Every now and again, I come across someone truly extraordinary.
One such person is Winford Collings, a soon-to-be Chartered Accountant with immense writing talent and a great love of American politics. The Finance Ghost isn’t a political platform and never will be, but the American election this year affects every single one of your investments, one way or another.
The election is so important for a multitude of reasons. The US Department of Commerce just announced that its best estimate for 2Q20 GDP growth was -31.4% (on an annualised basis). The backdrop to this election is like nothing we’ve seen before in modern times.
Collings has written a great piece on the presidential debate and I’m grateful that he allowed me to republish it here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. In case you get confused about which quote came from which presidential candidate, I’ve highlighted Trump’s quotes in red (for Republicans) and Biden’s in blue (for Democrats).
Here’s the deal: Trump vs. Biden
It wasn’t pretty.
Waking up at 3am to watch three septuagenarians go at each other may seem like a weird kink, but that’s what Tuesday night’s US presidential debate prompted me to do. Donald Trump squared off against Joe Biden in a debate (terribly) moderated by Chris Wallace.
Using the word ‘debate’ is very generous. The 90 minutes were light on policy, heavy on insults and interruptions, and generally chaotic overall.
A traditional debate requires participants willing to engage in good faith on their policy differences. There’s no chance of that with Trump. He lies, obfuscates and avoids any meaningful policy discussion because that’s not what his audience wants. They want the bluff, bluster and bravado.
Let’s look at their respective debate tactics and what that says about their broader strategies heading into November 3rd.
Trump: Scorched Earth
I’ll reiterate: Trump knows his audience. His core base was never going to be swayed by a debate performance. As he said in 2016:
“…I have the most loyal people…I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any votes, okay. It’s like incredible.”
It’s for this reason that Trump didn’t make an effort to appeal to any new voters. He didn’t stake out any policy positions or look to expand his base.
His strategy, although scatter-brained and incoherent was simple: get Biden to say something that unsettles his base.
The problem with this is that Biden’s base is fairly diverse. He has support from liberals, moderates and conservatives.
He first tried to paint Biden and the Democratic Party as “socialists”, goading Biden into saying that he would get rid of private health insurance, an unpopular proposal among moderates. Biden denied that and said his plan was to expand Obamacare, not implement Medicare-for-All. Chris Wallace, in one of his few shining moments, questioned why Trump hadn’t introduced a replacement for the Obamacare plan that he was so eager to repeal.
Here, Biden comes out strong. He assuages fears that he’s going to take away private healthcare, shakes off the “socialist” label, and establishes his proposed plan if elected. It’s the easiest lay-up Trump could’ve provided.
If we assume that this debate was a battle for the undecided voter, the American moderate in a swing state tuning in because they haven’t made their mind up yet, then Trump’s strategy starts to look very misguided.
9% of voters who voted for Obama in 2012, voted for Trump in 2016. Some analysts argue that these voters had a disproportionately large impact on the 2016 election, and could decide the 2020 election. These voters, and other moderates, might still like Biden (possibly still high on nostalgia from the Obama administration). All they would want to see is that he’s cogent, coherent and has the wherewithal to do the job.
He delivered that.
In another instance, Trump asked Biden if he supported the Green New Deal, a policy proposal (made famous by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortrez) aimed at addressing climate change and economic inequality. Biden denied supporting the Green New Deal to which Trump answered “you just lost the radical left”.
This is where Trump’s strategy seems directionless. He mentioned the “radical left” 6 times, each time dangling the term as a threat.
“I don’t think you have any law enforcement. You can’t even say the word law enforcement. Because if you say those words, you’re going to lose all of your radical left supporters.”
“The numbers are going up a 100%, 150%, 200% crime, it is crazy what’s going on and he doesn’t want to say law and order because he can’t because he’ll lose his radical left supporters and once he does that, it’s over with.”
The problem is, just before Trump said this, Biden actually said where he stood on policing:
“Law and order, with justice, where people get treated fairly.”
Ultimately, leftists aren’t unaware of who Biden is. There is no way for him to lose them because he never had their full support from the start. He was in direct opposition to Bernie Sanders throughout the primary contest. They understand that he’s not completely aligned with their ideology. Most are holding their noses and voting for him anyway.
However, Trump is hoping that enough stay home or vote 3rd party to see a repeat of 2016. Unfortunately, they won’t be the deciding vote.
