When I first started covering politics some 25 years ago, the following data points were considered the gold standard to understanding the trajectory of an election cycle: a president’s job approval rating, the overall mood of the electorate (namely, is the country headed in the right direction or wrong direction) and opinions about the economy. Taken together, they told the story of a president or party in peril, or a president and party that were headed to reelection.

Over these past few years, however, these questions have become less determinative.

Take the presidency of Donald Trump. Despite voters being generally happy with the economy and Trump’s handling of it, Republicans were crushed in the 2018 midterms, losing 40 seats and their majority. Two years later, Trump went into the election with an anemic 45% job approval rating, yet came within less than 50,000 votes of winning the Electoral College and a second term. Moreover, Trump lost re-election, despite the fact that exit polls showed voters thought he’d do a better job on the economy than Biden by a 51%-46%

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