Biden, Trump, Covid-19: We tried to predict 2020

At the start of 2020, the Future Perfect team sat down to try to predict what was to come in 2020.

What fools we were.

It’s not that all our predictions were way off — many of them have in fact been borne out, and our overall track record as predictors is fairly solid. But still, it feels like predicting Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee and that we’d see record California wildfires doesn’t quite qualify as having seen 2020, the year of Covid-19, coming.

The best 2020 prediction Future Perfect made, in some sense, was not any of our specific 2020 predictions but our long series of posts in the past couple of years arguing that a pandemic was likely someday, and our predictions that it would be devastating when it happened. Those posts didn’t name 2020 in particular. There was no way to know at the start of the year that this would be the one in which a pandemic turned everything we thought we knew about the world upside-down. But those earlier articles were in many ways more prescient than our specific predictions for the year.

Nonetheless, we’re here to revisit our specific 2020 predictions. Predicting the future is a skill, at which some people are dramatically better than others, and practicing is one of the best ways to improve at it. Recording our expectations every year helps us get better at seeing what lies ahead.

And looking back at our predictions is an accountability exercise, too. Readers look to Vox because they believe we have some insight, through our reporting, into making sense of the world. When we evaluate our predictions, we quantify where we’ve done best at seeing what lies ahead and where we need to improve.

Here’s what we got right and wrong about the year 2020. (And check back tomorrow when we reveal our predictions for 2021.)

The United States

Donald Trump will win reelection (55 percent) — WRONG

I mean, if you ask Donald Trump, he’d tell you I got this one right. In reality, though, I didn’t.

This was always a close call. I thought Trump was favored because incumbents usually win reelection and the economy in January 2020 was doing quite well. But the election year economy is what matters most, and it was an absolute basket case throughout 2020 — plus, we had a pandemic, whose impact is hard to measure but appears likely to have hurt Trump both directly and through its economic impact.

I don’t feel that bad for not predicting a pandemic that almost nobody predicted — but I failed to predict it, and so failed to predict Trump’s loss. —Dylan Matthews

Zac Freeland/Vox

The Democratic nominee will be Joe Biden (60 percent) — RIGHT

The Democratic presidential primary was settled back in March, which feels like it was about 70 million years ago. So it might be hard to remember that at the beginning of January, when we published this prediction, it was actually a pretty bold one. Prediction markets gave Joe Biden about a 30 percent chance of being the nominee. FiveThirtyEight gave him about a 40 percent chance of getting a majority of delegates and an almost 50 percent chance of a plurality. Among pundits, almost no one was talking about Biden. (David Brooks scolded the media for it a couple of weeks later but still didn’t go so far as to say he predicted Biden would win.)

Was I smarter than FiveThirtyEight and the prediction markets? It seems pretty likely that I just got lucky. But still, I’m proud that I called Biden the frontrunner and likeliest nominee at a time when not many people were doing it. And I think my justification holds up pretty well: “[L]ooking at national polls, the person who has been consistently leading is Joe Biden. He’s not very popular among highly engaged, highly online Democratic voters, but he has the support of more voters than anyone else all the same. … I’m not going to bet on anyone surging — I’m going to bet that the candidate who has been leading in the polls will keep doing that.”

Two months later, Biden was the nominee. —Kelsey Piper

The GOP holds the Senate (80 percent) — UNCLEAR

The elections that settle this prediction in Georgia will take place the day after this article goes up, so we don’t know the answer yet; I’ll update when we do.

I will pat myself on the back for this: Most forecasters were giving high odds of a Democratic Senate takeover on the eve of the election (75 percent per FiveThirtyEight, 80 percent per the Economist), which in retrospect seems ill-founded. There were big average polling misses in key races from North Carolina to Iowa to Maine, especially, where Susan Collins crushed challenger Sara Gideon despite being consistently behind in polling.

In my prediction, I was skeptical that Democrats could turn Alabama and North Carolina (which was right) and highlighted Colorado and Arizona as the likeliest Dem pickups (which they were). But I didn’t anticipate how pivotal the Georgia elections would be, or how close they’d get. There’s still a chance Democrats have the thinnest majority if they win both Georgia races, but it’s a lot thinner than the margins forecasters were predicting in October. —DM

Trump will not get a new Supreme Court appointment (70 percent) — WRONG

In our predictions, I wrote that “the most likely event precipitating a new Supreme Court appointment by Trump is the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” That turned out to be true — but I predicted that she would live, which obviously turned out wrong. RBG did not survive the year, and Trump and Mitch McConnell quickly and efficiently replaced her with Amy Coney Barrett, solidifying the Court’s conservative majority. —DM

The Supreme Court will allow more abortion restrictions (90 percent) — WRONG

This was by far my biggest whiff this year.

