Mundo #22 was published on October 8, 2020.
G'day, and welcome to edition 22 of Mundo. In this edition, I detail possible scenarios facing the United States following the rapidly approaching presidential election on November 3. I also recommend a new report on China's weaponisation of the Belt and Road Initiative, plus a podcast en español para mis lectores hispanohablantes.
Thanks to Scott Buchanan for his thoughts on this edition.
Forward this along to others who might enjoy it.
Approximate reading time: 7 minutes. A bit longer than usual, but worth it!
With only weeks remaining until the US presidential election on November 3, there's growing concern over how the election will unfold. The country is still weathering the covid pandemic, and is led by a president intent on sowing doubt on the election's legitimacy, while refusing to agree to a peaceful transition of power, should he lose. I'm not going to predict the outcome, but I will analyse some of the most likely scenarios that the United States might face, and what this means for social and political stability.
I see four scenarios, ranked in order from lowest to highest risk of social and political volatility:
Trump wins by a narrow to convincing margin, in a result that's declared on or shortly after November 3.
Biden wins convincingly, in a result that's declared on or shortly after November 3.
Biden wins a narrow victory, in a result that's declared shortly after November 3.
The result is too close to call on November 3, with the eventual result not called for several days, or even weeks.
Note I make the caveat of "risk" of chaos in these scenarios. There are certainly pathways in each of these scenarios which could vary widely from these baseline analyses. Some of the known catalysts that could drive these variations are discussed below. Then there are "black swan" events, which aren't easily foreseen, and have a large impact. 🤷🏼♂️
Scenario 1: Trump wins by a narrow to convincing margin
In terms of political and social stability, the first scenario is the most stable. Biden has committed to conceding defeat should there be no major voting glitches or issues (more on this below). There would likely be protests and expressions of displeasure from Biden's supporters, but it would largely be peaceful. This judgment is based on evidence that the greatest threat of political violence in the United States comes from far right extremists, who have less reason to incite violence in this scenario.
Scenario 2: Biden wins convincingly
In this scenario, Biden wins convincingly in a result that is declared on or in the days immediately following November 3. Biden has momentum on election night, and he passes the electoral college threshold of 270 as mail-in ballots are tallied in the days following the election. Trump delays conceding defeat, but after Congressional Republicans acknowledge Biden's victory, Trump eventually stands down.
Note Trump is not one for apologies or acts of humility, so don't expect an outright acknowledgement. He will still label the election as "rigged", but absent the catalysts I outline below, his accusations will fail to rally a broad base of support. There are sporadic protests and unrest, but Trump's retreat stifles all but his most fringe supporters.
Scenario 3: Biden wins a narrow victory
Trump refuses to concede, saying the election was "rigged". He coaxes his supporters to protest against Biden's "illegitimate" victory. With a narrow margin separating the two candidates, and months of conspiratorial rhetoric from Trump, a broader base of Trump's supporters protest the result, facing off against counter protests from the political left.
Trump's campaign launches a swathe of legal challenges, enabled by a recent relaxation in investigating voter fraud. Some of these challenges could escalate to the U.S. Supreme Court. Regardless of the validity of these legal challenges, they create a level of doubt and scepticism amongst Trump's supporters over the result.
Sporadic unrest and violence breaks out in urban centres across the country, provoking Congressional Republicans to call for calm amongst Trump's supporters. If protests are protracted and Trump continues withholding his concession, a fissure in the Republican Party could emerge between Trump's hard-core supporters and moderate Republicans.
Scenario 4: Too close to call. No result is declared for several days, even weeks
Both Biden and Trump rally their supporters with a positive spin, although Trump does so with more aggressive language. This is exacerbated by the prevalence of polarised cable news media, where opposing channels call victories for their candidate. Trump questions the election's legitimacy and launches legal challenges, propagating a chain of scepticism, confrontational protests, and scattered violence similar to the prior scenario.
The most troubling scenario would be a "red mirage" where Republican voters turn out in force on November 3, while a disproportionate number of Democrat voters opt for mail-in voting in the days and weeks prior. Delayed mail-in vote tallying (more below) could show Trump with momentum on election day, only for postal ballots to swing heavily back to Biden.
Catalysts to look for
Interacting with these election scenarios are a number of factors that could act as catalysts on the intensity of political and public reaction. The more grave these catalysts are, or even the perception of their gravity, the greater the likelihood of social and political volatility for any given scenario.
The logistical success of mail-in voting
Much attention has turned to the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle an unprecedented surge in demand for mail-in ballots. For example in Pennsylvania, half of the state's expected 6 million votes are forecast to be mail-in ballots, a 10-fold increase from 2016.
