Markets focus on comparative tax policies, but this election is about raising fear among the electorate in order to drive voter turnout – fear will determine the outcome. The ability to convert voters is so small because the electorate is so polarized. This means getting people to the polls is paramount to winning. The virus confounds the process, as many (mostly Democrats) have health concerns and prefer voting by mail. The demographics skew in favour of the Democrats, which is why Republicans are always looking to suppress voting, that post office funding is now an issue and Trump is already claiming a rigged election. He makes the claim without proof to the contrary even though he votes by mail, as does the military, and all sides (Republican and Democrat) claim it is a safe, valid vote.
In this atmosphere of using fear to generate votes, the Democrats call out that a Trump presidency is the end of American democracy as we know it, and a fascist state will prevail. From the Republicans, only Trump can protect America from the leftist, tax-raising, anti-police, pro-green, pro illegal immigration crazies that will turn this country into a failed socialist state like Venezuela. Your pre-disposition determines which argument resonates; the arguments themselves will not change your mind. According to Gallup, 65% of US adults supported the protests after George Floyd’s murder, but that drops down to 59% of whites and only 22% of Republicans.
In 1968, after 150 race riots in four years, mass demonstrations against the war, and the assassinations of King and Kennedy; Nixon and Wallace offered voters law-and-order. Believing in the “silent majority”, and speaking to them during the campaign, Nixon won and Wallace carried the south. The governing tack since 1968 has leaned in favour of law-and-order regardless of president, governor, or mayor, as the nation and its leaders chose to ignore the findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission Report “The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” – “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal”. It was not a hard call to make politically, considering that according to Gallup 52% of whites disagreed with the report and so too, surprisingly, did 49% of blacks. As an aside, in 1972 Nixon won 18% of the black vote, the last Republican to poll that high.
On the heels of the Black Lives Matter protests and calls for defunding the police, Trump and Republicans believe they have their opening to pull in votes much like Nixon/Wallace. It is a fair tactic, and certainly, his base is far less likely to poll in favour of defunding police. The bigger question, however, is whether the same arguments resonate with enough voters today as it did in 1968, when Humphrey ended up with 43% of the popular vote compared to 57% combined for Nixon/Wallace. In 2016, Trump, with this same populist message that plays well with the white vote, especially high-school educated white males, but in a much less socially turbulent year, lost the popular vote – 46% to 48%, but the distribution worked in his favour to earn an electoral victory.
There has been a shift in the white perception of whether blacks are treated fairly even since 2016, and in whether demonstrations help or hurt the cause of equality. In1968, only 18% of whites believe blacks were discriminated against in hiring; the percentage was 17% in 2016 and jumped to 27% in 2020. Interestingly, even blacks are more inclined to believe their treatment at work is less fair – 64% say so today versus 54% in 1968. In terms of whether large demonstrations help or hurt the cause of racial equality for blacks, the shift is even greater. In 1964, 74% of US adults (mostly white) felt demonstrations, sit-ins, and freedom buses were hurting the cause of ending segregation – only 16% said it helped. Jumping to today, 53% say large demonstrations help, 34% say it hurts. This polling data comes from Gallup.
Social conditions are at the fore, but economics shape these opinions too, and the workforce today is less white, less blue-collar, and more female than it was in 1968. We see in the chart above left that in July 1968, the white unemployment rate was 3.2%, compared to 3.7% for blacks (no commentary on how accurate this data was at the time). The difference between the two unemployment rates widened in the 1970s, perhaps a measurement improvement, and in 2016 the difference was 4.2% versus 8.4%. Today it is 9.2% versus 14.6%. In 1968, some 90% of the workforce was white compared to 78% today. In the chart above right, we see a sharp difference between men and women in the workforce from 1968 to today. Most interesting is that in 1968, and up until 1982, women had the higher unemployment rate as a group. This changed in the 1980s, as the number of production jobs disappeared beginning with the Reagan Administration, and the change lasted up until this latest downturn.
In sum, 2020 is not 1968 in terms of social upheaval (not yet at least), it is a fairer society than it was, and the arguments of 1968 are not likely to play as well across the nation. Racial attitudes have shifted along with the make-up of the workforce – perhaps no coincidence. All of which is to say that when speaking to worker concerns today, candidates are speaking to a much less-white less-male audience than in 1968, and one more likely employed in services, especially health and education, than in goods-producing sectors. This means sensitivities and concerns are not broadly the same as in 1968 (including far less unionization), and the argument of job-theft by immigrants and China does not necessarily resonate the same with all that have a job today. Technology, in fact, is the more likely culprit behind job loss in the past 10 years and these losses are only going to accelerate in the next several years – and this is an increasing concern among those working in service sectors. We have yet to hear political answers to technology displacing workers, from either side.