Biden: The Moral Choice
I mentioned above that 9% of Obama voters voted for Trump but more interestingly, 7% of Obama voters, more than 4 million people, didn’t vote at all in 2016. This New York Times graphic captures the demographics of the non-voters, who are disproportionately young and black:
Obama-to-nonvoters share the progressive policy priorities of Democrats, and they strongly identify with the Democratic Party. Four out of every five Obama-to-nonvoters identify as Democrats, and 83 percent reported they would have voted for a Democrat down-ballot. A similar share of Obama-to-nonvoters said that they would have voted for Mrs. Clinton had they turned out to vote.
In short, while reclaiming some Obama-to-Trump voters would be a big help to Democratic prospects, re-energizing 2012 Obama voters who stayed home is a more plausible path for the party going forward.
Biden’s tactics then, of positing himself as a return to the successes of the Obama administration, were also meant to appeal to this group of disaffected voters.
On Tuesday night, Biden returned a lot of Trump’s jabs, even calling him a “clown” and the “worst president America has ever had”. In some respects, he had to. He couldn’t be seen as capitulating to Trump’s badgering.
However, for most of the time that Trump was being belligerent, Biden employed a strategy that I found fascinating. He would ignore Trump, turn to the camera, and speak to the audience.
On the issue of Trump’s taxes, he appealed to working class voters:
“The difference is millionaires and billionaires like him in the middle of the COVID crisis have done very well. Billionaires have made another $300 billion because of his profligate tax proposal, and he only focused on the market. But you folks at home, you folks living in Scranton and Claymont and all the small towns and working class towns in America, how well are you doing? This guy paid a total of $750 in taxes.”
When Trump attacked his son Hunter’s history of cocaine use, an incredibly low but unsurprising tactic, instead of losing his composure, Biden turned and said:
“My son, like a lot of people at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaking it. He’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him, I’m proud of my son.”
For voters in Ohio and Michigan, states hit hard by the opioid crisis, that moment of vulnerability may allow them to see Biden through a new lens. His direct-to-camera strategy was meant to make him relatable and stand out as the moral choice. He has said from the beginning that he decided to run to unseat Trump and restore ‘normalcy’. By deferring to the audience he’s implicitly saying: “See this chaos? You want more of this? Of course not.”
I don’t see how Trump’s baseless attacks on Biden’s family and credibility could endear him to anybody, but that wasn’t his plan. His plan was to create as much chaos and disorder as possible. In that respect, he succeeded. On any other front, he made no headway.
Chris Wallace was a very poor moderator. He often allowed the debate to descend into chaos and only called out Trump’s interruptions more than halfway into it. The format is also questionable in an era of clickbait, which lends itself to candidates prioritising easily digestible soundbites over complex passages of policy.
Kamala Harris had a big moment during the first Democratic primary debate with her “that little was me” quip to her current running mate. While it was great to watch, it was clearly meant to make the headlines. When candidates have one or two minutes to speak they try to cram as much tweetable content as possible.
Here are a couple of notable Biden soundbites from the debate, which have already found their way onto T-shirts:
“The fact is that everything he is saying so far is simply, a lie. I’m not here to call out his lies, everybody knows he’s a liar.”
“It is what it is because you are who you are.”
“He panicked, or he just looked at the stock market — one of the two — because guess what: a lot of people died, and a lot more are gonna die unless he gets a lot smarter, a lot quicker.”
“Will you shut up man?”
“You’re the worst president America’s ever had – c’mon.”
“Well it’s hard to get any words in with this clown.”
“He’s Putin’s puppy. He still refuses to even say anything to Putin about the bounty on the heads of American soldiers.”
In the end, that’s mostly what this debate was about: getting soundbites in and each making sure their base knew what was at stake. Trump must’ve felt at home: it was reality television at its grimiest.
It may not even move the needle much. As per the New York Times, the main takeaway is that the debate didn’t alter the race:
“UBS’s Paul Donovan wrote in a note to clients today that, if anything, “the debate may have increased expectations for a contested election result,” particularly as Mr. Trump again suggested that he would challenge an unfavorable outcome. Political betting markets also showed little change, maintaining odds implying Mr. Biden is still the favorite to (eventually) win.”
Next week Wednesday, on the 7th of October, Kamala Harris will face off against Mike Pence in the Vice-Presidential debate. That will have even less impact on the race, but Kamala’s mission will be clear: energise, energise, energise the base.
Keen to read more of Collings? Find his work here: https://tilted.substack.com/