Polls highly favour Joe Biden to win the US presidential election.
These polls are not just abstract information. By telling prospective voters who is the most likely to win, can they influence the result of the election by playing a role in the voters’ decision? The evidence says yes, and it most likely favours Biden.
In theory, you could imagine two possible effects of polls. First, a momentum effect. Second, an underdog effect.
A momentum effect could benefit the candidate either leading or gaining in the polls. It can motivate their supporters to vote (the bandwagon effect) and demotivate the supporters of the other candidate (the discouragement effect).
An underdog effect, on the other hand, could penalise the leading candidate. This is because supporters think it’s a done deal and don’t mobilise to vote (resting on their laurels) or because the supporters of the trailing candidate are motivated by the idea of losing (a back-to-the-wall effect).
These different effects tap into some of our intuitive psychology. It is therefore hard to know the net effect of polls.
Some evidence points to the possibility of an underdog effect when a party is just behind. This was the case in 2016, when Trump edged out Hillary Clinton in key states despite her lead in national polls. But the overwhelming message from the relevant research is that positive polls increase a candidate’s chance of winning.
In laboratory experiments recreating elections in controlled settings, California Institute of Technology economist Marina Agranov and colleagues found polls “lead to more participation by the expected majority and generate more landslide elections”.
A similar effect has been observed in real elections.
Using polling and voting data from French elections, my colleagues and I have looked at how those yet to vote were influenced by early exit polls giving a fairly precise prediction of the result.
France has the longest election day in the world, due to its overseas territories in the Pacific. When the first exit poll is released at 8pm in Paris, for example, it is just 9am in Tahiti, where people are still to decide if they will vote and for whom.
We found that knowledge of polls pointing to a certain outcome meant voters in such territories were less likely to vote. In particular, they were less likely to vote for the losing candidate. It led to a momentum effect for the leading candidate in mainland France, tending to increase their share of the vote in territories voting later.
A similar momentum effect has been discerned in Britain. Before 1918, general elections were held over a two-week period. The side ahead in the first days of the election tended to benefit from an increasing advantage, which peaked on about the eighth day of voting.
In the United States the possibility of such an effect of early information has been discussed as the “West Coast effect”, whereby voters in California and other western US states can be influenced by early results from the east coast, three hours ahead.
This issue became very salient in 1980 when NBC released an early prediction at 8pm New York time that Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan would beat Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter.
The polls were still open in many western states at the time. Research found this early call had a discouraging effect on prospective Democrat voters, making them less likely to vote.
Given this converging evidence, it is no surprise partisan organisations tend to use favourable polls to push a winning narrative to their support base.
As a consequence of polls’ possible strategic effect, polling companies are tightly regulated in modern democracies. Polling companies do not tend to produce polls that skew results for partisan reasons. Whatever errors occur tend to be due to flaws in polling methodology, rather than being deliberate.
However, people who want to influence the public narrative about who is winning can influence something: betting markets.
These are used to estimate the candidates’ winning chances. On these markets, people can put their money where their mouth is, and bet on the candidate they think will win.
But what if someone is willing to put a lot of money on a candidate they want to win, in a bid to skew the market predictions?
There is an incentive to manipulate betting markets’ prices, to influence voters by suggesting a candidate’s prospects are better than they actually are.
To do so in the real world would likely require spending many millions of dollars, But given the huge amounts spent in US campaigns, such expenditure is feasible.
In 2020, Trump’s chances have been surprisingly high in betting markets given the polls. What does research say about this fact?
In past research, I have found political betting markets tend to be biased toward 50%. That is, they tend to say the race is closer to 50/50 than it is. This bias is larger than on other types of betting markets (such as sports) – and would be expected if manipulators try to influence the prices.
I estimate the 35% chance these betting markets are giving to a Trump win may be skewing the results by 15 percentage points – meaning Trump more accurately has a 20% chance of victory.
For more accurate predictions, therefore, you are better looking at those from professional forecasters, such as Five Thirty Eight and The Economist. In these forecasts Trump has only 5-12% chance of winning. Importantly, Biden’s advantage appears much firmer than what Clinton had in 2016.
But even these predictions may be overestimated. As pointed out by one of the best forecasters in the US, Columbia University statistician Andrew Gelman, professional forecasters have an interest in hedging their bets to preserve their reputation.
