This probably my last piece on the US elections, unless something quite extraordinary turns up. My focus here is on the issues, and my basis is some work done by the Pew Center in July and August, and published in August. Yes, it’s a while ago, but my own experience with election issues is that the real ones are pretty constant. What is also important is that there can be sharp partisan differences in the relative importance of particular issues. Issue X may be most important to Democrats, but not really important, or so important to Republicans. I’ll use some Pew results to illustrate this point. To average the results is not really helpful. A third point is that an issue, ‘the economy’ for example, can be so broad in its implications that you are not sure what it really means. It might be an umbrella word to cover jobs, our mortgage, am I going to get a promotion at the end of the year, the cost of living, and so on. You’ve probably seen this ambiguity in our own polling results in Australia.
I’ve said this before, but what we see of the two candidates in Australia is heavily skewed against Donald Trump. So much of it is about his tweets, his personal style, and so on. Candidate Biden is not in any way an impressive figure, and there is a lot that can be said against him. We don’t hear much of it in Australia. As far as I can see, matters of style are not much of an issue in the US. Like the rest of us, Americans are focused on their own problems. If they don’t like candidate Trump, his personal style is not an issue for them. Their job is.
Okay. Pew asked voters to say whether or not a given issue was ‘very important’ to their likely vote in November, and 79 per cent said the economy was. The range was 88 per cent for Republicans and 72 per cent for Democrats. There’s not much in that. It suggests that Democrats are better off, all things considered. ‘Health care’ was the second most important issue in terms of the average (68 per cent), but only 48 per cent of Republicans leaner thought so, compared with 84 of Democrats. The widest range was for ‘climate change’, where the average was 42 per cent, but the range was 11 per cent for Republicans and 68 per cent for Democrats. Another wide range occurred in attitudes towards ‘race and ethnic inequality’: average 52 per cent, but 24 per cent for Republicans compared with 76 per cent for Democrats. ‘Economic inequality’ was rather similar, with a 37 per cent range — 28 per cent for Republicans, compared with 65 per cent for Democrats. Violent crime as an issue is important for those favouring Trump (74 per cent), but much less so for those favouring Biden (46 per cent).
Take a burning issue of the right now, Supreme Court appointments. Here the difference is only five per cent: 61 for Republicans and 66 per cent for Democrats, but you can be pretty sure that what each side sees as important is quite different. Gun policy, a difference of ten per cent only. Foreign policy: no difference at all, as the average, 57 per cent is the same for each side. There is anxiety about economic concerns, for this is not a time where everything is rosy. Not at all. Bad economic times make those who are poor worried about doctors and hospital bills. Many are worried about violence on the streets; it could happen here, and it underlines the worry about jobs.
What about Covid-19? Well, it’s not the leading issue, and while that was August, I doubt that much has changed. The average is 62 per cent, the range 39 per cent for Republicans and 82 per cent for Democrats. Again, where does it point, in terms of one’s vote? Democrats probably blame President Trump for his handling of it, and maybe some Republicans will do so too, though here I’d suspect that it is the same kind of worry that is associated with the economy and health care. American voters will have had to weigh up all these factors first in deciding whether or not to vote, and second which candidate they will support.
Another Pew question asked voters which party would do a better job in deal with a given issue, not the same wording as in the earlier question. Here the Republicans have the edge in economic matters, the budget, gun policy, terrorism and law enforcement, while the Democrats have the lead in social policy concerns like health care, abortion and ethnicity.
Start to put all this together, and you get a picture of what disturbs the American voter. There is apprehension about the future, and it applies to all voters save the few who are comfortably off and not worried about their jobs. Remember that the electorate seems to be pretty evenly divided, as it was four years ago. The lack of explicit pointers makes calling the election outcome pretty difficult, in my opinion. How do you weigh up abortion against jobs? Of course, we all have to do something similar at election time.
But of course predicting outcomes is what polling organisations are for, and they are all having a go at it. Pretty well without exception, they are predicting that Joe Biden will be the next President. Why is this? I think that the technical explanation is twofold. First, the pollsters have done their homework on why they got 2016 wrong: they underestimated the numbers of people who were likely to vote for Trump but who weren’t likely to respond to a pollster.
Second, the numbers of voters who were undecided about whom they would vote for has shrunk a great deal. In 2016 some 15 per cent weren’t sure if they would vote, or weren’t sure whom they would vote for if they did turn up. In 2020 that proportion is now five per cent. Put them together and you have a much clearer sense of who has been polled by the organisations and much less uncertainty about vote outcomes. That gives the pollsters much greater confidence about their own predictions. Is that enough for us to be confident about their predictions? I think so. It does not foreclose new mysteries and last-minute decisions, though.
It is not easy for us in Australia to get much clarity about whether, for example, Trump’s attack on Biden’s honesty and his family’s close links to Ukrainian heavies has had much resonance in the USA. If the great majority of people are decided about whom they will vote for, and that seems to be the case, then I doubt that these revelations have had much effect. But, to repeat, I find it hard to be sure about the popular mood in the USA.
Well, there it is. Save a shocking discovery in the next couple of weeks, I expect a Biden victory. What the former President Trump will do if that occurs is an open question. He could, for example, set up a television news channel, where viewers could get his take on what is happening, not the ‘fake news’ he says what you get on mainstream mass media…
Last thoughts on another election
The ACT elections give Labor another four years as the Government, in some sort of alliance with the Greens, who did well. It’s not the result I was looking for, but that’s electoral democracy for you!