What could be more cliché than a group of Australian students talking about American politics?
But as the saying goes, “when America sneezes, the world catches a cold,” making near-certain that the next four years may be the most consequential any of us experience. As the world’s most powerful country and Australia’s closest strategic partner, Australians certainly have a vested interest in the results of the US elections on November 3rd, when President Donald Trump from the Republican Party takes on the Democratic challenger and former Vice-President Joe Biden.
So, without further ado, the Publications team will this week provide daily content on the election, and give you the lowdown on what you need to know and be prepared for over the coming weeks. For the sake of impartiality, we’ll endeavour not to promote our views, but it might not take a genius to guess who a group of Gen Z, latte-sipping, blog-posting urbanites would support.
Part 1: The Electoral College
By Daniel Walton
As you may know, the US doesn’t elect its leader by popular vote. Instead, the President is elected through the electoral college, which has been in effect since the drafting of the American constitution. On Nov 3rd, each state will afford its electoral votes to whoever gains a plurality of votes in that state in a winner-take-all system.
There are 538 electoral votes in total and each state is given representation based on the number of representatives and senators they send to Congress. Whilst representatives are allocated based on population, each state has exactly two senators. Thus, tiny Wyoming has as much representation in the Senate as the entire state of California. As a consequence, the electoral college inherently favours smaller states, with the vote of a Wyomingite weighted three times as heavily as a Californian. Since rural voter’s skew conservative, this apportionment tends to suit Republicans.
For almost all of American history, this hasn’t made a difference to the final outcome. However, with the turn of the 21st century and an increasing urban-rural divide, we have seen two electoral college-popular vote splits. In 2000, George W. Bush won a narrow victory despite Al Gore winning the popular vote. Perhaps more relevantly, Donald Trump won the electoral college in 2016 despite totalling 3 million less votes than Hillary Clinton.
So what is the outlook for 2020? Since the 1980s, elections have generally been decided in the Midwest and Florida. Barack Obama won resoundingly in 2008 due to his strength among white working-class Midwesterners, even winning the Republican stronghold of Indiana. In 2016, Trump won back this demographic, propelling him to victory with narrow margins in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. This so-called “Obama-Trump” voter will likely decide the election in 2020 once again.
Donald Trump is again expected to have a slight advantage in the electoral college, with key states in the Midwest predicted to be closer than the national race as a whole. However, this may be irrelevant if Biden can win “bigly”. Currently, Biden holds a 9% lead in national polls and a 6% lead in Pennsylvania, the expected “tipping-point” state. The Biden campaign is also hedging its bets by venturing into areas considered typical Republican territory, holding 3% leads in Arizona and North Carolina, while polls in Georgia and Texas show tied races.
The Current State of the Race (26 October)
This is all well-and-good, but what might happen on election day? Could the polls be wrong again? Firstly, Biden’s lead is larger than Clinton’s and has been stable for the entire campaign. Secondly, the polling error which buried Clinton, an underestimation of her weakness among white voters without college degrees, is less likely to impact Biden, a native of Scranton who was colloquially referred to as “Working-Class Joe”. Currently, statistical models place Trump’s chances of re-election as roughly 10-15%, about the same likelihood of rolling a one on a die. Betting markets show a closer race, albeit with a solid Biden lead.
The key takeaway is that while Biden has a significant lead in the polls, the race will be somewhat closer due to the makeup of the electoral college. On election night, pay attention to the states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida, as they will likely decide the election.
Nevertheless, as Nov. 3 nears, Trump is in dire need of an “October Surprise” to make up the ground.
Part 2: The House of Representatives and the Senate
By Dylan Mortimore
While the presidential race commands much of the world’s attention, the individual outcomes of the Senate and House elections on November 3 will significantly impact policy implementation and presidential power. After all, there’s only so much a president can achieve when they lack the ability to make legislative change.
Let’s first take a look at how the Senate operates. Congress’ upper chamber is composed of 100 senators, two from each of the 50 states. As mentioned when discussing the electoral college, since representation in the Senate is not granted on the basis of population size, a vote in Wyoming carries substantially more weight than one in California. This is a source of some advantage for the Republicans, with partisan biases emerging as a consequence of voters in smaller, rural states tending to support the Grand Old Party.
