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Episode 18 - The 2024 US Presidential elections: Looking ahead
John Emerson
Vice chairman

Capital Group’s John Emerson, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, looks ahead to examine the leading candidates and contested issues in the 2024 U.S. presidential election.



John Emerson works in global distribution as vice chair of Capital Group International, Inc. He has 23 years of industry experience, all with Capital Group. He served as the United States ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany (2013-2017). In 2015, John was awarded the State Department’s Susan M. Cobb Award for Exemplary Diplomatic Service, which is given annually to one non-career ambassador, and in 2017 he was awarded the CIA Medal and the U.S. Navy’s Distinguished Public Service award. Prior to accepting the ambassadorial posting, John was president of Capital Group Private Client Services. 


Catherine Craig - John, welcome to the Capital Ideas Podcast.

John Emerson - Well, thank you, Catherine. Thanks for having me.

Catherine Craig - Can you give some early insights into the into the election, how the candidates are shaping up and the current mood in the US?

John Emerson - Yeah, I think there's a 98% chance that we're looking at a rematch of Joe Biden and Donald Trump. I think the only way Biden at this point doesn't run for re-election. I mean, he's already running, he's filing, you know, in different states. And whatever is a catastrophic health event. And same with Trump, by the way. I mean, he's only three years younger than Biden but he obviously comes across as having a lot of energy for sure. And then on Trump, you know, people say, well, what about all these indictments? What about what if he's convicted? Well, first of all, the first trial doesn't even start until – a criminal trial doesn't even start until after Super Tuesday. By that point, he might well have the nomination well in hand. But more importantly, there's no restriction against someone who's been indicted or convicted, or even someone who is sitting in jail from running for president of the United States. I don't think the founders of our country who wrote the Constitution contemplated this. They, you know, I said you got to be 35 years of age - well, we know that's not a problem in this race, and they have to be a natural born citizen of the United States, so Trump hits both those boxes. And when you look at the indictments and all what that has been, it’s almost created a tribal rally around the flag effect within the Republican Party, and you sit there and you go well, how is that possible? The reality is when pollsters ask Republican voters who are likely to vote in Republican primaries, whether they think the election is stolen or not, 70 percent, 65 to 70% say yeah, the election was stolen. So, basically, their attitude is, Trump was doing the Lord's work, this election was stolen. He was trying to right or wrong or whatever. So, they are fully supporting, which of course makes it impossible for any of these opponents, all of whom are splitting the anti-Trump vote, whatever anti-Trump vote exists in the Republic party virtually impossible for them to mount enough to overwhelm him in these primaries and caucuses.

Now it is possible, you know. I mean, I've lived through politics a long time. We're still several months before the first primaries and caucuses. It's possible you have a surprise, I will tell you whoever comes in second to Trump in Iowa and New Hampshire is going to get a big bump in the press because they're going to want to try to create a one-on-one race. It's just good news story from that standpoint, so somebody will have their day in their Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame, but I just don't think it's going to be enough to sustain a full, you know, defeating Donald Trump, so I think we're looking at that.

Here's the bottom line. Ignore the national polls, Ignore the daily reports about, this guy had a bad day, Trump said something outrageous. Biden, you know, did something that, you know, people were worried about even though 70% of the American public does not want to see a rematch between Biden and Trump, they will get focused on this election. They'll get focused on the choice that exists.

We’re looking at an election that will be decided just like the last two presidential elections by fewer than 100,000 people spread out among the five or six swing states. And those states are the three states in the upper Midwest that Democrats usually win, but Hillary lost in 2016. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and there are the two states in the Sun belt that Republicans usually win, that Trump lost in 2020: Arizona and Georgia, and then also Nevada, I would throw into that. And the reason I say fewer than 100,000 people is, in the last election, even though Biden got 7 and a half million votes more than Trump did.

If 45,000 votes had changed in three states, 25,000 in Wisconsin, 10,000 in Arizona, 10,000 in Georgia, Trump would have had exactly 270 electoral votes, which is what you need to be president and he would have been reelected as president of the United States, and by the same token, in 2016 - if 80,000 votes had changed and those three states that I mentioned that Hillary lost, I forgot how much in each state, but collectively 80,000 votes, she would have been president. So, this this is the kind of close election that we're looking at with an electorate who's just not going to be happy with the candidate choice but…but that's where we are.

Catherine Craig - And so, if we stay thinking about is Biden or Trump, what do you think will be the top priorities of those both of those administrations?

John Emerson - Well, I think with Biden, you know, one of his campaign slogans is ‘finish the job’. So, I think particularly domestically, you're going to see more efforts to rebuild the manufacturing base in the United States. You know, his infrastructure package. You're going to see a lot more focus, continued focus on climate, on trying to transition the US economy and jump start the move towards green tech and renewables that we've seen in the IRA and you're going to see a continued effort to invest in America's competitive abilities when it relates to semiconductors, high technology, quantum computing and AI, as a way to make us much more competitive with China and other parts of the world. I mean, that'll be very much, I think a part of the Biden agenda, to say nothing of the fact of having someone with 40 years of foreign policy experience, which he has, sort of governing the United States and helping to lead at least our allies in both the response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and of course, this tragedy that's unfolding in the Middle East.

