U.S. Elections: The Hype, the Facts and the Market

The U.S. elections are the centerpiece of a large-scale media event – led by U.S.-based outlets and amplified all over the world, courtesy of social media – that almost definitely has caught the attention of media outlets and internet users all over the world.

The two parties – President Trump’s Republican Party and Joe Biden’s Democratic Party – have publically released economic policy positions that broadly agree on emphasizing domestic industrial growth and markedly differ on climate change-related policies. However, the near-recessionary effects of the ongoing pandemic and the outsized role of Big Tech in both contenders’ campaign outreach have received almost no nuanced statements from either side, which is quite telling.

The key questions that most people in general and investors, in particular, are asking (and will be given context for in this article) are three-fold:

  1. How accurate are the polls about the election’s outcome?
  2. How much credence must one give to the “hype” of opinions now visible in every corner of today’s interconnected world?
  3. What are the likely effects of the election’s outcome on the financial markets?

Polls vs Elections

The polls have been outright in saying that it seems that the incumbent President Trump is set to be dethroned by long-term Democratic politician Joe Biden, Vice President under both of President Barack Obama’s terms.

While there are a plethora of polls available, Real Clear Politics, an agency that has been curated by the Financial Times, indicates that Biden is expected to win over President Trump by a margin of 8%.

It bears noting that Real Clear Politics indicated that Senator Hillary Clinton would win with 46.8% of the popular vote in 2016 against now-President Trump’s 43.6%.
However, the actual number of popular votes counted paint a slightly different picture: Senator Clinton received 65,853,514 votes (51.11%) while President Trump received 62,984,828 (48.89%), a margin of difference (or error) of 4.3% and 5.3% respectively.

The U.S. elections are a two-step process. Each state counts its popular votes according to that state’s laws to designate presidential electors. In 48 states and Washington D.C., the winner of the plurality of the state-wide vote receives all of that state’s electors; in Maine and Nebraska, two electors are assigned in this manner and the remaining electors are allocated based on the votes in each congressional district. The election of the President and Vice-President is then carried out by this body designated as the “Electoral College”, which consists of 538 electors from the fifty states and Washington, D.C. Electors are selected state-by-state, as determined by the laws of each state. The six states with the most electors are California (55), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), Illinois (20), and Pennsylvania (20).

Some states require the electors to act in accordance with the “public will” by giving a pledge to vote for the party that prevailed in that state’s popular vote. However, this pledge can be broken by becoming a “faithless elector”, i.e. an elector decides not to follow through on their pledge and votes contrary to said “public will”.

In 2016, however, President Trump received 304 votes to Clinton’s 227 with seven electors defecting to other choices (2 from Trump, 5 from Clinton). Even without faithless electors, there was no likelihood of Senator Clinton gaining the presidency.

The history of Electoral College voting indicates the Electoral College does not vary widely in behaviour from popular votes. The Pew Research Center – a nonpartisan think tank that conducts polling, demographic research and social studies research as a registered non-profit – opines that it simply magnifies the win of a candidate across the board, i.e. in each state as opposed to a total count.
In 2016, President Trump won several large states (such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) by very narrow margins, gaining all their electoral votes in the process, even as Senator Clinton claimed other large states (such as California, Illinois and New York) by much wider margins. This cemented his path to victory in 2016.

In 2020, going by the data from Real Clear Politics, President Trump draws about par with his chances in 2016. Most polling outlets vary around this number but not by a significant amount from one another. Only two agencies had shown President Trump leading over Joe Biden until recently: Rasmussen Reports and Emerson. Even these two outliers have been indicating a Biden victory in recent times.

But what about the margin of error? The key to adding context to this lies in the difference between polled populations and the voting population. As of 2016, there were 250,056,000 individuals of voting age in the U.S., of whom 138,847,000 (55.5%) turned out to vote. Polls typically survey about 1,000 to 5,000 participants either telephonically, via survey forms or via online panels. Courtney Kennedy, a Director of Survey Research at Pew, outlines the following takeaway points about polling:

  1. A poll may label itself “nationally representative,” but that’s not a guarantee that its methodology is solid.
  2. The real margin of error is often about double the one reported.
  3. Failing to adjust for survey respondents’ education level is a disqualifying shortfall in present-day battleground and national polls.

The third point adds a substantial nuance with regard to polling. Since people with higher levels of formal education are more likely to participate in surveys and self-identify as Democrats, the potential exists for polls to over-represent Democrats. There is a clear call to adjust the weighing of polls to deliver a more accurate verdict than the one reported in 2016. At this moment, there is no clear indication that this has been implemented by polling agencies for the 2020 elections.

How important are white voters? According to Pew, as of 2018, white voters accounted for 67% of the electorate, Hispanic and Black voters account for 13% each while Asians and “Others” account for 4% and 3% respectively. However, the greatest growth in eligible voter headcount has been among Hispanic, Black and Asian voters.

