Presidential bellwether.

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The 2016 Election: Five Leading Indicators

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Here are the five things I'm watching between now and Halloween in the 2016 presidential contest. Boo!

1. 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. Though Norm Ornstein speculated on Friday that "maybe this time really is different," it's more likely the trailing candidates will follow recent patterns and drop out.

2. 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. It doesn't have to be before the Iowa caucuses, but usually this group is well along in making a decision before voters get involved. After all, leaving it up to the primaries and caucuses without guidance from party opinion leaders is risky to the party. 

3. 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 (the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto is correct about this). 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 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.)

4 and 5. How is Barack 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 (and general-election polling isn't predictive until well into 2016).

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. Yes, I'll pay attention to Donald Trump. But these factors aren't going to be as reliable an indicator of who will win the White House as the answers to the five questions above.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net