In the US, senators serve six-year terms, but these terms are staggered such that approximately one-third of the seats are up for election every two years. On November 3, 35 seats will face re-election. This year, Republican incumbents are defending 23 seats, with the remaining 12 being defended by the Democrats. As it stands, the Republicans hold a 53-47 voting majority in the senate. The number of additional seats that the Democrats require to seize this voting majority ultimately depends on whether Biden wins the Presidency. If Trump is victorious, then the Democrats will need to emerge with an additional four seats and establish a 51-49 majority to have the power in the senate. If Biden wins, they’ll only need three, as any ‘ties’ can be broken by the sitting vice-president. Yet even the candidate who wins the senate and the White House can struggle to pass legislation. This is a result of filibuster and the senate cloture rule, which requires 60 votes to conclude debate on most agendas. Without 60 members supporting the end of debate, discussion can proceed indefinitely. As you’d imagine, this provides an easy mechanism for the party without a majority to obstruct a piece of legislation. Interestingly, both presidential candidates have expressed a desire to reform filibuster at some point. Whether the candidate whose party lacks a majority after November 3 continues to campaign against the senate cloture rule remains to be seen.
The election outcome in the senate is an important one: a president whose party lacks the voting majority is greatly hampered in their ability to pass new legislation. In Biden’s case, proposed reforms regarding healthcare, climate change and immigration would be substantially hindered. Moreover, the senate plays the critical role of approving supreme court nominations, as well as all lower court appointments. As of writing, the US Senate has confirmed 220 Federal Court judges under Trump, including three supreme court appointments.
As for what will determine which party has the majority in the senate, analysts have a range of opinions on the races that are most crucial. Arizona, Colorado and Maine all provide significant opportunities for Democrat challengers, with Republican incumbents struggling to establish an image distinct from President Trump, whose popularity has waned considerably in these states. At this stage, only one of the twelve Democratic incumbents appears to be in a particularly shaky position (Doug Jones in Alabama). If incumbents like Jones are ousted, the pressure on Democrat challengers in ‘toss-up’ states like Iowa and Georgia will be even greater. Overall, while many forecasts predict a narrow Democrat victory, it’s marginal enough that there’s no shortage of suspense.
Circumstances in the house are – admittedly – a little less exciting. Elections for the US House of Representatives occur every two years, and in the 2018 election, the Democrats secured 235 out of the 435 seats. Unlike in the senate, states are split up by population into districts with a single representative. Accordingly, the state of California has 53 representatives, and Wyoming only has 1. On November 3, if the Republicans are to attain the majority, they’ll need to emerge with an additional 21 seats. Recent polling indicates that the GOP is unlikely to succeed in this endeavour and that the Democrats will comfortably retain (and potentially expand) their majority – so it appears to be less of a nail-biter.
All in all, the upper chamber is probably the one to watch.
Part 3: Policy Differences
By Declan Hunt
This election, pressures from the pandemic and renewed vocality in the civil rights movement have seen policies proposed from outside the traditional stances of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Although President Trump’s overarching campaign message of “Make America Great Again” is frequently displayed, very little has been released from the Trump campaign regarding proposed second term policies. Where no campaign information is available, external sources have been used to find Trump’s policy proposals, and where no external sources were available, Trump’s current policies have been reported. Conversely, the Biden campaign have released comprehensive policy documents, and as such all information regarding their proposals is sourced directly from campaign materials. We’ll now take a look at proposed policies in five well publicised areas.
The President has declared he will oversee a job creation drive, creating 10 million jobs and 1 million new small businesses, however details on grants, concessions, and other likely components of such an initiative are non-existent. What can be confirmed is the President’s intentions to further cut corporate and personal taxes. Capital gains tax is to be lowered from 23.8% to 15%, tax concessions will be granted to businesses who do not move production overseas, and there is speculation that the middle marginal tax bracket rate will be reduced from 22% to 15%. There are no plans to end the freeze bracket indexation, so bracket creep will remain for lower and middle income taxpayers.
