Five Narratives That Could Determine the Election

This article first appeared at on 19th May 2020

Both the polls and betting odds are remarkably stable. According to the Betfair Exchange, Donald Trump has a 48% chance of re-election at odds of 2.06, compared to 42% for Joe Biden at 2.38. 

Meanwhile, the constant swirl of rumour and conspiracy surrounding both major party candidates means bettors still afford a 10% chance that somebody else wins. These odds have barely moved in weeks, despite plenty of polling data to the contrary, no move from alternatives and the withdrawal of the most prominent third-party challenger, Justin Amash. 

So what will move the markets? Elections are generally prone to significant movement as the campaigns ramp up during the closing months and voters pay closer attention. Events or new, changing narratives tend to move the needle. Here’s some to consider.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

So says every election forecaster since James Carville coined the phrase during Bill Clinton’s winning campaign. Trump backers have argued for years that a strong US economy would ensure a second term. Now, in the wake of coronavirus, opponents argue that the economic carnage will destroy him.

Both arguments are dubious. First, Trump’s strong economy hasn’t helped in either mid-term polls or elections. When the Democrats produced their best mid-term result since Watergate, exit polls gave Trump an impressive 64% economic approval. Yet comfortably more than half of those respondents said they would definitely not vote for him.

Second, it is stretching credibility for Democrats to blame Trump for coronavirus. True, his economic approval has fallen slightly as the jobless figures have soared but this hasn’t noticeably impacted presidential polls. Plus that slither of discontent could just as easily swing back if there are signs of economic recovery.

Covid preparedness and management

I would argue this has greater traction. It is the subject dominating media coverage, affecting everybody’s lives. The numbers are deeply worrying for Trump. Whereas most other world leaders benefited in polls, he hasn’t. In the latest CNN survey, his disapproval margin for response to the pandemic was 13%. Trump’s divisive press conferences are not the unifying tone one expects from a national leader during a crisis.

Moreover, the candidates’ respective responses are likely to shape dividing lines for November. See for example the standoff in Michigan between the armed anti-lockdown protesters Trump calls ‘very good people’ and Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer (who is reportedly high on Biden’s VP list). Opinion in that toss-up state is firmly on her side.

Each side is trading entirely incompatible facts. The Biden campaign is and will continue to point to Trump’s cutting of the pandemic budget, and slow response when claiming throughout February that it was a hoax. Team Trump is now claiming President Obama left them ill-equipped. 

The China blame game

China will surely be central to the campaign conversation. Both campaigns are already running ads that paint the other as being ‘weak on China’, as this Washington Post article details.

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