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.
Given the nature of his rhetoric and the trade war that was already raging, I suspect Trump will make these arguments more frequently and forcefully. However his charges will instantly run into the reality that he initially praised the Chinese government response. Plus as the Times of Israel reported, US intelligence warned allies of a problem last November.
Trump versus Obama
Four years after it surfaced during the last election campaign, the Russia scandal rumbles on. The Senate Intelligence Committee just published their final report, concluding that Russia indeed interfered to help Trump win. House Democrats are still trying to obtain the unredacted Mueller Report and Grand Jury evidence.
A huge row regarding the DOJ dropping charges against Michael Flynn - Trump’s initial National Security Advisor, who resigned after admitting lying to the FBI about contacts with the Russian Ambassador - is ongoing.
Trump, meanwhile, is adamant that the whole investigation is a hoax, tweeting daily about ‘Obamagate’. This counter-narrative claims his campaign and Flynn were illegitimately targeted by the former President and intelligence agencies.
Personally, I find Obamagate a ridiculous and transparent diversion tactic. Given that the credible Russia scandal didn’t change 2016 and hasn’t moved much opinion since, I don’t see Trump’s strategy working. Moreover, taking on Obama directly makes even less sense. His predecessor retains impressive approval ratings - +23 as opposed to Trump’s negative figures.
Democrats to place Trump corruption centre-stage
This, I would argue, is the most important narrative to follow. This weekend, Trump was condemned by former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who called the sacking of four government watchdogs ‘a threat to accountable democracy’.
This can only compound Trump’s various ongoing legal troubles - next month, the Supreme Court are set to rule on whether he can block subpoenas to his bank and accountants for his records. The president will also ask them to block an emoluments lawsuit, regarding his businesses receiving patronage from foreign governments.
Biden is also aiming at potentially corrupt handling of coronavirus bailout funds. He recently shared an op-ed with Elizabeth Warren (top choice among Democrats for the VP slot), focusing on anti-corruption. This was central to her primary campaign and, VP or not, she is sure to play a major role.
All of these narratives, however, are liable to run into a stumbling block that is unique to the Trump era. US opinion has never been more polarised. ‘Unpersuadables’ are at an all-time low. The middle is shrinking. As it stands, the core narrative of this election is ‘Trump or Not’.