Former Vice-President Biden’s proposed tax plan would see the corporate rate increased to 28% from 21% (remaining below the 2016 level of 35%), the top marginal tax rate restored to the 2016 level of 39.6%, payroll taxes increased on incomes over $400k, and the introduction of a minimum 15% tax on book income to prevent corporations using deductions to minimise their tax bill to zero. Biden has proposed increasing the federal minimum wage to $15/hr (from $7.25) by 2026, and strengthening protections for union members engaging in industrial action. He also seeks to mandate paid sick leave and paid maternity leave. Stimulus spending, with a heavy emphasis on renewable energy, modernised manufacturing, public transportation infrastructure, and public housing is proposed.
The President’s ultimate goal is to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which he failed to achieve in the first term. No replacement has been proposed; repealing the ACA will allow health insurers to deny coverage to those with pre-existing conditions. The President’s current stance on the COVID-19 pandemic is that America has “turned the corner” in fighting the virus, despite daily case numbers reaching all time highs. Only one COVID-19 response policy has been proposed: the rapid development of a vaccine with an “America first” approach.
Biden’s proposed COVID response policies are free testing for all Americans, free vaccinations when available, and the expansion of domestic medical goods manufacturing capabilities. Funding has been pledged to expand contact tracing abilities by hiring 100k contact tracing staff. Proposed changes to the broader health system include limiting private health insurance fees to 8.5% of income, increases to funding given to states for medicaid programs, and full government funding of people’s employer-based health insurance if their job is lost. Biden’s most substantial healthcare policy proposal is the introduction of public insurance: those on low incomes will be automatically enrolled at no cost, and other policies will be available for purchase in the insurance market. These policies are intended to increase competition in the insurance market and lower costs for the public.
The Supreme Court
Following the appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court vacancy left by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there is no longer a vacancy to be filled on the 9-person bench of the Supreme Court. Ginsburg was the second most liberal Justice before her death, and Barrett’s record indicates she is now the second most conservative, making for the biggest shift in court ideology in modern history. Simplistically, the bench now has a 6-3 conservative majority.
Members of the Democratic party have proposed expanding the size of the bench to 11 justices to restore near-parity through additional judicial appointments. The President has come out strongly against the policy. Biden’s initial stance during the primaries was to firmly rule out this policy, however has since softened his stance to a position of wanting a bipartisan commission to examine the issue.
The President has not announced any changes to policies implemented in this term. Trump intends to continue construction of a wall along America’s southern border, and maintain an entry ban on persons from Muslim-majority countries. The President has recently used Title 42 (a code for dealing with health emergencies) to deport asylum seekers in the US, regardless of their asylum status. Trump also intends to continue processing asylum seekers outside the US, using third country resettlement agreements, and maintaining a narrow definition of asylum eligibility which excludes the threat of violence from organised crime and LGBT+ persecution.
Biden has vowed to reverse these policies in their entirety, pledging to end the travel ban, end third country agreements, end processing outside of the US, and reverse changes to asylum eligibility rules, allowing gang violence and LGBT+ persecution to again be valid reasons for seeking asylum. The Biden campaign has also affirmed it will cease construction of the border wall, but will not demolish sections already built.
Amidst criticisms of racial vilification and brutality committed by American police forces, the President has launched a strong defence of police. Trump has promised to fund thousands of extra state and federal law enforcement officers, and increase federal penalties for attacks on police officers. Trump will also retain his policy of allowing military surplus equipment and weaponry to be sold to police forces.
Biden has proposed a far wider-reaching law enforcement agenda. In direct contrast to the President, Biden has proposed revoking the Executive Order allowing police forces to use surplus military equipment. There are also proposals to improve school disciplinary and counselling services so police intervention is not required, and proposals to increase police accountability through mandatory nationwide wearing of body cameras. The Biden campaign has also pledged to end cash bail, abolish federal mandatory minimum sentencing, and federally decriminalise the use and possession of marijuana.
This list is far from exhaustive, but does cover areas in which there are multiple documented proposals from both candidates. More Democratic policies can be found on their campaign website, and more Republican policies can be found in news sources.
Part 4: Voting and Results
By Declan Hunt
The prevalence of the coronavirus throughout American communities has necessitated serious changes in the way voting is conducted. Record numbers of Americans have applied for postal (“mail-in”) ballots or already voted at pre-polling locations. In fact, the number of mail-in and early votes cast has already reached 40% of the total 2016 election turnout.