Virtually every demographic has been surveyed as registering an increase in voting.
As of 2018/19, virtually every demographic has held steady in surveys with regard to political inclination, except for Asian voters.
However, there is a key operative word here: “surveyed”. As outlined already, the magnification factor from, say, 5,000 responses to almost 139 million is bound to be problematic.

With mail-in ballots being allowed in a number of states on account of the coronavirus pandemic, the discrepancy between polls/surveys and results can reasonably be expected to be greater. While some news outlets indicated mail-in ballots to mean a slight advantage to the Democrats, there are some reports that Republicans are now beginning to lead in states like Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina in early rounds. Even in Michigan – another key battleground state – it was noted that early voters identifying as Republican substantially outnumbered those identifying as Democrat. Other independent reporting also indicates that President Trump’s popularity (or that of the Republican Party) among Black and Hispanic voters is quite underrepresented in surveys and polls.

Hype vs Facts

Over the past several years, media reporting in the U.S. has increasingly been denounced as being intractably partisan. Casual observers around the world would note this as being especially pronounced during the Trump/Clinton election in 2016. The results of the 2016 elections left many of these pundits flabbergasted (with the reaction of many of them captured on-air, to the enormous merriment of both these media outlets’ accusers as well as President Trump’s advocates). In this election cycle as well as his current term, the vast majority of the coverage with regard to President Trump and his prospects have been overwhelmingly negative.

As per Morning Consult, a company specializing in data analysis, and The Hollywood Reporter, a historic publication that focuses on media and entertainment, the credibility of virtually every U.S. news outlet has been plummeting over the years since the rise of President Trump.
The results of this survey also (unsurprisingly) indicate a disparity in voter outlook: Democrat survey respondents hold a more favourable view of the media in general while Republicans don’t. An interesting fact, however, is that Fox News – an outlet considered to be entrenched in the Republican camp – holds virtually identical favourability ratings across both Republicans and Democrat respondents.

Fox News also comes up as a leader in the most-watched category in the U.S. In February 2020, Fox News achieved its highest ratings in its 24-year history and the 44th consecutive month as the most-watched cable news channel. With viewership averaging at 3.53 million viewers, it dwarfs both MSNBC and CNN which, together, couldn’t match the same numbers. Fox News was also first in the highly-lucrative 25- to 54-year-old demographic (with numbers greater than both MSNBC and CNN combined) and showed a 27% in viewership numbers while the others showed a decline.

Going by the rise and rise of social media – with several hundreds of YouTube streamers and Instagram celebrities racking up millions of both “likes” and dollars and with Twitter providing an avenue for doing the same for disseminating ideas, both popular and otherwise – there is a tendency among many casual observers and social media users to equate “hashtags”, “trends” and “memes” with reality. President Trump is certainly not a winner in social media either. During an August 2018 survey by Statista – a U.S.-based global market and content data provider – 61% of respondents stated that Trump’s use of Twitter as President of the United States was inappropriate.

However, the value of social media opinion against the grand total view of the electorate needs to be given further context. Out of a total estimated user headcount of 264.75 million, U.S. Twitter users account for 62.55 million (24%), with Japan and India ranking 2nd (19%) and 3rd (6%) respectively.
Furthermore, when it comes to U.S. users, Pew surveys in 2019 have determined that only 22% of U.S. adults use Twitter. Facebook, on the other hand, is a clear winner in all categories.
A further study revealed that only 10% of U.S. “Tweeters” accounted for 80% of the content generated, often focused more on politics and were mostly women. Also, U.S. Twitter users were younger, more likely to identify as Democrats, more highly educated and had higher incomes than U.S. adults on average. For instance, Twitter users are somewhat more likely to say that immigrants strengthen rather than weaken the country and that they see evidence of racial and gender-based inequalities in society (Note: Both of these points are at odds with Republican ideology, which is warier with regard to immigration and disputes the preponderance of inequality in current society).
eMarketer – a data intelligence company that collaborates with Business Insider – estimates that the number of U.S. Twitter users is largely expected to remain unchanged over the next few years.
Marrying the two numbers together (active U.S. users and top U.S. users) implies that around 6 million users generate a majority of Twitter’s U.S. content. Assuming a split along partisan lines with Democrats presumably having a slight edge, it can be (perhaps generously) assumed that around 4 million users align with Democrats.

Given the polarized political situation, it should come as no surprise that a whopping 90% of Republican-leaning Pew survey respondents believe that tech companies promote censorship of their views (similar views are echoed by right-leaning users in many parts of the world in various surveys and opinion editorials). Predictably, a majority of Democrat-leaning respondents don’t believe that tech companies promote censorship, approve of tech companies labeling of content as “misleading” and so forth, in direct opposition to Republican-leaning respondents.
This opinion was certainly strengthened further when Facebook executive Andy Stone – himself a long-time Democratic Party official before joining the company – indicated that a news story by New York Post (a U.S. newspaper) detailing alleged kickbacks received by a member of the Biden family from a series of foreign-based entities – ranging from a major Ukrainian energy firm, a Chinese energy firm and the wife of the erstwhile mayor of Moscow – had irregularities. Almost immediately, sharing of the story’s URL over Facebook and subsequently, Twitter invited prohibitions upon the user. Conservative commentators and members of the public were quick to point out that the article by the newspaper – whose Twitter account was also blocked – was an example of “investigative journalism” and should have been protected the same way social media giants protected exposes made by Wikileaks. Some commentators even went so far as to say that this was a “campaign contribution in kind” from Big Tech to the Democrats.

