US Election: Is the era of unpredictability over?

Donald Trump and Joe Biden
The betting between Trump and Biden remains close and consistent

With both polls and betting remarkably stable, Paul Krishnamurty says this could be the new normal, following an era of voter realignment...

"My view is that the era from 2014-2019 will be seen as one of partisan realignment, fuelled or at least reinforced by the growth of social media."

Election market stability is unprecedented

We have never seen a September like it on Betfair - certainly at least during a US election year. When we launched our Swing-O-Meter in Washington C.D. - the ancestral home of founding father George Washington - it pointed to a perfectly tied 50/50 race. That followed a Trump bounce and Biden swiftly resumed marginal favouritism. His chance hasn't, however, risen above 55% since.

As explained when running through past US election campaigns on Betfair, this stability is abnormal. September is usually a period packed with market drama as the campaigns intensify, gaffes are made and bombshells emerge.

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Nor is it just the betting. Check out this graph from fivethirtyeight.com showing the trajectory of their forecast.

538pollgraph.PNG

Leaving aside the fact those two indicators differ rather significantly, their mutual stability does tell a story. That very few developments in politics or the news seem to impact voter choices. Or, it seems, even the analysis of bettors.

Is this an effect of information bubbles?

In 2020, pretty much everybody is locked into their own information bubble, receiving different news and information. A Democrat-leaner's feed will be full of Lincoln Project ads excoriating Trump and horrific headlines regarding his latest crimes. Whereas a Republican-leaner is bombarded by horrific scenes of violence in Democrat cities and Hunter Biden's alleged corruption.

In the social media age, everything is geared towards triggering anger and confirming bias. Media want clicks and parties need to get their vote out. Voters are driven ever further apart and become ever less likely to switch party. Hence the very small percentage of persuadables recorded in polls.

One could say that this is a particular reaction to the uniquely divisive Trump era. Except there are clear parallels with the UK, with whom the USA share a language, media networks and political ideas.

Similar phenomenon applies in UK

For three and a half years, Brexit dominated political life. Barely anybody switched between Remain and Leave. Opinion generally hardened and the divisions became entrenched. It culminated in the predictable, undramatic 2019 election.

My abiding memory of that campaign was the lack of movement, or even prospect of movement in polls or betting. It didn't matter who won the TV debates, or that Boris Johnson dodged the Andrew Neil interview and was caught hiding in a fridge from reporters. Twitter would go ballistic but nothing moved the needle.

Having spent the last five years completely immersed in US politics, this has become normal. I could write 1000 words every day until the election about a Trump scandal that would have finished any other president, and forget dozens more. Yet Trump's approval rating barely moves. Indeed this Fivethirtyeight graph is the most telling of the lot.

538pollgraph.PNG

If this is the new normal for the social media age, predicting elections should be easy, right? At that UK election, the number of upsets among 650 constituencies was in single digits.

Yet the current trends for this election suggests it is wildly unpredictable. That either the polls are fundamentally wrong (a theory lacking evidence) or that a gamechanger lies ahead to turn Trump's bad position around.

Poll scepticism fair given recent history

That is understandable, given what happened in 2016 to Clinton. Also while the polls weren't especially pro-Remain, Leave was a huge betting upset. Poll-sceptics gained another argument at the 2017 UK election. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour beat a 100/1 vote share target and were only a few thousand votes away from an upset that would have dwarfed either of the 2016 shocks.

My view is that the era from 2014-2019 will be seen as one of partisan realignment, fuelled or at least reinforced by the growth of social media.

Transitional period is over

The demographic dynamics in both countries changed similarly. Male, older, whiter, non-higher educated voters tended to move Right. Female, younger, non-white, university educated voters tended to move Left.

There was a period of flux as they gradually found their homes. Suburban, Republican-leaning women who hate Trumpism may have given him the benefit of the doubt in 2016, but had switched wholesale by the 2018 mid-terms. 'Red Wall', white working-class Brexiteers who gave Corbyn a chance in 2017 but were staunch Boris Johnson supporters by 2019.

If the voters are now entrenched in their new tribes, we shouldn't pay too much heed to those transitional elections. Trump's emergence in 2015/16 was a massive shock to the system that took time to digest. Four years on, it seems highly unlikely that there are many people on the planet, let alone in the USA, who are on the fence, undecided or persuadable about him.


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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