The Democratic primary in the state of WIsconsin served as an indicator as to how in person voting would occur this election. Occurring in April at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, the Democratic Governor of Wisconsin issued an order that the election be conducted entirely by postal ballots, however this was struck down by the state’s Republican controlled legislature. Both the legislature and a U.S. District Judge did not permit the primary to be postponed, and the Supreme Court later struck down a deadline extension to mail-in ballot returns. On top of this, the number of polling stations was drastically reduced, with one reason being a shortage of volunteer polling staff, who are traditionally older and more vulnerable to COVID. The compression of 180 voting centres into 5 in the state’s largest city, Milwaukee, saw large crowds wait multiple hours before being able to cast a ballot. With the coronavirus leading to nationwide declines in polling worker numbers, scenes like this will be repeated throughout the country on election day.
However, the unavailability of polling workers is not the only reason behind these staggering wait times. Since a 2013 Supreme Court decision, federal approval is no longer necessary for a state to close polling places, a measure implemented as a part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to prevent state legislatures from impeding black citizens from voting. To continue using the example of Milwaukee, of the 5 polling centres left open, only 1 was on the north-side of the city, despite this being home to 40% of the city’s population. The residents of this area are overwhelmingly black. This problem is by no means constrained to Milwaukee, with particular concerns surrounding the states of Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana, all of which have large black populations and are controlled by Republican legislatures, Governors, or both. Pre-COVID data shows waits of around 5 minutes in areas with over 90% white populations, however average waits reach over 30 minutes in areas with over 90% non-white populations. Such discrepancies will be amplified by reductions in polling places, a predicted increase in voter turnout, and black voters’ preference to vote in person rather than by mail. Lines over 6 hours long were seen in predominantly black metropolitan areas for Georgia’s Democratic primary.
Mail-in voting is the socially distanced alternative to voting in person, however is not readily available in all states, with some states not relaxing eligibility requirements despite the pandemic. President Trump lambasts all mail-in voting as “out of control” and has repeatedly made claims that mail-in voting will lead to widespread fraud. These claims are not supported in data, with only 143 convictions for mail-in voting fraud related crimes recorded nationwide over the past 20 years, a rate of 0.000006% of all ballots cast.
Additionally, the President and Postmaster General are accused of gutting US Postal Service funding in the lead up to the election. It is seen in data that Trump supporters are less likely to believe in the existence of or threat posed by COVID-19, meaning it is more likely they will vote in person. As such, cuts to USPS funding which delay processing and delivery times are more likely to impact Democratic voters by invalidating their vote. Each state has individual rules on when mail-in ballots must be received to be counted, however inevitable legal challenges may see election day become the last day on which mail-in ballots can be received.
Further Democratic criticism of mail-in voting rules focuses on rules surrounding procedure and verification. In many states, the voter must adhere to a series of steps including using a privacy envelope within an outer envelope, providing information across multiple forms, and most importantly, signing the envelope or ballot paper. This signature is matched against records from each state’s database, with the vote eligible to be disqualified if signatures do not match. People changing signatures or having multiple signatures is quite common. In some states, voters are notified if their ballot is deemed ineligible, allowing them to verify their identity and have their vote counted. However, this is not mandatory, and some states, most notably Texas, will disqualify ballots without informing the voter.
For the first election in recent memory, there is also no expectation of having a result on the night. The mail-in and early ballots that will decide the election will be counted over subsequent days, with states again having individual rules on when counting of these ballots can start. This gives rise to the very real possibility of one candidate leading on election night, and then having this lead eroded and losing after early and mail-in votes are counted, which is guaranteed to result in legal challenges.
How such legal challenges end may well decide the election. With a 6-3 conservative Supreme Court majority, whether ballots which would otherwise result in a Biden victory will be disqualified remains to be seen. Additionally, sentiments expressed by Justice Kavanaugh in footnotes to other voting matters may change the way states allocate their electoral college votes. Traditionally, state legislatures appoint electors to vote for whoever gains a plurality of votes in that state, with state courts able to remove electors and their votes if they vote contrary to the will of the state population. However, Justice Kavanaugh’s comments, if enforced, would allow state legislatures to dictate to their college electors how to cast their votes with no oversight from state judiciaries. Such a stance would ultimately allow state legislatures controlled by one party to override plurality and award some or all college votes to their party’s presidential candidate.
