Exactly 17 weeks today, US voters head to the polls for what appears, right now, to be their most one-sided election of the 21st century. The Economist/Yougov rate Joe Biden 90% likely to win, compared to a meagre 10% for Donald Trump.
Betting signals, however, remain far less clear. Betfair’s current odds imply their respective chances at 56% and 37%.
There are countless potential reasons for the differential but the most obvious regards trajectory. A July poll is a mere snapshot of opinion, ahead of an intense campaign during which much can change. As we are frequently reminded, polls can be wrong and there is a long time to go. Remember 2016.
It is indeed important to remember the previous election - both as a guide to the fallibility of betting signals but also in order to avoid drawing false comparisons. The situations differ in at least six respects.
Biden leads by much wider margins than Clinton
Yes, Clinton led the polls but her position was never this strong. Using the RCP average, Biden currently leads by 8.7%, compared to 4.0% for Clinton during July 2016. In 25 polls that month, her highest tally was 46%. In 21 since the beginning of June, Biden hasn’t polled below 47% and hit 52% better in a trio of A-rated surveys last week.
Note too that, contrary to popular myth, the 2016 polls weren’t so far out. The final RCP average showed Clinton ahead by 3.3%, as opposed to the eventual 2.1% popular vote margin.
No strong third party challenge has materialised yet
One reason pundits were blindsided by the polls was extra parties polling much better than usual. Those ordinary Clinton tallies seemed high enough. As it transpired, whilst Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Evan McMullen did take a much higher, gamechanging share than minor parties usually do, they fell back in the latter stages. Critically, late deciders swung for Trump.
In theory, a challenge could yet emerge and split the non-Trump vote. Kanye West just announced his bid on Twitter. Given that he’s already missed several ballot deadlines, though, it is hard to treat seriously. Until a third candidate starts polling significantly, we should assume they won’t.
Clinton was a weak, damaged candidate
Trump and Clinton were the two least popular candidates ever. He always had negative approval ratings. Hers turned sour during more than a year under FBI investigation for an over-amplified e-mail scandal. She was a damaged figure, already toxic to Republicans who’d spent a quarter of a century investigating her.
Clinton conspiracy theories were deep in the US psyche long before Russia and Wikileaks got involved. Despite at least most of their claims being false, they carried enough of a ring of truth for those who wanted to believe.
Trump’s mud isn’t sticking to Biden
The same cannot be said of Joe Biden. Rather in 2015 following the death of his son, Beau, ‘Uncle Joe’ was America’s most popular politician - VP to a president who left with very high approval ratings.
Plenty has been thrown at him already - ‘Creepy Joe’, Tara Reade, allegations about his son, Hunter. Trump was literally impeached for cooking up a smear campaign in Ukraine and may well have another ‘October Surprise’ lined up.
The same tricks aren’t working second time around. The attacks haven’t noticeably damaged Biden and nor has the new line of attack following the George Floyd protests. Painting Biden as a radical leftist is unlikely to wash, given his many decades in public life without ever being seriously defined that way. Meanwhile, voters disapprove of Trump’s handling of race relations and the protests by a two to one margin.
Trump’s personal brand and pitch have diminished since 2016
Whilst unpopular among the majority, Trump had a particular appeal in 2016 that went beyond party or ideology. The outsider. The celebrity billionaire businessman. A success story telling it like it is, taking on a bunch of failed politicians.
That brand gave him a free ride on policy. Few weighed the likelihood of him actually building a wall on the Mexico border. He could make wild promises about making healthcare fabulous and terrific for everyone, as opposed to the ‘terrible disaster’ that is Obamacare. An easy sell in a country where penal healthcare costs and complicated plans are a daily conversation. He’d never had to manage a crisis.
Now, some Trump voters have lost their healthcare and will do so during the campaign, whilst a pandemic rages. Others will have lost loved ones to Covid-19, or their jobs. Trump’s failure to manage the crisis will be centre-stage. The wall isn’t built.
Rather than being able to boast of his brilliance in business, Trump’s image is now that of a corrupt businessman, embroiled in scandal. His lies are infamous. Rather than his opponent, his campaign will be undermined by constant investigations. Next week, his niece Mary releases her book “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man”.
Rather than MAGA optimism, Trump has only fear to sell
Equally, ‘Make America Great Again’ was an optimistic, forward-looking slogan and narrative. This time, Trump seems set on a negative, divisive campaign of fear about left wing mobs, statues and the Antifa bogeyman. Even were a positive message of hope for his second term to be constructed, I doubt it could cut through the multitude of scandals and daily controversies.
Polling above 50% at this stage is a solid indicator - nobody has lost from there in the last 13 incumbent presidential elections, dating back to 1940. Biden’s figures are in keeping with numerous mid-term surveys where more than half of respondents said they would ‘definitely vote against Trump’ or supported his removal from office during the impeachment process.
This reaffirms my long-term argument. These numbers reflect less on Biden than public opposition to Trump. This is a referendum on a historically unpopular incumbent, to whom more than half of the country are bitterly opposed. Even at rising odds around 2.74, Trump makes no betting appeal whatsoever.