These low forecasts have a striking implication. Putting money on Biden now is a relatively safe bet. It may also help move the betting market predictions in Biden’s favour.
American presidential elections do not, as a rule, change the calculus much for Australian foreign policy. Elections come and go, American presidents complete their terms and business continues more or less as normal.
Even Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 due to Watergate caused not much more than a ripple in what had been a difficult relationship between Washington and Canberra during the Whitlam era.
Gough Whitlam and his ministers had criticised US bombing campaigns in Hanoi and the North Vietnamese port city of Haiphong.
Importantly from Australia’s perspective, Gerald Ford continued Nixon’s engagement with China. This led to the normalisation of relations under Jimmy Carter in 1978.
While it would be foolish to predict the outcome of presidential elections whose results have confounded pollsters in the recent past, odds favour a change of an administration.
President Donald Trump’s blunders in the management of a pandemic are weighing heavily on both his electoral prospects and those of the Republican Party.
So, with all the caveats attached, it is reasonable to speculate about implications for Australia of a change of administration.
An end to Trump’s “America First” era and its replacement by a traditionalist American foreign policy under Joe Biden, which emphasises friendships and alliances, will create new opportunities.
Importantly, a less abrasive international environment, in which America seeks to rebuild confidence in its global leadership, should be to Australia’s advantage.
Not least of the benefits would be an opportunity for Canberra to reset its relations with Beijing. This is a long-overdue project whose fulfilment has been complicated by Australia’s identification with Washington’s erratic policies coupled with Sinophobic attitudes in Canberra.
None of this is to suggest Australia should drop its legitimate criticisms of China: its human rights abuses; its cyber intrusions; its intellectual property theft; its attempts to interfere in Australian domestic politics; its flagrant disregard for criticisms of its activities in the South China Sea; its unprincipled reneging on its “one country two systems” agreements on Hong Kong, and a host of other issues.
Indeed, you could argue Canberra needs to be more forthright in its dealings with China in pursuit of a more distinctive foreign policy.
Early in his tenure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed glimmers of promise in this regard. But this proved short-lived.
In an Asialink speech in the lead-up to the 2019 Osaka G20 summit, Morrison sketched out a role for Australia in seeking to defuse tensions in the region and provide some space for itself in its foreign policy. He said:
We should not just sit back and passively await our fate in the wake of a major power contest.
The speech was regarded at the time as promising a nuanced Morrison foreign policy. But since then the Australia has not ventured far from America’s coattails.
Indeed, it might be said to have cleaved even more closely to the US alliance as China’s rise has unsettled the region.
This returns us to implications of a potential Biden administration for Australia.
It would be naive to assume tensions between Washington and Beijing will dissipate under a Biden presidency. Such is the range of issues bedevilling Sino-US relations that some rancour will persist.
Much has changed in the four years since Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama. China is richer, bigger, stronger, more assertive and seemingly more ideological. It is certainly more nationalistic.
In Xi Jinping, it has a leader who is more conspicuously and ruthlessly committed to restoring China’s greatness than his predecessors.
Gone are the days when discussion about China revolved around hopes it would become a responsible international stakeholder willing to accommodate itself to an America-dominated global order. Now the issue is whether China’s assertiveness can be hedged to avoid open conflict.
If elected, Biden will need to settle on a new formula for dealing with China that provides certainty for an anxious global community. Whether this proves possible remains to be seen.
It should also be noted that Biden’s foreign policy advisory team includes hawkish elements that will resist yielding ground to China. Biden himself has referred to China’s leader Xi as a “thug”, along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
On the other hand, Biden’s foreign policy realists are not burdened by an “America First” mindset. His team can be expected to take an expansive view of American foreign policy on issues like climate change, arms control and rebuilding a global trading system battered by years of neglect.
A Democrat administration would re-enter the Paris Agreement on climate change. It could also be expected to review Trump’s decision to disengage from the Trans Pacific Partnership trading bloc and it might seek to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.
These would be positive developments from an Australian standpoint.
Unquestionably, re-ordering China policy will be at the top of Biden’s foreign policy priorities, and separate from the absolute domestic imperative of bringing a COVID-19 pandemic under control.
Australia should take advantage of the opportunity to explore possibilities of a less counterproductive relationship with its principal trading partner.
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Few would have thought a US-China relationship marked by relative stability for half a century would be upended in just four years.
