US Election: Is mainstream news irrelevant in the Trump era?

Former Vice President Joe Biden
How will Joe Biden fare with ordinary Town Hall voters tonight?

Ahead of tonight's CNN event involving Joe Biden, Paul Krishnamurty wonders whether such set-piece TV moments carry much importance anymore...

"Recent experience tells me that the dynamics regarding political information have fundamentally changed."

As the campaign intensifies, set-piece TV events are coming thick and fast. Donald Trump has already held a live town hall on ABC this week and Joe Biden follows suit tonight (or the early hours of Friday morning in the UK).

I would advise Betfair punters to watch or catch up later. This is a relatively rare opportunity to see Biden unfiltered and unspun, taking questions from ordinary voters. It wasn't an easy ride for Trump and nor will this be.

How will Biden fare in the spotlight?

If possible, watch yourself before reading anyone else's analysis, including mine. Then form a judgement on whether he is in 'cognitive decline' as opponents claim. Consider too that if he does screw up, that is a very bad signal given the former VP has more than half a century of experience in such events.

I'm happy to make a prediction which may sound bolder than reality:.

Nothing that happens tonight will alter the fundamentals.

Don't misunderstand, this is important. Biden will effectively introduce himself to millions of otherwise disengaged voters. Not to mention gamblers outside the USA, whose own countries' media have rarely ever focused on him in depth.

Recent experience, however, tells me that the dynamics regarding political information have fundamentally changed. The news cycle used to be all-important. Candidates, parties would - and still do - spend fortunes on news management. Yet this election, and indeed the entire Trump presidency, has seen unprecedented stability in the polls.

UK election was remarkably predictable

The same phenomenon occured in last December's UK General Election. Day in, day out, the Twitterati reacted to 'stunning', 'shocking, 'outrageous', 'game-changing', 'breaking' news. There were numerous TV debates and round the clock coverage. Boris Johnson even 'broke the rules' by dodging an Andrew Neil interview and getting caught hiding from journalists in a fridge.

Nothing changed. It was the most predictable election since 2001 - measured for example by fewer upsets in constituencies. The polls were right.

Is Trump immune from scandal?

The Trump experience suggests that conventional scandals don't damage anymore. His entire term has been racked by scandals that would have destroyed any previous president (or so we assumed). Book after book has provided credible testimony of his wrongdoing. Yet his approval ratings, while poor, are the most consistent ever.

Consider the last few months. Disastrous Covid policies, amplified by chaotic press conferences arguing with journalists, ramping the discredited Hydroxychloriquine. Or bleach. Verifiable lies about the pandemic and unbelievably mixed messaging to this day.

Accusations that he won't stand up to Putin over bounties on US troops and then smearing fallen soldiers 'suckers and losers'. Labelled a Kremlin asset by an ex-FBI foe. Exposed for colluding with the Kremlin by a Senate committee led by his own party. Too many corruption stories to list.

Trump defying an atrocious news cycle

There is so much more, without even mentioning his unpopular, fan-flaming response to the Black Lives Matters protests or the subsequent violence in several cities. Any American voter who watches CNN, NBC or ABC news has seen this on a loop. It is barely more dramatic than the previous four years.

The Bob Woodward and Michael Cohen books were timed to follow Labor Day, as media coverage and campaigning intensified. Could anything be more damning than Trump's own words, on tape, acknowledging the severity of Covid-19 at the same time he was calling it a 'liberal hoax'? Yet the polls barely move. If anything, they've inched towards Trump nationally.

There's several ways to look at this. Trump is untouchable with his base. But nor does he win over opponents. Quite the reverse. Divisions in an already polarised country become entrenched. The numbers suggest that will ruin Trump. More oppose than support.

Would Biden be more vulnerable to bad news?

Alternatively, perhaps Trump's immunity from bad news and untouchability with his base is unique. He's already taken thousands of blows. His opponent may well prove vulnerable to attack, in keeping with the norm.

The second analysis goes some way towards explaining Trump's resilience in the betting, in stark contrast to polling models. Fear that Biden will suffer the same fate as Hillary Clinton, despite, as explained previously, numerous key differences between their characters and situations.

While remaining a firm backer of Biden, I am open to this theory. One huge lesson learned in 2016 was not to dismiss the effect of online conspiracy theories. I reported live on the fake news shenanigans from Alex Jones, Roger Stone and Wikileaks but I never believed such nonsense would cut through to swing voters.

After 2016, don't underestimate fake news

It did. It is quite possible that Clinton was hurt more by outrageous smears about running a paedophile ring from a pizza parlour basement and having DNC staffer Seth Rich murdered, than Trump was by the Access Hollywood tapes. Perhaps this stuff cuts through on Facebook deeper than any mainstream news nowadays.

Using conventional measures, I don't see a way back for Trump. I expect Biden to perform competently tonight. Critically, he will come across as moderate, reasonable, informed. Just the ticket to win the moderate voters who are appalled by Trump but fear the Left.

But equally, I do not underestimate the power of Facebook and other social media. The vile Qanon cult has spread rapidly in various Western countries, especially since the start of lockdown. The public conversation is increasingly detached from reality. We know from various countries how these narratives can transform elections at the last minute.


Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

2020 US Presidential Election: USA - Presidential Election 2020 (Next President)

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Tuesday 3 November, 11.00am

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