With regard to Trump, I'd say three things in particular, and we can we know this not just because of what he says on the stump, but also because there is a group, I believe it's called the America First Institute that's developing policy proposals for a new President Trump. One of them is you're going to see a return to a much more protectionist approach. I mean, Biden is definitely, you can argue some of what he's doing is protectionist in terms of trying to rebuild the manufacturing base in the United States. But Trump would go all in on that. So, one of the proposals coming out of this America First Institute is to impose a 10% tariff on everything that comes into the United States from outside the United States to be sold.

Now you know there're going to be negotiations, there'll be exemptions, there'll be maybe different tariff levels for different sectors, but that's their starting point. So that's at number one, serious economic protectionism. Number two, the other tenet of America First is, why do we care about all these problems are going on around the world? We should just be spending money in the United States and to support the United States. And so Trump has already said, made it very clear that he would do everything he can to end the Russian, the Ukraine war as quickly as possible. I was at a conference in early September with John Bolton who, for two years, had been Trump's national security advisor. He said flat out, if Trump is re-elected, he thinks he will do everything he can to pull the United States out of NATO. Trump does not see alliances as being valuable. So, you look at the just as two examples. You'll look at an inward-looking United States from the standpoint of foreign policy, very dramatically different from what Biden has been doing. Some people might like that, some people might not. And then the third thing, and I think this speaks more broadly to the whole approach to democracy and affection that Donald Trump seems to have for authoritarian leaders around the world, I think you will see a Trump re-election in effect being an accelerant for the movement of right wing populist parties around the globe, and I think you could easily see Marine Le Pen then getting in in France I mean you can look at right wing movements around the world and I think all of them would find rocket fuel and maybe even some support in terms of the election of Donald Trump. So, I think you you're looking at two very dramatically different, you know approaches, with the possible exception of China.

Catherine Craig - Great. Thank you, John. And where else do you expect the election to be won and lost?

John Emerson - I think it's going to be won or lost in those key swing states that I mentioned and the voters that are going to make this decision are pollsters tell us they're the ‘double haters’. One reason they're deciding late, they like to vote, but one reason they're deciding late is they really don't like Trump, and they really don't like Biden. And in 2016, the double haters broke for Trump. They didn't like Hillary more than they didn't like Trump. In 2020, they broke for Biden. They didn't like Trump more than they didn't like Biden, and it's unknown where they're going to be here, but there's one little nuance that people ought to be aware of, which is in 2016, there was a third party candidate, a woman named Jill Stein, who ran on the green ticket, who in those three states that if Hillary had won them, she would have been president, that she lost, Jill Stein on the green ticket, very running very left message, got more votes than Trump's margin of victory over Hillary.

Now it's not that everybody who voted for Jill Stein would have voted for Hillary. Some of them would have not voted at all or they would have voted, written in ‘Mickey Mouse’ right, but I guarantee you there was nobody who voted for Jill Stein, who otherwise would have voted for Donald Trump. Biden did not have that kind of third-party bleeding away of potential support in 2020, but it looks like he might have it You have several people that are talking about running as independent candidates. You've got this guy, Cornell West, who is, he's a very progressive, Marxist even, professor at Harvard, who has a following in the left-wing progressive community and among some young people. That could shave some votes off Biden. When you're talking 10,000 votes in the state, it doesn't take a whole lot to do that and he's going to run as an independent. So, the question is, does he get on the ballot in those states that matter?

You have Robert F Kennedy Junior, who has just recently announced that he's going to run as an independent. Ironically, his campaign, he was running in the Democratic primary against Biden, I guess he's dropped out of that. His campaign was largely funded by MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters. He's on the Steve Bannon podcast, speaking of podcasts, constantly. So, you could say that he may take votes away from people who otherwise vote for Trump. The problem for Biden is that Kennedy name is sort of magic in democratic politics, and you might have some people that aren't paying that much attention going, oh, Bobby Kennedy, I think I'll vote for him, so we'll have to see what happens there. Maybe that one is hurts them both equally.

The third is this ‘no labels’ group, which is talking about the Unity ticket of somebody like Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, who's a Democrat, and Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland, who recently had to step down because he served his terms, who's a Republican running together. That I think would more likely hurt Joe Biden than Donald Trump because what it does is it says to Republican leading independents or centrist Republicans who really don't like the idea of voting for a Democrat. Oh, you don't have to vote for Donald Trump. Here's somebody you can vote for, and again, that all you need to do is shave a few votes away from Biden. So, this is an additional headwind that I think Biden has in this, but fundamentally take a look at those states, take a look at who's on the ballot and take a look at how those people are doing as we move into the summer and fall. And one other thing I'd say, I guarantee you Joe Biden is hoping that inflation is coming down and gas prices aren't going up as we get into the summer of 2024 in the early fall of 2024 because voters do not like those things and will tend to blame an incumbent president if they're going in the wrong direction.

Catherine Craig - It's a really an awful lot to watch out for in the run up to the election. Thank you for your time, John.

John Emerson - Thank you, Catherine.

Closing disclosure

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For Capital Ideas, this is Matt Reynolds reminding you that the most valuable asset is a long-term perspective.

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