But US President Donald Trump’s privileged tour of the Forbidden City in November 2017 by Chinese President Xi Jinping now looks like it happened in a bygone era, given the turbulence in the bilateral relationship since then.
The shift in the US’s China policy is no doubt one of the major legacies of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, alongside a renewed peace process in the Middle East.
When Trump’s daughter Ivanka said at the Republican National Convention that “Washington has not changed Donald Trump, Donald Trump has changed Washington”. This would certainly include its handling of China.
Although China’s rise had been a concern of the previous Bush and Obama administrations, it was the Trump administration that transformed the entire narrative on China from strategic partner to “strategic competitor”, starting with its National Defence Strategy report released just one month after Trump’s 2017 China visit.
This read, in part,
China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favour.
This new way of thinking deemed the US’s decades-long engagement strategy, deployed since President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, a failure.
Prior to Trump, the US had sought to encourage China to grow into a responsible stakeholder of a rules-based international order.
According to the Trump administration, this is centred on “predatory economics” in trade and technology, political coercion of less-powerful democracies and Chinese military advancement in the region.
Trump’s sledgehammer approach to the US-China relationship has been problematic at best.
For one, Trump viewed the relationship transactionally, hardly scratching the surface of the deeper structural issues — such as state subsidies and labour standards — that exist between the countries.
He believed he could reduce the massive US trade deficits with China through a “big, beautiful monster” of a trade deal and this would be a silver bullet for both the economy and his re-election prospects.
This explains all the flip-flops during the drawn-out trade negotiations, during which Beijing largely managed to use the deal as bait to keep larger strategic issues off the table.
Moreover, Trump’s policies toward China, at least on the trade front, were unilateral. Instead of finding common ground with allies, Washington angered and deserted its allies by invoking punitive tariffs (Canada), renegotiating trade agreements to the US advantage (Japan and South Korea) and reducing its security commitments under NATO.
At the same time, the Trump administration relinquished US leadership in global institutions dealing with trade, climate change and human rights. As a result, the US lost its allies when it needed them most and gave China a new platform on the international stage.
Trump’s China policy has been further mired by competing interests in his cabinet.
According to former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Trump’s team was “badly fractured” in its handling of the trade war against China and its wider China policy.
The spectrum of voices in the cabinet ranged from China moderates such as Treasurer Steven Mnuchin and senior advisor Jared Kushner to sceptics such as US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to more radical China bashers such as Bolton, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
As Trump became increasingly frustrated with a recalcitrant Xi reneging on “the deal” in mid-2019, followed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the China hawks in the administration gained the upper hand.
Although this led to a more coherent approach to addressing the strategic challenges posed by China, the result was more direct confrontations with Beijing and heightened tensions.
The past year has marked a low point in relations with tit-for-tat actions on a number of fronts, including
US sanctions on Chinese technology firms
visa restrictions for journalists, students and scholars
and more serious challenges to China’s territorial claims over the South China Sea and Beijing’s policies towards Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The China hawks in the Trump administration now advocate empowering the Chinese people to change the Communist Party’s behaviour — just shy of calling for a regime change in China.
Beijing was largely wrong-footed in dealing with a maverick US president so different from previous administrations it had handled with ease.
However, it would be wrong to assign blame for the deteriorating relationship on Washington alone. It takes two to tango.
As Xi has consolidated his power, China has
expanded its surveillance state against perceived threats to the Communist Party
clashed with the US, Britain and others over a harsh national security law in Hong Kong
made shows of force to warn the US against supporting Taiwan
and further militarised its occupied islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
The list goes on. And these were not provoked by the US.
It is extraordinary that what started as Trump’s petty complaints on trade with China eventually escalated into what many call “a new Cold War”.
Trump may not have succeeded in completely changing Washington, but his administration has at least shifted the public narrative and strategic view of China among the US elites.
Getting tough on China has become a source of rare bipartisan consensus in a polarised political climate. In fact, even if Trump loses the election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden, a fundamental U-turn in US-China relations is still unlikely.
if China has its way, it will keep robbing the United States and American companies of their technology and intellectual property.
However, Biden does suggest he would ditch tariffs as means in securing a fairer trade deal with China. And he wants to build a
united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations.
So, if Beijing was hoping the upcoming election would fix its Trump problem by bringing someone new into the White House, it shouldn’t hold its breath.
The US-China relationship has been drastically changed by Trump — and this won’t be undone easily.