Consumer warning: Before you get locked into a narrative about how the presidential election will unfold, consider what happened the other day in Maine and Alabama.

Neither event was particularly remarkable or surprising. You could see each of them coming from a lobster boat off the Atlantic coastline (now is the traditional height of the crustaceans’ vacation-time consumption) or a shrimper in the Gulf of Mexico (the state’s brown shrimp season opened six weeks ago). But these results tell us something nonetheless.

In Maine, the speaker of the state House, Sara Gideon, won the Democratic primary to have the chance to topple the lawmaker moderates and liberals consider the biggest apostate in American politics. 

Gideon is by far the strongest challenger to Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican who angered many of her supporters by backing the two Trump Supreme Court nominees and voting to acquit the president in the impeachment trial.

In Alabama, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville won the Republican primary against Jeff Sessions, the onetime judge, senator and Trump attorney general whom the president considers “mentally retarded” and “mixed up and confused.” Tuberville, who now faces Sen. Doug Jones, perhaps the most endangered Democrat in the Senate, had the support of the president and likely would be among Trump’s most loyal acolytes if he wins the seat in the Capitol.

Now, let us acknowledge that these two states — with far different autumn prospects — have about as much in common as Norway and North Korea. Alabama was the site of the first capital of the Confederacy; Maine was the home of Joshua L. Chamberlain, the Union hero of Gettysburg and later the president of Bowdoin College and governor of his native state. 

Maine has eight cases of coronavirus per 100,000 people; Alabama has three times that many. The University of Alabama beat Michigan in football last year; the University of Maine lost to Towson State. Then again, Maine beat Eastern hockey power Boston College last year, while Alabama-Huntsville lost to Bemidji State four times. 

Even so, these results about 1,200 miles apart show how difficult it will be to predict anything about the 2020 election. The Maine results provide succor for those who loathe Trump. The Alabama results provide just as encouraging results for those who champion him. But taken together, these results constitute one of the many imponderables about the fall election.

Here are some others: Will Black voters pour into the polls to support former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., or will they repeat their 2016 performance, when they comprised more than a third of the Barack Obama 2012 supporters who didn’t vote four years later? 

Will suburban voters, particularly women, who sided with Trump in 2016 now vote for Biden? Will a coronavirus upsurge — we don’t know for sure that this will happen — hurt the president or depress the turnout of Trump’s opponents? 

Some more: Will the proliferation of mail-in ballots help Biden the way it helped the Democratic congressional candidate Nathan McMurray late last month in a district around Buffalo, New York, where he received more primary mail-in votes than the Republican primary winner? 

How much voter fraud will there be? How much fraud will there be in claims of voter fraud?

And here is one dividing scholars of politics: Will the economy be a Trump asset or a Trump disadvantage?

Team Biden thinks the economy works to Biden’s advantage, and is using another issue — the president’s response to the virus — as a cudgel to argue that Trump lacks competence in economic matters. Here is what top Biden strategist Anita Dunn told me the other day: 

“Joe Biden has (an economic) plan — Trump has none. The difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is illustrated in their approach to the pandemic and what we need to do to help families recover from the economic pain caused by Trump’s catastrophic lack of preparedness and leadership during COVID-19. Joe Biden knows you can’t bully a virus to go away, and that controlling the pandemic is the first step to economic recovery. Donald Trump has failed the presidential test of leadership on every measure.”

The angle the Biden campaign is taking: Why trust someone who ruined the economy to fix it? They might smile in irony if they considered this quote from the past: “You wouldn’t trust the man who made the mess to clean it up.” It not only is from Richard Nixon. It is from his Checkers speech of 1952. 

But how important is the economy, anyway?

It is a matter of conviction among political professionals that the economy is the principal issue for voters, which is why the James Carville mantra from the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign (“It’s the economy, stupid”) has gone from colorful phrase to revered orthodoxy. That was almost certainly the case in the Arkansas governor’s victory over President George H.W. Bush. But how widely should that principle be applied?

The erudite Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry Bartels has studied the role the economy generally plays in American elections and concluded, in a scholarly paper that this year’s political strategists likely missed, that “ordinary citizens are mostly uninterested in ideological manifestos and economic theories, and skeptical of assertions about which parties ‘historically have delivered for them.’” 

Instead, he argued, “They are much more attentive to ends than to means, and they tend to reward or punish incumbent governments based on simple assessments of immediate success or failure.”

In modern times, parties controlling the White House generally lose about 25 seats in midterm elections. The Democrats had a net gain of 41 House seats in 2018, forcing the Republicans to relinquish control of the chamber. 

Now let’s consider the 1934 midterm elections, conducted two years after Franklin Roosevelt won the White House and undertook his New Deal. Real disposable per-capita income grew by 9.1% that year. The Democrats had net gains of nine seats in the Senate and nine in the House. 

That is the Bartels principle at work. So the question now is whether Trump profits from the recovery that seems underway or whether, as Nixon suggested, Americans don’t “trust the man who made the mess to clean it up.”

That’s just to pose the question, not to answer it. Just as Maine and Alabama posed vital questions, but didn’t answer them. Stay tuned, if you can bear it. 

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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