[Note: While the ban on sharing the URL to the story was subsequently lifted, the New York Post is barred from connecting with its Twitter followers until they delete the tweets that shared the story on October 14th. The New York Post has not complied and has, instead, gone on to publish a story on the 17th outlining a deep and publicly-stated hatred for President Trump in a large cross-section of Twitter executives.]

Given all of the stated facts, one can easily arrive at the conclusion that the opinions of a large chunk of the voting population isn’t adequately represented on social media to capture a decent metric on actual voting choices. In the same breath, one can also contend that the Fox News viewership numbers, while more elegantly captured by Nielsen’s tried and tested formulations, might also not be indicative of the voting population’s voting choices. At the end of the day, the ability of “influencers” – be they in a TV screen or a smartphone screen – to sway a majority of the U.S. voting population remains questionable and unquantifiable.

Market View

An indicator of “market fear” would be the CBOE Volatility Indices, with the VXN built around the Nasdaq 100 – a tech-heavy index – and the VIX built around the S&P 500. Both VXN and VIX are presently hovering around 30.
While top tech companies constitute a quarter of the S&P 500 and nearly half of the Nasdaq 100, the relatively higher “fear” in VXN indicates that there are some concerns about the future of Big Tech but not enough to make the future tangibly volatile and unpredictable, such as when the pandemic broke out globally.

The concern about Big Tech can be summarized by two actions that could very well spell out the shape of things to come for this sector:

  1. The US Federal Trade Commission had confirmed in mid-September that it is considering filing an antitrust lawsuit on Facebook by the end of 2020.
  2. The U.S. Federal government has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google on October 21st – along with 11 Republican-ruled state governments – alleging that the company has stifled competition to maintain its marketplace position.

It can also be assumed that Twitter’s actions and the well-documented behaviour of its executives would be grounds for a series of lawsuits against the company, which could very well include the angle of antitrust on account of its marketplace dominance.

Earlier in May this year, preparations were underway in both Canada and the U.S. to file a host of class-action lawsuits against Amazon under the allegation that the company violated competition laws by penalizing third-party sellers offering their products at lower prices on other platforms. This too brings with it the threat of antitrust litigation which could be pursued by the government (Note: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is also the owner of the Washington Post, a staunchly anti-Trump newspaper where allegations of inaccuracies and reporting bias levelled against it have intensified since the purchase by Bezos).

This recent set of actions marks a sea change in Republican ideology, which traditionally has been hands-off and in favour of deregulation with regard to corporate interests. On the other hand, the Democrats – once a staunch advocate of the exact opposite position – have stopped short of espousing this form of regulatory intervention on Big Tech during this election campaign. The lone holdout was Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose published proposal to break up Big Tech found no takers among leading Democratic contenders, including Joe Biden and his Vice-Presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris.

It won’t be a big stretch to assume that, if the Democrats win, the proposed antitrust action would have little to no impact on Big Tech’s market dominance. On the other hand, if there were to be a breakup of Big Tech, there would be a revitalization of the long-monolithic Social Media, Online Retail and Search subsectors of the Tech sector. Under the Trump administration, no substantial relief has been offered to the financial sector. This could very well change under Joe Biden, who has had long-standing campaign support from prominent names in the financial services sector.
Summary

  1. The polls likely does not represent the population demographically and there’s no way of accurately estimating how the American public will swing its votes in this election;
  2. Social media hype does not necessarily reflect reality and any alignment with actual outcome can safely be considered as a false positive;
  3. A short position on Big Tech might pay rich dividends, depending on the outcome, and not just because the tech sector is currently deemed overvalued;
  4. Don’t let the hype affect you or your relationships with those around you and don’t let it give you sleepless nights or anxiety;
  5. And finally, Keep calm and carry on!

References:
  1. “Comparing the Economic Plans of Trump and Biden” – Investopedia, October 23, 2020
  2. “Trump’s victory another example of how Electoral College wins are bigger than popular vote ones” – Pew Research Center, December 20, 2016
  3. “Key things to know about election polling in the United States” – Pew Research Center, August 5, 2020
  4. “The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the U.S. Electorate” – Pew Research Center, September 23, 2020
  5. “News Media Credibility Rating Falls to a New Low” – Morning Consult, April 22, 2020
  6. “Countries with the most Twitter users 2020” – Statista, July 24, 2020
  7. “Share of U.S. adults using social media, including Facebook, is mostly unchanged since 2018” – Pew Research Center, April 10, 2019
  8. “Sizing Up Twitter Users” – Pew Research Center, April 24, 2019
  9. “Most Americans Think Social Media Sites Censor Political Viewpoints” – Pew Research Center, August 19, 2019

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