In four months’ time, on 3 November, the US will choose its president for the next four years. At the moment, momentum is clearly with the presumptive Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic and protests after the death of George Floyd have eroded the Republican president’s approval rating and have led to him losing ground in poll after poll.
Biden has always held a lead in national polls, but that advantage in poll averages has jumped from 4% in May to 10% now. Arguably even more worrying from Trump’s perspective are polls in swing states also shifting significantly towards Biden, and losses of support among both older voters and even his most reliable base of ‘white, no college’ voters.
An electoral collage
Nevertheless, don’t count Trump out (again)! Our baseline remains that it will be a tight race to the end. The heat Trump is taking from the dual crises could calm down and the economy may well look stronger by November. Trump’s strategy again seems to be all about turning out his base. If he can get all of the 35-40% of voters that back him no matter what to turn out to vote, then it will take much more excitement about Biden from the rest of the electorate than is evident so far for him to beat Trump.
It should go without saying that it’s still early in the race and a lot can and will happen. To mention only a few wild cards: What will the economy look like in late October? What if there is a second wave of the virus in the autumn? What if a significant number of people get sick after Trump rallies? What if states need lockdowns on election day? What if targeted lockdowns inadvertently favour Democrats or Republicans? What if COVID-19 influences turnout differently among age cohorts? What if Trump or Biden themselves become ill?
Blue wave versus Trump 2.0
What does all this mean for investors? We would not expect a big equity market reaction if the government remains divided, with one party in the White House and the other controlling at least one chamber of Congress. If Trump wins and the Democrats hold the House of Representatives, it would be roughly the status quo; under a President Biden with a Republican Senate, the latter chamber would likely prevent many of the most market-moving policies in either direction.
Yet a Biden victory of any flavour could still bring a few market-related policy changes. America’s China policy would largely remain unchanged in substance, in our view, but could become less volatile in style. A multilateral approach to China should make an all-out trade war with the EU less likely. Tech regulation should continue to tighten gradually but, unless personnel choices say otherwise, this has not been a policy area about which Biden has shown particular passion. Generally, expect the policy direction to be more social, more green and more redistributive.
On the other hand, a ‘Blue Wave’ in which Democrats control Washington would be the most market-moving outcome, in our view. This has become the single most likely outcome in betting markets. In short, from a market perspective, this would imply higher corporate taxes and more fiscal spending. Even if these two ultimately balance each other out, the market’s gut reaction seems likely to be negative.
And what would Trump 2.0 look like? The desire to be re-elected has arguably been a moderating force on Trump’s policy choices around issues like the trade war. But in a second term this factor disappears. So what does Trump want to achieve with a second term? Power? Policy? Legacy? Dynasty? We don’t have a clear answer for this question yet. Either way, it is unlikely that Trump 2.0 will be calmer than Trump 1.0.
The only two things we are certain of are that the campaign will get very ugly, and that if Trump loses he will not go quietly into that good night.