The prediction centered on June Medical Services LLC v. Russo, a challenge to a Louisiana law seeking to restrict abortion access by requiring clinics to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital; the law, if upheld, would have reduced the number of doctors performing abortions in the state to … one.

“The Supreme Court already struck down a nearly identical Texas law in 2016’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt,” I noted in my prediction. “The fact that it’s hearing this case so soon after setting a precedent that admitting privileges laws are unconstitutional suggests strongly that the court — which has since added the conservative Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh and lost abortion-rights supporter Anthony Kennedy — is ready to overrule Whole Woman’s Health and allow more state restrictions on abortion.”

It was not that strong a signal after all, for the simple reason that Chief Justice John Roberts reversed himself: He was in the minority on Whole Woman’s Health, voting to uphold the Texas restrictions five years ago, but he voted to strike down the Louisiana restrictions in the June decision purely on precedent grounds. He did not want to overrule such a recent Court decision.

I absolutely did not see Roberts’s reversal coming, nor did I anticipate his broader reinvention this term into the superego of the Court’s conservative wing, willing to rein in the more radical impulses of Clarence Thomas or Samuel Alito for the sake of preserving the Court’s public legitimacy.

But my other wrong Court prediction — that there wouldn’t be a vacancy — makes me think the June precedent may not stand long. If Amy Coney Barrett sides with the rest of the conservatives, then Roberts’s reticence to overturn precedent won’t be enough; he and the Court’s liberals would lose, 4 to 5. —DM

The Democratic primary will be settled on Super Tuesday (one candidate hits 90 percent in prediction markets by March 5) (60 percent) — WRONG

This prediction fell victim to a persistent weakness of mine when drafting predictions: picking a too-specific benchmark to measure a trend that I was broadly correct about. I had a general sense that the crowded field of Democratic candidates would winnow very fast — and it did. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropped out after Biden’s decisive South Carolina victory to endorse Biden, who then handily won Super Tuesday. At that point, Mike Bloomberg dropped out, too.

By March 5, Biden’s odds of winning the nomination on the prediction market agglomerator Election Betting Odds had hit 85.7 percent — but, well, that isn’t 90 percent, which wasn’t reached until March 10. I think I had good instincts about the general shape of how the primary would play out, but I got the details wrong — and we judge these predictions on the details. —KP

The world

The number of people in global poverty will fall (60 percent) — WRONG

This is usually a pretty safe guess, even in the stronger form I used here. Per World Bank data, the share of people living on less than $1.90 a day (the commonly used extreme global poverty metric) fell consistently and dramatically from 1990 to 2015, from 36 percent to 10 percent. The total number of people in extreme global poverty did not always fall due to population growth but still tended to fall steadily.

Unfortunately, 2020 broke this pattern, and ended one of the most remarkable streaks of progress in modern history. By cratering the global economy and forcing public health measures like lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the Covid-19 pandemic is forcing between 70 million and 100 million people into extreme global poverty, and even more (170-220 million) into sub-$3.20 per day poverty, a higher threshold the World Bank also uses. Kelsey Piper has a good rundown in this piece.

A lot of terrible things happened in 2020, and a lot of terrible things happened as aftershocks to Covid-19, but this might be the worst one. —DM

Brexit (finally) happens (95 percent) — RIGHT

In 2019, one of the Future Perfect team’s biggest missed calls was Brexit. We assumed it would happen and confidently predicted that it would, but instead, the can was repeatedly kicked down the road.

In 2020, we revisited that prediction. Under Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit leadership, with the options for delay exhausted and several last-minute votes in Parliament having failed to change things, we were sure Brexit would happen for real. It did, on January 31. Of course, you probably saw many headlines last year about Brexit-related delays, negotiations, and wrangling, and those won’t end. Although Britain formally left the EU, unwinding all their trade and migration agreements will take some time, and the worst-case scenario of a “no-deal” exit was only narrowly avoided in December. But we got this one right. —KP

No US troops land in Iran (80 percent) — RIGHT

At the very beginning of January, it looked like this was going to be the first of my predictions to fail, after the US assassinated prominent Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Those kinds of operations always carry a risk of escalation, and while airstrikes would probably be the likeliest US response to major Iranian retaliation, limited ground engagements were possible.

