The Car Crash Election

As the Mack truck of American democracy hurtles down the highway towards November’s election, more and more passengers see the coming pile up but cannot convince the drivers to swerve before it is too late. The two major political parties have seemingly misunderstood the assignment, set to nominate the two oldest men who are the most unpopular outside their bases in a re-match no one wants. The media is more obsessed with potential AI-powered disinformation than they are with getting their own stories straight. And the traditional barometers that tell both passengers and drivers if we’re on the right route are merely fogging up the windshield.

All of these factors present serious challenges to public affairs professionals’ ability to anticipate the outcome and navigate their organizations through the wreckage. In a year some are calling the Super Bowl of elections, the U.S. presidential race looks more like a demolition derby. The world is watching it most closely and struggling to understand its likely impact on the direction of policy at home and abroad. To cut through the noise of the campaign trail and spot the trends that will make or break your company’s future, here’s what you need to know.

Don’t Look Back to Look Forward

Objects in the rearview mirror may be farther from reality than they appear: Policymakers and prognosticators have long looked to traditional economic barometers such as the stock market and unemployment numbers to predict presidential elections. However, as we’ve said before, these indicators no longer match today’s economic reality. With much of the economy today in private rather than public markets and declining labor force participation rates masking job market stress, the CNBC news ticker no longer matches the way Americans feel about their pocket books. Adding to the uncertainty, the typical political barometers—presidential job approval, which party is trusted on key issues, and the generic Congressional ballot—have also lost their predictive power in recent elections. These indicators that were once the signal have become the noise. That’s in part because there are fewer and fewer swing voters as the electorate has become more nationalized as parties have become tribes.

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Incumbent vs incumbent can’t be found on the road map: Incumbency was another strong predictor of presidential elections but, this year, it’s complicated. The last time America saw a rematch between two presidents was 1892, as certified Friend of Delve Matt McDonald noted in The Wall Street Journal. He points out that since presidential incumbents are already well defined in voters’ minds, they follow a well-worn path to re-election: define their challenger before they can define themselves. President Bush exposed Senator John Kerry as a flip-flopping narcissist with a record of poor national security decisions, and President Obama leveraged Mitt Romney’s private equity past and 1950s throw-back demeanor to make him unpalatable. But defining Donald Trump as anyone other than the star of his own reality show we’ve watched live these last eight years will be difficult for the Biden campaign. Instead, this year’s election will likely be won by the candidate who best activates their base’s ire against their opponent to drive turnout while everyone else stays home.

Swerving Right and Left on Hairpin Curves

The great party realignment continues apace: With the old rules out the window, you’ll need a new rulebook to interpret this election, and it starts with the huge shift underway in American politics. Here’s the short version: As populists have completed their ascendance on the right, wealthier, college-educated voters are shifting away, often to the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, many nonwhite voters without a college education, once a core voting bloc for Democrats, are being chased away by progressives pushing the Overton Window further leftward while Trump’s newly-populist Republican Party lures them in. This realignment is scrambling the state party calculus. Once robust Republican Party apparatuses in key electoral states like Michigan and Colorado have been torn apart as populists fill their ranks, with others like Nevada and Arizona thrown off course by MAGA-inspired controversies. While GOP state organizations aren’t alone in being disrupted, these developments could hurt GOP turnout mechanics in key battleground states.

Expect a debased election with a photo finish: With so many Americans depressed by choosing between a septuagenarian and an octogenarian, expect many to vote with their feet and stay home. That leaves the parties hyper focused on turning out their most loyal supporters. It’s why Biden made the “obviously political decision” to pause LNG export licensing, along with implementing an onslaught of other environmental regulations, all while shifting his rhetoric on the Gaza conflict. It’s also why the GOP is doubling down on border security demands and Ukraine funding. While it has been true for some time that just a few battleground states decide presidential elections, this year it will be even more true. Trump needs to flip key states that he lost in 2020 even as Democrats push abortion ballot measures to overwhelm his voting base in some of those same states. Companies will need to plan for how they handle the tight, and likely to be contested, results in the offing.

Can America count to three? Given the number of Americans pining for an alternative to Trump and Biden, many pundits wonder if this is finally the year a third-party or independent candidate breaks up the duopoly (we are, after all, in a new age of Trustbusting). The last such candidate to become a serious contender was Ross Perot in 1992, but he registered less than 20% of the popular vote with nary an electoral vote to his name. Another billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, spent millions of dollars studying the path to victory for an independent candidate and ultimately concluded the Democratic nomination was his best bet. If well-known billionaires lack resources sufficient to the task, what chance could a lesser-resourced candidate have? Any third-party candidate running in 2024—be it Robert F. Kennedy or No Labels’ version of a bipartisan dream duo—is more likely to be a Nader-esque spoiler than a real contender. No Labels itself has nearly admitted as much.

Your Political GPS Needs an Upgrade

Absent a black, or at least gray, swan event, Americans will elect either Joe Biden or Donald Trump the next President of the United States, likely in a photo finish. This unpredictability creates uncertainty for public affairs professionals who need a roadmap for the future policy direction of the U.S. and the world. With an election this year as unpredictable as driving in a dense fog, companies can prepare by building a strong understanding of the emerging debates and candidates, engaging quickly with the stakeholders who will shape the policy debate before and after the election, and deploying an early warning system to analyze and track the weak signals that foretell the risks or opportunities their companies will confront this year and beyond.