With just a handful of days remaining until the US Presidential election, the risks are rising. What was already building in portent and consequence has taken yet another unexpectedly dramatic turn with the President’s coronavirus infection.
The result of the race had appeared to be foreordained in the polls after the conclusion of the first debate, with a Biden victory anticipated, but the true extent of the President’s medical condition presents a major wild card that complicates placing odds on the final outcome.
In light of the President’s COVID-19 diagnosis, in this piece we first examine what would happen if either candidate could not continue at the top of the ticket. We then look at three possible electoral scenarios and their policy implications: a Biden victory along with the Democrats taking control of the Senate; a Trump victory with a divided Congress; and finally, a disputed and/or delayed election result that could leave the US political landscape in limbo for weeks or even months.
What was already shaping up to be a closely contested presidential election has been upended by President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. Although the President is no longer in the hospital, and his condition has ostensibly improved, his age and other health factors make it difficult to definitively state that he is entirely out of the woods.
This uncertainty has been compounded by the cancellation of the second presidential debate that had been scheduled for October 15. After the Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the event would take place virtually following the President’s recent infection, the Trump campaign refused to participate, stating there was “no medical reason” to cancel the in-person format and that “the President will be healthy and ready to debate.”
Despite the President’s insistence that he will still debate Vice President Biden on October 22, it is an open question whether additional debates will help or harm the President’s standing, especially considering his first debate performance was almost universally poorly received. Indeed, recent polling post-debate has moved the race further in Biden’s direction.
What would happen if a candidate were unable to remain on the ticket due to poor health? Although this has never occurred, both parties have provisions in their nominating procedures for this eventuality. Each party’s national committee would hold a re-nomination process at the committee level and approve a new candidate to put on the ticket. We assume that it is a reasonable expectation that both of the Vice Presidential nominees would receive the nomination.
Then there is the matter of the ballots. Over 76 million ballots with Trump and Biden’s names on them have been sent to voters, out of a total electorate of up to 207 million registered voters. If a candidate were to be replaced before the November 3 election, there would not be sufficient time to reprint and redistribute mail-in ballots — or even print new on-site ballots. Furthermore, many early votes have already been cast.
This is where the power of individual states to choose presidential electors comes in. The vast majority of states award all their electors by popular vote; in some — but not all — states, the electors are legally bound to vote for the named candidate. Nevertheless, we think it is likely electors would, when gathered on December 14, vote for the candidate at the top of the ticket at the time of the November 3 election.
The bottom line is that although it has never happened before, there are party procedures to replace a candidate, even at a very late date before the election, although the practicalities make it tricky.
The chances of postponing the election are remote. Federal law mandates the date of the election, and it would take an act of Congress to change it — something highly unlikely given that control of the two chambers of Congress are held by opposing parties. The Constitution declares that a presidential term expires at noon ET on January 20. If no new President and Vice President has been declared, the Speaker of the House will become president at that time.
At the time of publication, the polls strongly suggest that the election is Joe Biden’s to lose. The most recent averages by several respected poll aggregators show him ahead in the national popular vote by between 7-8%. What’s more, Biden’s average polling support, according to these aggregators, is near or just above 50%, while President Trump is in the low 40s.
When one candidate is polling above 50%, it is generally considered a much stronger indicator, as it would require the candidate trailing in the polls to not just convert undecided voters but also convert previously committed voters to his or her side. Betting odds also have the election strongly in Biden’s favor. See Figure 1 for the current state of the polls.
Winning the national popular vote would not necessarily result in a Biden victory, as Hilary Clinton proved in 2016, when she garnered 48% of the popular vote to Donald Trump’s 46% — a margin of nearly three million votes — but still lost in the Electoral College, the mechanism by which the President is actually elected. This means 50 separate elections in each of the states will effectively decide who wins the White House.
When we look at these statewide polls, the race appears much tighter, and a handful of states are closely contested. These will ultimately be the battlegrounds where the election is decided. This list includes Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, reliably Democratic states that Trump unexpectedly won in 2016 by narrow margins.
Other, “purple” states are up for grabs. As Figure 2 shows, the states rated by Real Clear Politics as “toss up” or “leaning Biden” (meaning still in play) make up a sizeable chunk of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. With such a large number of battleground states there are still multiple paths to victory for both candidates.
The betting markets currently have Biden in the lead as well. Just after the first debate on September 29, Real Clear Politics — an influential aggregator — showed Biden’s odds of winning at 60%. We have been burned by polls in the past, of course, and by all measures, Hilary Clinton was also the favorite to win on the eve of the 2016 election. CNBC reported on November 1 of that year that betting markets had her odds of winning at between 71% and 81%.
Control of the Senate is also up for grabs. The Democrats are competitive in a number of races where they could flip a seat from red to blue and gain a majority in the upper chamber (See Figure 3).
We judge it most probable that the party that wins the White House would also win the Senate. With the House of Representatives likely to remain Democratic, there is a real chance of a Biden presidency with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress. This would have significant policy implications.
Tax and Stimulus
A Biden administration with a friendly Congress would probably move quickly to enact a large fiscal package touching COVID-19-related relief, infrastructure and green projects. Taxes would likely rise on corporations and high earners. Health care, climate policy and international economic relations would see major attempts at reform.