In Pennsylvania and in most other states, demand for mail-in ballots is skewing along partisan lines. Three times as many registered Democrats requested mail-in ballots compared to Republicans. Calls to expand pre-election day sorting and validation (not counting) of votes to minimise tallying delays has become a political issue. In Pennsylvania, the state's Republican lawmakers have rejected calls to allow earlier ballot processing before election day. This could result in a glut of ballots to tally on election day, raising the likelihood that vote tallying will continue beyond November 3. This could delay the result in some key battleground states, including Pennsylvania.
Lagged tallying of mail-in votes and erroneous ballots are always present in U.S. elections, however the expected surge in volume of mail-in voting will drive the instance of these issues higher. This isn't a new phenomenon, but in close battleground states in a politically charged environment, tallying delays and voided ballots are kindling to Trump's conspiratorial sparks of "fraud".
Actual voting fraud in American elections is extremely rare, both for in-person and mail-in voting. Yet this election's vulnerability to tallying back-logs, coupled with Trump's incessant peppering of vote-by-mail fraud conspiracies is shifting the perception of the validity of the election, particularly with his supporters.
The logistical success of in-person voting
Related to the actual participation of mail-in voting is the demand placed on in-person polling stations. While demand for mail-in ballots has surged, some voters may ultimately opt to vote in person. There is a risk that this could overwhelm in-person polling stations, meaning long wait lines. Logistical miscalculations at polling stations aren't unusual, but they will take on a more politicised tone in 2020.
Trump's call for his supporters to "go into polls and watch very carefully" could provoke tension and accusations of voter intimidation. Trained poll watchers from independent groups, and both major parties are a fixture of U.S. elections, however Trump's loose language could see a surge in informal watchers with an agenda, who are not versed in the responsibilities and obligations of a formal poll watcher.
The level or perceived level of foreign influence before, during, and after November 3
Any election result could take a sour turn if a perception of foreign interference arises. I can't say it better than Timothy Frye in a recent War on the Rocks article:
"Popular discussion tends to root the problem of foreign electoral interference online in the “tsunamis of falsehood” spread via disinformation campaigns on social media, but election expertsnote that foreign troll activity on social media is typically too small-scale and inept to have much of an impact on elections. The far greater dangers come from hack-and-dump operations that leak stolen information online and the threat of cyber attacks on voter registration databases or voting machines. Rebuffing these efforts requires dealing with foreign internet trolls and hackers, but successful foreign interference in elections is usually an inside job. Media outlets that uncritically report material from hack-and-dump operations and political parties who benefit from foreign interference are keys to the success of any foreign meddling. Combatting foreign interference online is as much a political as a technical challenge."
Foreign interference in elections isn't new. What is new is the public's (vague) awareness of it after 2016. What really matters is the public's perception of the level of any sinister influence, and with that the validity of the result. When it comes to manipulating public perception, nobody is better than Trump.
If there is unrest
If there is social unrest, it's most likely to occur in urban centres, particularly around government buildings, business districts, and symbolic structures. The risk of extreme violence is greatest in known areas of activity for far right extremist groups. The map below shows cases of far right extremist plots and attacks from 2014 to mid-2020 - although future threats aren't constrained to known historical cases, of course.
The U.S. Supreme Court
There's been a lot of attention on the supreme court with the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. Should legal challenges to the election reach the Supreme Court, don't blindly assume the Court's Republican majority will reflexively side with the Trump campaign's accusations. As The Economist notes, Trump's first two Court appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh recently broke ranks with Trump to side with a New York district attorney's quest to access Trump's financial records.
However, the Supreme Court's impact is already present prior to the election, siding with Republican wishes to prevent relaxed mail-in voting regulations, as detailed earlier.
As an institution, the Supreme Court will take their role seriously and responsibly. Yet Trump has routinely stepped over and around institutional norms and procedures. Don't expect him to stifle his rhetoric and accusations because a Supreme Court verdict doesn't favour him.
On a tangent, a question worth pondering is this - if Trump loses the election, what role will he take on out of office? Don't expect him to go quietly, a la George Bush Jr. American norms, laws, and institutions have barely contained his wilder tendencies. Out of office, he has no reason to refrain from energising his base of supporters. He will remain a political force - and in theory can run for president again in a subsequent election.
In coming editions, I'll analyse what some businesses and sectors can do to mitigate their exposure from these election scenarios.
Need a refresher on how U.S. elections work? The (Australian) ABC's Planet America will walk you through it, with some humour.
Friends and former colleagues Danny Russel and Blake Berger recently published a deeply detailed account of China's "weaponisation" of its Belt and Road Initiative, focusing on the Indo Pacific. Well worth a read, or you can watch Danny's highlight video.
Les recomiendo a oír "El Washington Post", un podcast del mismo periódico estadounidense. Sale dos veces por semana, y cubre los temas políticos y económicos más importantes con una perspectiva global.
Thanks to everyone who has emailed me with their thoughts and ideas. Keep them coming! Forward this along to others who might find this an interesting read.
Stay calm, think of others, stay healthy.