One final question remains to be answered. With polling suggesting a Biden victory, will the President accept the result, particularly if leading on election night and then losing after early and mail-in ballots are counted? On September 23 when asked about the issue, the President answered, “we’re going to have to see what happens … get rid of the ballots [and there would be a] very peaceful … continuation [of power]”. Since then, no commitment has been made to respect the outcome of the vote. Such a stance is guaranteed to lead to a Supreme Court challenge if Trump is defeated, and from there, we can only speculate as to what will happen.
Part 5: The Final Outlook
By Daniel Walton
If you’ve sifted through and made it this far, hopefully our coverage has given a better knowledge of what will occur on Election Day. Indeed, not much has changed over the past four days and the top-line forecasts are all the same. Most metrics predict a Biden win of around 8% in the popular vote and a 5% win in Pennsylvania, with varying degrees of uncertainty depending on how correct the polls are. Polls are also predicting a large Democratic majority in the House, and a slim Democratic majority in the Senate.
However, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the race is over. As noted in Part 4, there is a distinct possibility of the Republican Party interfering with the election results with the aid of the Supreme Court. Indeed, with the recent confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the bench, this is an increasingly likely possibility. Nevertheless, this is contingent on the race being a close one in several battleground states, which all indicators appear that it is not.
It must also be noted that Trump is not a political genius – if he’s going to commit extra-constitutional shenanigans the public is probably going to hear about it through Twitter – and in the case that he does delegitimize the result, it is unclear that the courts, military or even the public will stand idly by. Trump has previously called for “poll-watchers” to go to the polls and “watch for voter fraud” – a pretty obvious cover for voter intimidation. A group of chanting Trump supporters were reported outside an early voting booth in Virginia, however, were quickly removed and election officials believe they are prepared for any disturbances.
It’s also entirely possible that Trump could achieve a legitimate victory. A 5% polling error would likely be enough to win Florida, North Carolina and Arizona, and also to bring the Midwestern states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin into play. As the “fracking” capital of America, Pennsylvania may swing against Biden following his anti-fossil-fuel comments in the debate. Another worrying sign for Democrats in Pennsylvania is that mail ballots have been returned at a low rate compared to the rest of the country, and there is still an ongoing judicial dispute over whether ballots received after Nov 3rd can be accepted there.
Further, if the race comes down to Pennsylvania, electoral officials don’t expect to produce a decisive ballot count until Saturday. This may be cause for concern if Trump declares victory on election night with a lead in in-person ballots, when mail ballots cause a late “Blue Shift” that may eventually push the needle in Biden’s favour.
However, we should have a good idea in other states of how the race is headed on election day. Florida is expected to count its ballot’s quickly and declare a winner on the night, whilst other swing states like Wisconsin and Arizona should paint a picture of the overall race. For statistical nerds like myself, the NY Times “Needle” may be the best indicator of who’s ahead. A staple of American politics, the Needle analyses exit polls and precinct data and constantly updates as results come in to produce a forecast of who is winning each race.
Nevertheless, Trump faces a much more difficult path to victory than 2016. With less than two days of voting remaining, it’s increasingly likely that we will see a continuation of the 2018 Blue Wave, resulting in a Democratic President, House and Senate. As of the 1st November, 92 million ballots have already been cast, and voter turnout is expected to reach 158 million once all ballots are counted, the highest in percentage terms since 1900. A number of states, including Texas, have already surpassed their 2016 vote total even before election day.
Above all, this election is a referendum on Trumpism. Joe Biden, whilst a relatively palatable candidate to most voters, doesn’t inspire enthusiasm in the way that his predecessor or opponent does. Indeed, 75% of likely Trump voters say they are voting for Trump and not against Biden, whilst 75% of Biden voters say they are primarily voting against Trump, not for Biden.
