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The 2020 US Election: certain outcome, uncertain future?

30 October 2020

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Todd Cowan, Wealth Manager, LGT Vestra US

This week, we were joined by Dr. Jeremy Rosner, an esteemed communications strategist and expert on public opinion, for a virtual event to delve beneath the headlines and Twitter trends of the US Presidential Race. With US Election Day rapidly approaching (3rd November), Dr. Rosner gave his view on what the current polls indicate and how comparisons to the 2016 election may be ill advised.

In a year that has been marred by uncertainty, most notably due to the pandemic and the appointment of a new Supreme Court Judge, we can be certain that, as in most re-elections, this will be more a judgement on the incumbent president than anything else. The fundamental fact of this Presidential Race is that Trump's approval numbers have been steady and low.

In fact, the uncertainty created by COVID-19 creates some added certainty in itself, with the subsequent increase of postal votes. In Rosner's view: "While early ballots hugely favour the Democratic side, Election Day ballots are projected to hugely favour Republicans. The question is, how much will the Republicans have to pick up in terms of a deficit on Election Day?"

Quite a lot, it would seem. Whilst 40 million 'early', absentee and mail-in ballots were cast in 2016, it's expected to be over 80 million this year – already exceeding 60 million early votes submitted at the time of writing. Most political analysts agree that Biden has a "statistically significant lead in states totalling 290 Electoral Votes" (only 270 are needed to win). So it seems likely that Biden will win both the popular vote and the Electoral College. Although Rosner concedes that there are still some paths to victory for Trump, they are becoming increasingly narrow. President Trump would need an extremely high Election Day turnout, and to receive an extremely high percentage of the votes.

But isn't this going to be just like 2016, when pollsters were so sure of the outcome? Rosner argues that there are "huge differences in what happened in 2016, that really make this a very different situation." The margins, for a start, are much bigger. In 2016, FiveThirtyEight (an average of the polls) polling data showed that with 6 days until the election, Hillary Clinton had an average lead of 3.1%. Compare that with Joe Biden's lead 6 days from Election and you will see it is almost three times greater, at 9%. "That difference is more than enough to ensure Electoral College victory by Joe Biden," he says. But there are other important differences too. Biden's polling average is over 50%, whereas Clinton's was not, reflecting the favourability of this year's Democratic nominee, and the lack of strong third party candidate this year (we take that to mean we will not be reading headlines about President Kanye West). Another significant factor in how 2020 is different: Trump is no longer the outsider. A lot of Rosner's research voters say, "'I voted for Trump back then because I thought he would shake things up.'" This time around, he is a known quantity, removing a key advantage he had last time. Partly as a result of that, 2020 has been much less volatile than 2016. In the last election, there were three occasions during the race where Clinton's odds of winning fell below 65%. By contrast, in 2020, the race has been incredibly stable and Biden's odds have never fallen below 69%.

In addition to having a "pretty clear sense of what's going to happen in the Presidential Race, we also know fairly likely what's going to happen in the Senate," Rosner says. Republicans currently control the Senate. Although they are likely to gain an additional seat in Alabama, the Democrats are similarly likely to gain seats in Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina – producing a 50:50 balance. When this happens in the US Senate, the Vice President breaks the tie. Assuming Rosner and fellow pollsters are correct, it would be Vice President Kamala Harris with the deciding vote. "The reason I and many others are fairly confident that Democrats will hold the chamber is that there are around half a dozen other seats, currently held by Republicans, that Democrats have a pretty fair chance of picking up," Rosner adds.

All of this seems more or less certain so far. What is trickier to predict is what comes after 3rd November. Firstly, when will the election results become clear? The US system of procedures and laws is extraordinarily complex; each state has its own election system. Some people are projecting we may not know for a week what the outcome is. However, Rosner perceives a little more certainty: "Given the balance in the polls right now, we are likely to know sooner than that – perhaps as early as Tuesday night, probably not much later than Wednesday."

There's also uncertainty about what happens if Trump were to lose. Would he concede the election? Would he contest it? And what would happen to the future of Republican Party? Some might argue for a change in direction, away from Trumpism, but Trump still has around 30 million people who are strongly supportive of him and is therefore likely to remain a key player in the future of the Republican Party even if he loses.

Moreover, what will the Democrats do if they win The White House, the Senate, and maintain control of the House of Representatives? There has been a lot of talk of adding more states to the Union, such as Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico. They could add more seats to the Supreme Court. They could enact sweeping immigration reforms which would put 11 million undocumented people on the path to citizenship.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks, Dr. Rosner is doubtful of the impact it will have on America's much longer-term polarisation politically – with much of the country either solidly conservative or solidly liberal. He says, "The country is pulled apart increasingly, people only see newsfeeds that are sympathetic to their own point of view and it raises real questions about the governability of America going forward."

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