Luckily, though, the Iranian reaction was muted and the Trump administration declined to escalate further, enabling a year without open war between the US and Iran. The country’s nuclear program continued to develop rapidly due to Trump exiting the US’s nuclear deal with Iran, but that’s another matter. —DM

China’s internment camps for Muslims will remain open (85 percent) — RIGHT

China’s detention of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang province represents the largest-scale internment of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II. And we’re all implicated: Uighur forced labor has likely infiltrated the global supply chain of major companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon.

I’ve been reporting on China’s secretive camps for two and a half years, always hoping to see signs that they’d be shut down. But the system persists. This August, a BuzzFeed investigation titled “Built to Last” showed how China has built “a vast and permanent infrastructure for mass detention,” including several fortified compounds “built or significantly expanded within the last year.”

Some progress has been made this year: President Trump signed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act in June, and the US House of Representatives passed the Uighur Forced Labor Disclosure Act and the Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act in September. But it’s not nearly enough to incentivize China to close the camps when its top brass, including President Xi Jinping, genuinely seem to believe they’re a good way to deal with people they view as an extremist and separatist threat. —Sigal Samuel

Zac Freeland/Vox

Netanyahu will not be unseated as Israeli prime minister (55 percent) — RIGHT

When Israel called elections for March 2020, many observers believed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s time was up. There was good reason to believe that: He’d been indicted in three corruption cases and faced tough opposition from a centrist party that had a lead on him in the polls.

But I just didn’t believe it. My years living in and reporting on Israel taught me never to underestimate Bibi’s ability to rise from the political ashes. Bibi has always been canny at using perceived threats to rally his base; the Covid-19 pandemic gave him precisely the threat he needed.

The election — the third in a year — resulted in a stalemate, with neither Bibi nor his challenger Benny Gantz able to claim a governing majority. So the two men agreed in April to establish a unity government, describing it as a “national emergency government” needed to fight Covid-19. The unity deal said Bibi would govern first, then hand over the reins to Gantz in October 2021. (But a fed-up Gantz is already pushing a bill to dissolve parliament and set an election date for March 2021.) —SS

Science, health, and technology

No gene drives to fight malaria-carrying mosquitoes will be launched in any part of the world (90 percent) — RIGHT

This technology involves genetically editing mosquitos with changes that propagate to all their offspring; those changes could either make the mosquitos impervious to carrying the malaria parasite or else make their offspring sterile, reducing their population. It could enable the global eradication of malaria and save hundreds of thousands of lives every year, and keeps getting closer to deployment-ready every year. But Target Malaria, the main group working on gene drives for malaria control, is still in preliminary testing with mosquitoes that, while genetically modified, are not “gene drives”: They do not spread their genetic alterations to all of their offspring.

The group did a groundbreaking field release in 2019, but activity in 2020 has been muted in part due to the pandemic requiring the temporary shutdown of a key lab in London. The group is doing some interesting work in Uganda on mosquitoes edited to be different colors, but an actual gene drive release is still a good ways off. —DM

No new CRISPR-edited babies will be born (80 percent) — RIGHT

In 2018, a Chinese scientist announced the birth of twin babies whose genomes were edited with CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing tool. This was a huge story internationally. While it has been possible for a while to edit the genome in embryos and have genetically modified children, we still don’t know enough about the human genome for this to be particularly valuable.

That’s changing fast, though, so some worried that the 2018 experiment in China would open the doors to a flood of human modification. It hasn’t, for now. We should expect that as this technology becomes cheaper and more useful, more credible organizations will offer CRISPR embryo editing, but that day is likely still years away. That’s a good thing, because the history of human engineering of other species suggests that we need a lot more work on long-term effects, as well as strong norms against unethical uses like modifying children to obey their parents, in order to be responsible with such abilities. —KP

The number of drug-resistant infections will increase (70 percent) — UNCLEAR

Antibiotics are great when they work, but because they’re overused, more and more infections are becoming resistant to them. I predicted that 2020 would continue that trend because there was no reason to think otherwise — because we haven’t been addressing our overuse of antibiotics with anything like the necessary urgency.

In retrospect, this was a bit of a poorly formulated prediction on my part, because it’s hard to verify by the end of 2020; we’re still waiting for more comprehensive global data. With that caveat, there are strong indications that the number of drug-resistant infections has increased.

A major report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that in 2019, more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections had occurred in the US alone, and more than 35,000 Americans had died as a result. The report included alarming stats about specific types of infections. One, drug-resistant N. gonorrhoeae (sometimes dubbed “super gonorrhea”), had increased by 124 percent, while another had increased by 315 percent.

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic likely made things even worse. Some people took antibiotics on their own in a misguided effort to protect against the coronavirus. Doctors used antibiotics such as azithromycin as direct therapies for Covid-19. They also increased the use of other antibiotics in many patients to protect against secondary infections, like pneumonia, during hospitalization. As early as April, experts were warning that this increased antibiotic consumption may worsen the antibiotic resistance crisis. —SS

Facial recognition will be banned in at least three more cities (70 percent) — RIGHT

In 2019, a few cities banned the use of facial recognition technology by police and other city departments. Given the growing backlash against it and awareness of how it disproportionately harms people of color, I was pretty sure that at least three other cities would follow suit in 2020.

The first confirmation came almost immediately, from Massachusetts, which has been a hub for organizing against the controversial AI technology. In January, the city of Cambridge banned it. In February, nearby Springfield placed a moratorium on use of the tech at least until 2025, and in June, Easthampton and Boston followed up with a ban.

On December 1, Massachusetts lawmakers passed a police reform bill that will, among other things, ban police departments and city agencies from using facial recognition statewide. It’s a major move that shows the impact the police killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests have made this year.

The Portlands have also been busy. In September, Portland, Oregon, passed the broadest ban in the US. City departments like the police are barred from using facial recognition, and — in a first — so are private businesses like stores, restaurants, and hotels. In November, Portland, Maine, passed a ballot initiative that bars police and city agencies from using the tech, and entitles citizens to a minimum of $1,000 if police subject them to a facial recognition scan. —SS

Animal welfare and the environment

Beyond Meat will outperform the general stock market (70 percent) — RIGHT

The Dow Jones is up 4 percent since we published this prediction on January 13, 2020. The S&P 500 is up 11 percent. Beyond Meat’s stock has been far more volatile, but the prediction is easily borne out; it’s up 21 percent since that date.

I made this prediction to reflect my optimism about continued growth for plant-based products, and indeed, it was a good year for them, especially when Covid-19-related supply chain problems raised the price and reduced the availability of slaughtered meat. The market share of plant-based meat is still comparatively tiny, but it’s growing. —KP

Zac Freeland/Vox

Global carbon emissions will increase (80 percent) — WRONG

This one’s pretty straightforward: I got it wrong because there was a pandemic. Researchers estimate that global carbon emissions plummeted by 7 percent in 2020, falling by double-digit percentages in many countries and by 16 percent or so at the peak of coronavirus-related restrictions in April. We desperately need to cut carbon emissions or cancel them with carbon sequestration, but we’ll have to find methods less miserable than canceling much of the global economy, as happened in 2020. —KP

Average world temperatures will increase relative to 2019 (60 percent) — RIGHT

You might think that because emissions fell in 2020, the average world temperature fell, too. But it’s not that simple; before the coronavirus hit, climate change was already toppling some serious dominoes — remember the Australian wildfires that torched more than 15 million acres and killed more than 1 billion animals in January?

We now have pretty clear indications that the global temperature increased relative to 2019. The World Meteorological Organization assesses global temperatures each year based on five data sets. “All five of those datasets currently place 2020 as the 2nd warmest for the year to date, following 2016 and ahead of 2019,” the organization reported on December 2.

The hottest year ever recorded was 2016 due to El Niño. According to the Copernicus Climate Change Service, though, 2020 might actually steal that record, ending up not just hotter than 2019 but hotter than any year ever recorded. —SS

Zac Freeland/Vox

California has a wildfire among the 10 most destructive in state history (60 percent) — RIGHT

I observed at the start of this year that more often than not, a new year in California brings a new wildfire among the most destructive in state history, by Cal Fire’s rankings. That’s because climate change is leaving my state hotter and drier, with devastating results.

I wish I’d been wrong. Instead, 2020 made the top 10 — twice. The North Complex Fire burned 318,935 acres, killed 15 people, and destroyed 2,352 buildings, making it the fifth most destructive in state history. The Lightning Complex Fire briefly made the top 10 in August, only to be kicked out by the Glass Fire in September. In Cal Fire’s ranking of the largest fires in state history, 2020 claims first place, third place, fourth place, fifth place, and sixth place. For a while in October, the sun was blocked out by ash, leaving the sky an eerie and frightening orange in the Bay Area, where I live. I don’t know what the future of the state looks like if these fires can’t be controlled. —KP

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