06 Oct Why Trump Is Likely To Lose His Job
This article is written as a commentary ahead of the US 2020 elections and its potential implications to Singapore.
The US presidential elections are about a month away, and despite President Donald Trump’s abysmal poll numbers, many observers believe he will defy the odds to win, as he did in 2016. Such worries are unfounded, however, and there are very good reasons to expect that he will likely lose come November 2020.
Determinants of Voting Behaviour
Voting intentions depend on two important factors – structural conditions, and candidate characteristics. On the former, the evidence from political science is unambiguous – American voters hold the incumbent president responsible for the state of the country, for good or ill. The state of the economy and whether Americans are dying (e.g. from wars) very strongly predict whether an incumbent president gets re-elected or not – and of course, Trump is currently presiding over 8.4% unemployment and more than 200,000 deaths from COVID.
With respect to candidate characteristics, moderate candidates tend to do better, because more extreme candidates tend to galvanize and turn out their political opponents. In 2016, Trump was seen as more moderate than his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, partly because he tacked left on issues like Social Security and Medicare. In 2020, however, it is the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, who is viewed as more moderate than Trump, who has pursued standard (and unpopular) conservative priorities like tax cuts for the wealthy.
One can therefore expect voters to be disinclined to support Trump for re-election – and that is exactly what the polls show, with Biden leading Trump by 7.6 points in the poll aggregates as of end September 2020. Biden is also leading in key battleground states whose electoral college votes will decide the election – the former Vice President is up 5.6 points in Pennsylvania, 6.9 points in Wisconsin, 7 points in Michigan, 2 points in Florida, 3.7 points in Arizona and 1.2 points in North Carolina.
Of course, polls have gotten a bad reputation for inaccuracy due to the 2016 elections where Clinton led for most of the year only for Trump to win – but in truth, they are fundamentally pretty accurate.
Over the past two decades and across 11 US elections, polls have correctly identified the winner about 80% of the time.
To the extent that the polls got 2016 wrong, that isn’t an indictment of the accuracy of polling. There is always a margin of error, and in view of such uncertainty, top poll-based prediction models in 2016 gave Trump anything from a 5-30% chance of winning (an average of perhaps 17% or so). That something with a 17% chance of happening, actually happens, is hardly a surprise at all. To put this in context, 17% is about the probability that one loses a game of Russian Roulette – and hardly any of us would consider a one in sixth chance good enough odds to wager one’s life upon!
It is true that polls from 2016 also underestimated Trump’s support, but this was because they failed to weigh by education – Trump voters are disproportionately less educated, and less educated people tend to be under sampled in polls). This problem has since been fixed, giving us more reason to think that Biden’s lead is indeed as large as what the polls say it is. Conversely, there is no real evidence of “shy” Trump voters, who are unwilling to admit that they support the President due to his bigotry, and the consequent possibility of social censure for supporting him.
All in all, Trump is likely (though not certain) to lose – a fact that his supporters might decry, but which his opponents will relish.
Consequences for Singapore
In terms of how Singapore itself will be affected by a Trump loss and a Biden victory – some things will change, but others will not.
Given that Biden and the Democratic Party acknowledge the reality of climate change and the need for urgent action, a Biden victory is likely to see greater US domestic action – and also international coordination – on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
This might affect Singapore’s economy negatively in the short-to-medium term, given the country’s reliance on oil refining – but in the long term, mitigating climate change will obviously benefit Singapore (and other countries), reducing as it does the incidence and severity of adverse weather, the spreading of diseases, or conflict over resources.
That said, a Biden victory will not prevent the deepening geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China. Such a rivalry is fundamentally not driven by Trump and his eccentricities, but by the two countries’ mutual concerns and mistrust over security.
Between their ideological differences and China’s rises to rival the United States in economic and military strength, the two have become each other’s greatest potential security threat – only China could conceivably threaten the US, while China itself has to fear what the US does in response. The steps each country takes to secure themselves – such as through military build-up or alliance building – only creates further mistrust and induces the other to escalate with similar measures.
Moreover, the two countries have incompatible geopolitical strategies. China is seeking to push US military forces out of the Asia-Pacific, to assure its security. In the opposition to that, the United States seeks to prevent China from establishing a hegemonic position in the Asia-Pacific – not just to protect its traditional allies such as Japan and Korea, but also to make it impossible for China to project power into the Eastern Pacific and potentially threaten the US homeland itself.
Singapore, therefore, can expect to be increasingly forced to choose between its strong military partner the United States, and its biggest trade partner China. Failure to align with the United States can weaken Singapore’s security – given its dependence on US arms – even as such an explicit alignment against China can draw damaging economic sanctions, as Australia experienced not too long ago.
The world will change on 3rd November 2020 – largely for the better, but there are risks, as is unavoidable.
Joel Tan is a Senior Associate Consultant and Economist at the Future-Moves Group. Joel majored in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford. He focuses on research and analysis across the fields of politics, public sector reform, economics and international relations.