The Numbers Behind the US Presidential Election

By John Stackhouse
Published October 22, 2020 | 56 min watch

On October 20, 2020, RBC Capital Markets held a webinar on the US presidential election hosted by John Stackhouse, SVP, Office of the CEO, RBC with speaker Molly O’Rourke, Partner at Hart Research. O’Rouke conducts the Wall Street Journal – NBC News Poll.

This is turning into a one-issue election, in two very different parts.

Biden supporters feel COVID is the top issue, by a 42-23 margin over the economy. Trump supporters feel the economy is the top issue, by a 68-9 margin over COVID.

Which means Trump can’t afford for COVID to be the ballot question, especially since 48% of voters say they don’t trust him at all when it comes to the pandemic. In fact, the economy is the only issue in the top-10 list of voter concerns where he scores better than Biden.

These numbers are from the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, conducted by Hart Research, and they show a consistent and strong lead for Biden.

But as Molly O’Rourke, said, there’s plenty of room for asterisks. The biggest risk is that “polling is weakest where it matters most” – among older, less educated voters in the swing states that Trump won narrowly in 2016.

On several counts, Trump faces challenges:

  • few voters (28%) feel the country is moving in the right direction, which tends to signal the mood for change;
  • interest in the election (81%) is at a new high;
  • voters are taking the election very seriously, with 83% saying the outcome matters (it’s usually about 55%);
  • his base is shifting, with his lead among white, non-college educated men falling from 38 points to 19 points in one month;
  • Biden’s lead with suburban women has grown from 9 points to 25 points in one month;
  • Biden’s lead with seniors has grown from 4 points to 27 points.

O’Rourke cautioned that polling has been disrupted by the pandemic, with serious limits on qualitative in-person interviews that give pollsters a truer sense of public sentiment.

But even in limited encounters, she’s been struck by the number of voters, including “ambivalent” Trump supporters, who use the word “exhausted” when they talk about the need for change. In a period of massive disruption, they see Trump as a source of disruption, and Biden as a source of calm.

She doesn’t see voters giving Biden a mandate to do much more than get rid of Trump and get rid of the virus. There’s much less interest in the bolder change agenda that many Democrats are hoping to implement if they secure control of both Congress and the White House.

Nearly 30 million votes have already been cast – five times as many as in 2016. And many of those ballots won’t be counted until after election day. That could be an advantage for Trump, whose supporters are more inclined to vote in person on November 3. O’Rourke suggested a “red mirage” on election night could prompt him to declare victory, even though Biden could be declared the winner days or weeks later.  

The delayed results could also hang over the Senate, which is proving to be much more challenging for the Republicans. The Democrats need to flip only three of the 35 GOP seats up for grabs to secure control of the upper house, which O’Rourke said is “a very strong possibility.”

With so much up in the air, she expects the election to be “a major test of faith that people have in our institutions, and a test of our two-party system playing by the rules. I’m honestly nervous about it, and there’s plenty of opportunities to get derailed.”

O’Rourke urged one word for election night: “patience.”

John Stackhouse

John Stackhouse
Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO, Royal Bank of Canada

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