It might be a bit premature to prophesize on the future of American politics when the election is not over, but alas no commentary would be complete without a bit of prognostication. Win or lose, this will be Trump’s last election, and it’s guaranteed that Republicans and Democrats are already looking towards 2024.
Over the past five years we’ve witnessed a dramatic reshaping of the Republican Party. Whilst he might seem like a staple of the GOP, Donald Trump was despised by the Republican establishment during his 2016 Primary Campaign. Previous nominees Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush all refused to endorse him, and in some instances campaigned against him. Now, he holds a commanding 94% approval within the GOP. Even a resounding defeat may not deter the populist tides that now control the Republican Party.
Looking at 2024 internal polls show that the highest polling Republican candidates are Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr, both staples of the Trump administration. Another possibility is Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an ardent supporter of Trump’s who advocated using the military to dispel BLM protestors. It must be mentioned that Trump is somewhat of a political amateur, and potentially a candidate touting Trumpian views but with a more palatable rhetoric would have electoral success.
This election has also exposed some fault lines within Democratic support. Democratic leads amongst African Americans and Hispanics have, somewhat surprisingly, fallen sharply since 2016, whilst their share of the college-educated white vote has risen. This change in opinion isn’t due to perceptions of Biden (people of colour were largely responsible for Biden’s primary victory), more so that these groups tend to skew conservative on many social issues and have primarily voted against Republicans due to dissonance on racial issues. A more diverse range of GOP candidates, including Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio and Tim Scott, may potentially move the Republican Party in a new direction.
For the Democrats, a Biden win would mean a return to normalcy and a validation of the Obama-wing of the party. Unlikely to run again in 2024, Biden would likely be succeeded by up-and-coming moderates such as Pete Buttigieg, Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris. However, a loss would be a repudiation of the Obama-faction, which would have unsuccessfully run two campaigns in Clinton and Biden. Under this scenario, fresh blood would likely be the favourite for the 2024 nomination, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the potential frontrunner.
But for whoever is inaugurated, the most important job will be to heal the deep divisions the last two election cycles have created. Once a beacon of democracy, America is quickly becoming the prototype of polarisation and political gridlock. Republicans appear to prioritise “Owning the Libs” above actual governance or conservative principles, and likewise in the wake of 2016, Democrats have prioritised blocking Trump’s agenda as opposed to revising their own.
An Australian Perspective
If you’ve made it this far, take a breath. I’m sure you’re not all Americophiles like myself, and most of you probably just wanted to see if Trump was going to win. So, it’s worth talking about what this election might mean for Australia. In particular, how will a Biden presidency affect US-Australia relations and the world more generally?
Well, a Biden presidency would likely lead to normalcy on the international stage more than anything. The US would renew its UN funding obligations, re-join the Paris Climate Accords and more generally signal to its allies that it is a partner to be relied on. A Biden win would also increase global economic confidence and rebound international markets in the hopes that a new stimulus package would be passed. Passage of a Green New Deal would also put America on the forefront of global climate action and encourage allies to do the same. But perhaps most interesting would be America’s stance on China.
Whilst Trump has certainly been outspoken in his antagonism of China – particularly on trade – he has not been particularly concerned with human rights issues, such as the persecution of the Uyghur population or the removal of Hong Kong’s civil liberties. Further, through his departure from the TPP, Trump abandoned an economic effort to stem China’s growing monetary influence throughout East Asia. Many allies in the region have found themselves left to dry when it comes to countering China’s growing influence. Indeed, a Biden administration may be more likely to coordinate an international effort to contain and control China and restore the rules-based international order.
As usual, all eyes will be pointing to America on November 4th. Lives, reputations and global responsibilities will be at stake as Americans go to the polls. What was once the world’s most successful experiment in democracy has devolved into a nation of political hatred and polarisation. It may be wishful thinking, but no matter who wins, hopefully steps will be taken to defeat the divisions and animosity that have now swallowed American politics.
Finally, at the risk of looking ridiculous, here is your Publications Team’s prediction for the final outcome:
UQES Publications Team Presidential Election Prediction
We thank you for your readership of our US Election Guide, and cordially invite you to read other UQES Publications including our blog and Journal of Creative Distractions. We welcome reader correspondence on our articles, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. Sincerely, your Publications Team: