2020 US Presidential Election: Could Oil Be the End of Trump?

The rapid development of the American oil industry in the late 2000’s saw the US become the top oil-producing country in the world in 2018. With the US’ relationship with the oil industry deepening, oil has played an increasingly significant role in American domestic politics. The concentration of economic activity around oil exploration and extraction in electoral swing states with significant numbers of electoral college votes, such as Texas and Pennsylvania, makes it a potentially election deciding issue.  If a president failed to ensure a stable and productive economic environment for the American oil industry, they would be risking the dissatisfaction of many voters whose livelihoods are tied to oil production, and they could very well end up losing those key states when facing re-election.

Outside of the direct impact that the oil industry has on the livelihoods of many voters, it is also a significant factor in national pride and dignity. Pragmatically, becoming the largest producer of oil in the world has given the US greater geopolitical leverage as it’s been able to increase its influence over oil consuming nations, thus reducing the influence of its oil producing rivals: Russia and Saudi Arabia. More importantly for the US’ domestic politics, increasing oil production has not only fuelled American vehicles, American factories and the American military, but it has also served to fuel a kind of energy-nationalism. This can be seen as the Whitehouse released a memorandum on October 31st  2020, days before the election, that evoked a sense of energy-nationalism as it cited “our energy resources” as being “among the greatest of our blessings” which, “have rightly been a great source of national pride”. 

The academic Francis Fukuyama argues that thymos, the desire for dignity and recognition of it, is a fundamental part of human nature, and can be captured through nationalist-populism which provides an identity and community through which an individual can be dignified.  He argues that this fundamental aspect of human nature has in recent years become increasingly significant in voter behaviour, 2016 being a key demonstration of this with the victories of Trump in the US and the Brexit campaign in the UK. The Whitehouse memorandum, amongst many other comments made by Trump, shows how the success of the American oil industry is being tapped into by the Trump campaign to create a sense of national pride and identity to draw voters in by satisfying their thymos. Thus, with the direct impact it has on the livelihoods of voters in key states, and the wider importance it has in feeding national pride which can be transformed into nationalist-populism and utilised by politicians, the oil industry has the potential to shape American politics. 

The collapse of oil prices in Spring of 2020 presented a serious threat to Trump. The sudden drop in demand for oil caused by Coronavirus’ disruption to oil consuming industries and activities, saw OPEC attempt to restrict oil production in order to maintain some balance of supply and demand in the oil market with the hope of keeping the price of oil high. This, however, sparked an oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia in which both countries ramped up oil production, flooding the market and causing the price of crude oil to crash down in April to 60% of what it was at the start of the year. This move also targeted the US’ oil industry as it’s being comprised largely of small, less financially stable, companies who face higher production costs makes it far more vulnerable to price drops than the Russian and Saudi oil industries which are dominated by large national companies. The extraction of shale oil, which is particularly prevalent in Pennsylvania, is especially vulnerable to low prices as the more complex processes surrounding it make production costs far higher. In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral college votes by just 0.7%. With around 32,000 Pennsylvanians directly employed in the industry, and many more depending on the economic activity that it brings, a low oil price would likely see Trump lose Pennsylvania. Without victory in Pennsylvania, and other shale states such as Ohio, Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 would have been extremely fragile. With an election looming, it is therefore understandable that Trump intervened in the existential threat to his presidency that was the Russian-Saudi oil price war. In his usual measured and pragmatic way, Trump threatened to end the US’ 75 year-long military support of Riyadh. An international agreement to cut oil production followed shortly afterwards. While the process of cutting oil production internationally has been fairly fragile, it has successfully rescued the price of crude oil from the depths of its crash. It is however, still lower than it was at the start of the year, and with parts of the globe beginning to lockdown once more, meaning a drop in demand for oil, the production cuts are becoming more and more ineffectual and so the oil price crash remains an issue that could potentially shape the 2020 presidential election.

However, Trump’s opponent, Biden has failed to capitalise on this weakness as he has not taken a clear position supporting fracking. Trump has exploited Biden’s failure to dignify those involved in the oil industry by painting a misleading picture of Biden being strongly anti fracking. This has been particularly focused in Pennsylvania where in the last few days the Trump campaign has been running an advert claiming Biden will “end fracking” and “thousands” of jobs. In contrast to Biden and the impression created by the Trump campaign, Trump has consistently championed the oil industry. The Trump campaign’s use of oil to appeal directly to key voters in Pennsylvania, and his use of a kind of energy-nationalism to appeal to the thymos of voters around the US could well counteract the negative impacts that the price crash would have had on his attempt at re-election.

Biden does, however, seem to have carried some advantage as according to ‘RealClearPolitics’ in Pennsylvania, the day before the election he sat 2.6 points ahead of Trump compared to Clinton’s 2.1 point lead in 2016.  In other key oil states such as Ohio and Texas, Trump’s lead in the polls the day before the election is less this year than it was in 2016. This is particularly notable in Texas where Trump’s lead on November 1st sat at just 1.2 points compared to his 9% victory in 2016. And so, with Trump’s weakened position in the rust belt, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral college votes will be critical to his survival as president. Oil will be one of the most salient issues in this state. Whether it’s a vote for Trump and his championing of the oil industry, or a vote against him to express dissatisfaction with the impacts of the continuingly low price oil will have to be seen. But the state of the polls would suggest that Trump could well be crashing out of the Whitehouse like the price of oil under his presidency.


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