There are two aspects of a presidential election that can be predicted: the national popular vote and the relative positions of the states. The national popular vote can be forecasted months ahead of time given the economy and other predictors. for example using Doug Hibbs’s model:
(As I wrote a few months ago, “the incumbent party sometimes loses but they never have gotten really slaughtered. In periods of low economic growth, the incumbent party can lose, but a 53-47 margin would be typical; you wouldn’t expect the challenger to get much more than that.”)
The relative positions of the states don’t actually change much from election to election:
You can do slightly better by using polls. As Matthew Yglesias puts it, “the large number of public polls on something like a presidential election makes the outcomes quite easy to forecast based on crude measures. What’s more, even absent polling, Presidential election outcomes seem to be pretty predictable based on nothing more than macroeconomic variables.”
Actually, even the February polls turn out to be pretty good–when combined with previous election results–to pin down the relative positions of the states.
Bayesian combination of state polls and election forecasts
Here’s the revised version of my article with Kari Lock in which we forecast the election using Hibbs for the national popular vote, and a weighted average of last election (corrected for incumbency) and the February polls to get the relative positions of the states.
Lots fo fun stuff there, including this prediction (based on February Clinton-McCain and Obama-McCain polls) of which states Clinton or Obama were expected to win in November: