cover these consequential events with the gravity, fairness, and honesty that they deserve.

My New Year’s resolution to you all is to always try to take the long view. I’ll try not to be one of those commentators who blindly thinks nothing can change and that their first assessment needs to be their last one. And I’ll try to avoid the opposite: getting so caught up in each individual event that I lose sight of the big picture. I won’t forget that politics can quickly shift, that just because something is one way in this moment means it will be that way forever — but I also won’t treat every development along the way as equally earth-shattering.

I’ll try to be humble about what I can tell you for sure and what I can’t, remembering that there are often factors shifting underneath our feet — or around the corner — without us noticing it. And I’ll always strive to offer historical and factual context to help you understand the present moment.

The few things I can promise you about the next year is that it will be historic, important, improbable — and chock full of changes and developments. I’m honored that you’ve trusted me to help you understand those changes and sort through them. I’ll do my very best to live up to that trust in the year ahead.

More news to know.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. (Pentagon)

1️⃣ House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) reached a topline government funding deal yesterday. The two leaders agreed to spend $1.59 trillion in fiscal year 2024, hewing to the level set by last year’s debt ceiling deal, with $886 billion going towards defense spending and $704 billion earmarked for nondefense priorities. (A $69 billion side pot of nondefense spending was also preserved.)

However, the two parties have yet to agree on how to spend that money — and the House Freedom Caucus is already pushing back against the deal. Lawmakers face two shutdown deadlines: some government programs are set to expire on January 18; the rest will lapse on February 2.

2️⃣ Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is facing growing bipartisan outcry over the Pentagon’s days-long delay in alerting President Biden, key White House officials, congressional leaders, or even the deputy Defense secretary — who was performing his duties — that he was hospitalized.

Austin, who remains in the hospital, has no plans to resign, the Pentagon said this morning.

3️⃣ Israel said this morning that its military is shifting to a more targeted phase in its war against Hamas, a move that U.S. officials have been urging for several weeks. The new stage of the military campaign is expected to involve fewer airstrikes and more surgical missions to kill Hamas leaders and rescue hostages.

At the same time, another war threatens to break out on Israel’s northern border, as Israeli forces exchange fire with Hezbollah. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to arrive in Israel this week to encourage the conflict to become more targeted instead of widening.

The day ahead.

Mother Emanuel AME Church. (Corey Seeman)

President Biden will deliver a campaign speech at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of a 2015 racist mass shooting, before traveling to Dallas, Texas, to pay his respects to the late Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who passed away last week.

Vice President Harris has nothing on her public schedule.

The Senate has one vote scheduled, on advancing John Kazen’s nomination to be a U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Texas.

The House is out until tomorrow.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Campos-Chaves v. Garland and Garland v. Singh, a pair of related cases on immigration law, and FBI v. Fikre, a lawsuit from someone who was placed on the government’s No Fly List.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe