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Trump’s last gamble: proving the pollsters wrong in Pennsylvania

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Trailing in the national polls, Donald Trump spent the final week of the US presidential campaign on a frenetic sprint across the country — a last-ditch burst of rallies that seemed impossible just a month ago when he was in hospital with Covid-19.

In a desperate attempt to shift the momentum of the race, the president campaigned twice in both Michigan and Wisconsin, two states in the upper Midwest that he won in 2016 despite the polls predicting he would lose. Mr Trump has also visited a string of southern states that he must almost certainly hold on to if he is to stand any chance of defeating Joe Biden in Tuesday’s election — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.

But the president has been spending the most time in the state that more than any other holds the key to victory in this election — Pennsylvania.

“At every turn, Biden twisted the knife into the back of Pennsylvania workers,” Mr Trump said in Montoursville on Saturday, in his ninth rally in the state since recovering from Covid-19. “They keep saying its close [in Pennsylvania] but I don’t think its close.”

On Monday, he will campaign in Scranton, the Pennsylvania birthplace of Mr Biden. His Democratic rival and Kamala Harris, Mr Biden’s running mate, will spend the day fanning across the state in a final pitch to voters.

Donald Trump campaigns in Erie. 'Before the plague . . . I had it made. I wasn’t coming to Erie,” the president said. 'We had the greatest economy . . . then we got hit with the plague'
Donald Trump campaigns in Erie. ‘Before the plague . . . I had it made. I wasn’t coming to Erie,” the president said. ‘We had the greatest economy . . . then we got hit with the plague’ © Gene J. Puskar/AP

On the eve of the election, Mr Biden has a 8.6-point national lead in polls, according to FiveThirtyEight, the poll tracking website. He also leads every swing state except Iowa and Ohio. In a sign of the headwinds facing Mr Trump, his rival leads in Georgia, which has not voted for a Democrat in almost 30 years, and the two men are neck and neck in Texas, which has not backed a Democrat since Jimmy Carter won in 1976.

Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral college votes, is central to the electoral map for both campaigns. It is as close as there is to a must-win state for the president. Mr Trump could mathematically get the 270 he needs to win without Pennsylvania, but a loss would dramatically cut his re-election chances.

“Pennsylvania is the one critical state for both candidates,” says Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democratic congressman. “You can come up with a map for Biden to reach 270 without Florida, but not without Pennsylvania. You can come up with a map for Trump without Wisconsin and its 10 votes, but you cannot come up with a winning map without Pennsylvania.”

It is crucial for other reasons, too. Although Mr Trump lags in several of the southern swing states, he is within the polling margin of error — which means that a Trump win would not be a huge surprise. But in Pennsylvania he trails Mr Biden by an average of 4.8 points, according to FiveThirtyEight. To pull off a victory, he will need to confound the pollsters — just as he did in 2016.

It is also one of the states most likely to see a fierce legal battle over election procedures and vote-counting if the result turns out to be close.

Electoral College map and marimekko chart showing Donald Trump is trailing in key battleground polls

The Supreme Court last week refused to hear a Republican petition to block the state from accepting absentee ballots that arrive within three days of the election, but did not rule out revisiting the issue. The situation could become fraught if the outcome is very close and Mr Trump repeats his previous baseless assertions that the process is tainted by fraud.

Neither party is taking anything for granted. “It is probably accurate that the race is tightening,” says Chrissy Houlahan, a Democratic congresswoman who represents south-east Pennsylvania. “In terms of the energy on the ground, it’s feverish.”

The fight over the ‘Trump Democrats’

Until Mr Trump won it four years ago, Pennsylvania had voted Democrat in every election since 1992. The state contains several of the key dynamics that will define this election. It has large numbers of white, working-class voters, many of them in more rural areas — a demographic that has proved susceptible to the Trump message. But it also has a big constituency of college-educated, suburban women who once might have voted Republican but are now moving away from the party.

In winning Pennsylvania, and other states such as Michigan and Wisconsin that had not voted Republican in three decades, Mr Trump broke through what the Democrats had dubbed their “blue wall”. His Republican support was critically bolstered by white, working-class voters in the rust-belt and Midwestern states who became known as “Trump Democrats” after they abandoned their party to vote for the reality TV star. He improved on the Republican result in 2012 in almost all of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania.

A sign supporting Joe Biden sits on a street in Pennsylvania, the state where the Democrat was born and currently leads Donald Trum[p in polls
A sign supporting Joe Biden sits on a street in Pennsylvania, the state where the Democrat was born and currently leads Donald Trum[p in polls © Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

“There’s no question that in 2016 Hillary Clinton lost because in so many blue-collar communities there was a drop in the Democratic vote,” says Mr Boyle. “Everywhere from north-east Philadelphia to hundreds of miles away in Erie [county].”

With the president polling worse with women than four years ago, he may now be even more reliant on Trump Democrats. But Mr Biden is seen as a stronger candidate in the rustbelt states than Mrs Clinton was in 2016. Ed Rendell, a former Pennsylvania Democratic governor, says Mr Biden is well placed to win back those votes.

“Biden is clearly more their type of guy than Trump,” he says. “He was born poor, his father was a union guy.”

Jobs message

One test will be in Erie County, north-western Pennsylvania. Nestled between Ohio and New York along Lake Erie on the border with Canada, it backed Mr Trump in 2016, the first Republican win there since Ronald Reagan in 1984. It was one of three counties in the state — and 206 in the US — that voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 but then swung to Mr Trump four years later, according to Ballotpedia.

When Mr Trump campaigned in Erie two weeks ago, it was a clear sign that he was worried about shoring up his support in Pennsylvania. As the pandemic has ravaged the economy and Mr Trump has come under heavy criticism over his handling of the crisis, he has been forced to play defence in places like Erie that he once hoped would be much easier targets.

“Before the plague . . . I had it made. I wasn’t coming to Erie,” Mr Trump said. “We had the greatest economy . . . then we got hit with the plague and I had to go back to work. Hello Erie, may I please have your vote?”

Voters cast their ballots in the Democratic primary in Philadelphia in June. There are signs pointing to a tough climb for Joe Biden outside the state's cities and suburbs
Voters cast their ballots in the Democratic primary in Philadelphia in June. There are signs pointing to a tough climb for Joe Biden outside the state’s cities and suburbs © Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters

Jim Wertz, the top Democratic official in the county, says local Democrats felt ignored in 2016. “Clinton was the first Democratic presidential candidate not to come here for a long time. People responded poorly to that,” he says, adding that blue-collar Democrats had been leaving the party even before the rise of Mr Trump.

“It was cultural and economic. For the folks that felt the economic squeeze, they blamed both parties, who told them the same thing year after year. But some of the blue-collar voters shifted to the Republican party because over time it has leaned more into cultural issues. There was a lot of buy-in . . . on the ‘God and guns’ narrative.”

Anjali Sahay, a politics professor at Gannon University in Erie, says the county has lost 16,000 jobs since 1990. “I don’t think it was a sudden swing to Trump in one election but a constant feeling that jobs were being lost,” she says.

Some experts say the Democrats failed to focus enough on economic issues as manufacturing jobs in western Pennsylvania evaporated. To appeal to Trump Democrats, Mr Biden is proposing a “Made in America” plan that would penalise US companies that produce goods overseas.

“Whoever gets the jobs message across is probably going to be the winner here,” says Ms Sahay.

One Erie man who gambled on Mr Trump but now has buyer’s remorse is Rodney Chiarelli, vice-president of American Tinning and Galvanizing Company, a metal finishing company in Erie.

“A lot of people had the same feeling that they didn’t like Hillary so we’ll give this guy with his pretty funny campaign [a chance],” says Mr Chiarelli, who believes some of those Trump Democrats will help Mr Biden win Erie after seeing the president in a different, less flattering, light. “I don’t like a cheater and that’s what he is.”

Trump masks in Pittsburgh

Other parts of western Pennsylvania may be tougher for Mr Biden. Kristen Coopie, a politics expert at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, says the areas surrounding Allegheny county, a liberal area that includes Pittsburgh, remain very conservative.

“The Trump support is really amazing when I drive around,” Ms Coopie says. “Trump signs are everywhere.”

Demonstrators gather in Philadelphia to protest against the recent killing of a black man by police officers. Donald Trump has attempted to win over Republican women by arguing that suburbs are threatened by such protests
Demonstrators gather in Philadelphia to protest against the recent killing of a black man by police officers. Donald Trump has attempted to win over Republican women by arguing that suburbs are threatened by such protests © Mark Makela/Getty

She believes few Trump supporters would consider switching to Mr Biden even though the president has not delivered on all his pledges — such as bringing back coal jobs. “Even if they’re not feeling better off economically, they’re not going to jump ship. If you’re an American football fan, you’re not going to leave the Pittsburgh Steelers and become a Cleveland Browns fan.”

Laura Schisler, a Republican from suburban Pittsburgh, says Republican support for Mr Trump has soared since his first victory. “The energy now is absolutely incredible. Back then, everybody was afraid to say if they supported him. They were more in the closet. Now you’ve got people wearing big old Trump masks.”

There are other signs pointing to a tough climb for Mr Biden outside the cities and suburbs. Washington county, just south-east of Pittsburgh, recently saw Republicans surpass Democrats in voter registration. Guy Reschenthaler, a Republican member of congress whose district includes the county, says new voters are registering with the GOP.

Line chart showing how Trump and Biden are doing in the US national polls

Mr Reschenthaler says people are not opting for Mr Trump because they are anti-Biden, but because they feel that the Democrats have ignored them or treated them as “rubes”, or uneducated voters. One example, he says, was when Mr Obama in 2008 said Pennsylvanians would “cling to guns or religion” because nothing had replaced the disappearing jobs.

“People hunt and engage in sport, clay and trap shooting. It’s just part of the culture here. And of course religion is still very prevalent here. So those kinds of remarks just alienate voters in south-western Pennsylvania,” he adds.

His constituents worry that Mr Biden would ban fracking, a key part of the local economy, despite denials from the former vice-president. He believes the polls are underestimating support for Mr Trump — just as in 2016, when pollsters did not give enough weight to blue-collar men without college degrees — and as a result missed the shift in swing states in the Midwest.

A fracking facility in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania. Some constituents worry that Joe Biden would ban fracking, a key part of the local economy, despite denials from the former vice-president
A fracking facility in Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania. Some constituents worry that Joe Biden would ban fracking, a key part of the local economy, despite denials from the former vice-president © Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

Most pollsters say they have revamped their models to correct for that bias, but some Republicans are not convinced that they are capturing the enthusiasm for Mr Trump.

“It’s very difficult to get men who are 45 and under on the phone, and when they get on the phone and figure out it’s a pollster they hang up or . . . prank them,” says Mr Reschenthaler.

In a boost to Mr Trump, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette endorsed him on Sunday, the first time the paper has endorsed a Republican since 1972. It said that while Mr Trump had many faults, including his handling of the pandemic, he would be better for the local economy.

Engaging the ‘soccer moms’

While Mr Trump may have the edge with working-class men in the western and central parts of the state, Ms Houlahan says Mr Biden has a big advantage with women in urban and suburban areas.

In recent weeks, the president has dispatched his wife, his two daughters and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley to Pennsylvania to woo Republican women.

“Having the female surrogate out there is especially important. It’s the sisterhood argument. He realises he has a problem with suburban women,” says Ms Coopie.

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At a campaign rally in the city of Johnson in September, Mr Trump urged Republican women to return to his side: “Suburban women, will you please like me?” He argued that the suburbs were at risk from anti-racism protests sparked by the killing of black Americans by police officers.

More recently Mr Trump had eased off from the argument as it gained little traction, but he returned to the theme in Pennsylvania over the weekend.

Mr Reschenthaler thinks it may resonate after protests last week followed the fatal police shooting of a black man, Walter Wallace Jr, in Philadelphia, including serious looting. “The chaos you’re seeing in Philadelphia over the past few days is bringing suburban women back to the party,” he says.

But Ms Houlahan, the first Democrat to represent Chester county which includes some Philadelphia suburbs, in more than 160 years, thinks women have had enough of Mr Trump because of his style and handling of Covid-19.

“In the Philadelphia suburbs, those ‘soccer moms’ that you always hear about . . . have become energised over the past four years as a consequence of Trump’s election,” she says. “They are more politically engaged.”

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Analysis

Ronaldo’s Coke moment signals shifting balance of power in sport

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Cristiano Ronaldo’s rejection of strategically placed Coca-Cola bottles at a press conference at the Euro 2020 football championships this week has left sponsors and tournament organisers scrambling to limit the damage on endorsement deals.

The gesture by the Portugal star, who on Monday picked up a bottle of water saying “Agua . . . no Coca-Cola”, was mimicked by other players including Italian midfielder Manuel Locatelli, while France’s Paul Pogba removed a Heineken bottle during media commitments later in the week.

Uefa, European football’s governing body, has contacted national federations to tell teams to avoid actions that could affect tournament sponsors, each of which have paid about $30m to endorse the competition.

But there are no specific rules to police how players must discuss the corporate partners for the Euros. And there has been no reprimand of Ronaldo who, according to one senior European football executive “is so powerful, no one can tell him what to do”. 

That admission is a reflection of the changing power balance at the top of the world’s biggest sports. Highly paid athletes appear more willing to challenge the media and marketing deals struck by the leagues and competitions they play in, if those financial imperatives clash with their own carefully tailored corporate image or sincerely-held beliefs. 

Ronaldo’s viral moment led some media outlets to claim that the incident wiped billions from the market value of the US drinks company. But Coca-Cola’s shares slipped about 1 per cent in morning trade before the press conference even began, a drop that accounts for most of the day’s losses. 

The stock has fallen steadily over the days since, though it managed to recover some ground on Thursday, closing higher for the day at $54.95 .

While Locatelli appeared to be joking by following Ronaldo’s lead, Pogba is a practising Muslim who on Tuesday removed a Heineken bottle placed in front of him at a post-match press conference, though the item was from the Dutch brewers’ line of alcohol-free beers. 

Muslim athletes have cited their religious beliefs for declining to take part in marketing activities with alcoholic drinks brands and gambling groups. “We fully respect everyone’s decision when it comes to their beverage of choice,” said Heineken. 

Last month, Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open tournament rather than take part in compulsory press conferences, suggesting they were damaging to her mental health. Post-match media access to players is considered key to the value of television deals for tournaments. 

Ronaldo is known for sharing pictures of his intense training regime on Instagram, where he has roughly 300m followers, and has expressed disapproval at his children imbibing fizzy drinks.

Many of his sponsorship deals fit this image of healthy living, such as with sportswear group Nike and nutrition company Herballife — endorsements that have helped him become the first footballer to earn $1bn over his career, according to Forbes. 

However, the player has also previously appeared in adverts for Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

“I have to say there was a collective raise of eyebrows in the industry about Ronaldo, who has a long record of brand endorsements, some of which don’t fit with his apparent approach to life,” said Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert. “There was a lot of cynicism.”

Ricardo Fort, a former Coca-Cola executive who previously spent nearly two decades managing the company’s sports partnerships, said the incident was an example of rights infringement, with the sponsor potentially entitled to damages. 

Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open rather than take part in compulsory press conferences © Martin Bureau/AFP via Getty

“Sometimes [rights infringement] can come from a competitor ambushing the event, sometimes it can come from the organisers, sometimes it’s a player,” he said. “In general this is a big distraction for the event and the companies which invested a lot.” 

Though using bottles as product placement is a contractual obligation of the deals that Uefa has struck with Coca-Cola and Heineken, neither brand has demanded compensation, according to a person close to the discussions. 

Uefa said players “can choose their preferred beverage” at the tournament. Coca-Cola did not respond to a request for comment. 

England manager Gareth Southgate defended corporate sponsorships on Thursday, saying “their money at all levels helps sport to function”. That stance was supported by his team’s captain, Harry Kane, who added: “Obviously the sponsors are entitled to do what they want if they’ve paid the money to do so.”

There have long been precedents for athletes favouring their own marketing deals over the groups they play for. At the 1992 Olympics, US basketball player Michael Jordan opted to cover the Reebok logo on his official uniform with a strategically draped American flag, a gesture of loyalty to Jordan’s personal sponsor, Nike.

But more recently athletes have gained greater control over which brands they are associated with, thanks in large part to their direct link to fans through social media. 

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Osaka, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, has accrued a suite of her own sponsors and a large social media following thanks to her brilliant playing record, but also frank advocacy for racial injustice and mental health. 

This breed of independent-minded athletes at the top of sport is forcing a rethink of the longstanding marketing strategies adopted by competition organisers and their sponsors.

“There’s still going to be a billion servings of Coke poured today, tomorrow and the next way,” said Crow. “But the question is: is there a better way of doing it? I suspect there is a better way to get its message across than plonking bottles in front of athletes.”



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Analysis

Biden’s climate agenda bogged down in divided Congress

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President Joe Biden arrives back in the US this week after a foreign tour with a recurring theme: fighting climate change.

But he returns to a Washington where his own party feels increasing anxiety that his administration’s climate agenda will fall short at home.

Bipartisan talks over Biden’s infrastructure proposals — which would spend billions on crumbling roads, bridges and tunnels, as well as record sums on clean energy — are flagging. While Republicans and moderate Democrats try to scale down the package, progressives warn they will withhold support if climate provisions are stripped out. 

“If there is no climate, there is no deal,” Jeff Merkley, a Democratic senator from Oregon, said this week. “When the ship sails on infrastructure, energy infrastructure cannot be left on the docks.”

Democratic party leaders are now exploring another path to enact Biden’s climate plan. Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, on Wednesday met his members on the budget committee to find ways to fund greener electricity, zero-carbon vehicles and manufacturing and farming that keeps many climate goals intact.

While potentially more viable, the strategy could also weaken Biden’s climate policies. Legislation would be shoehorned into the Senate’s budget reconciliation process — a special procedure that enables Democrats to use their slim majority but constrains the scope of what can pass.

Column chart of US generation by fuel source, in a scenario where emissions fall 90 per cent by 2040 (TWh) showing Cutting carbon from electric sector would displace coal and gas

Biden has pledged for the US to cut emissions by at least 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. He is aiming for carbon-free electricity by 2035 — a target that would mean none generated by burning coal or natural gas unless their emissions can be captured.

These lofty climate policies were a centrepiece of Biden’s diplomacy on his first international trip. He told G7 leaders in Cornwall that global warming is “the existential problem facing humanity”, and helped launch a $2bn fund for countries to shift away from coal.

In Washington, however, Democrats look unlikely to pass ambitious climate legislation with the support of Republicans given the 50-50 party split in the Senate and rules requiring at least 60 votes to move most important bills.

“I think there is reason to be concerned,” said Dan Lashof, US director of the World Resources Institute, referring to the fate of climate proposals in Congress.

“It was always going to be a challenge, to get investment at the scale that is needed, to turn the corner on climate change,” he added. “Getting very substantial investments in infrastructure and clean energy technologies is crucial to reaching the US emissions targets.”

The reconciliation process proposed by Schumer requires a simple majority vote, but rules limit it to tax and spending measures. Far-reaching initiatives to drive down the US’s 6.5bn tonnes of annual carbon emissions would be in jeopardy.

Using reconciliation would make it hard to establish a “clean electricity standard,” a core part of Biden’s plans to tackle emissions. The standard would set ever-stricter emissions targets for electric utilities, which are the source of a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The clean electricity standard is a much harder provision to enact through reconciliation and the reason is pretty simple: it’s a standard,” said Paul Bledsoe, strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Forcing the square peg of a clean electricity standard into the round opening of the reconciliation process will be very difficult.”

One workaround under discussion among Democrats is to pay incentives for clean electricity, achieving some of the goals of the electricity standard while fitting within the guidelines of reconciliation.

“It would involve the federal government becoming a partner in the transition, helping utilities that are making progress at the pace and scale necessary with financial investments,” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Other parts of the Biden climate agenda — including expanding tax credits for wind and solar power and energy storage and creating a credit for power transmission lines — would be more straightforward under the reconciliation process. Policies that do not depend on legislation, such as vehicle emissions rules, can be directly imposed by the Biden administration and are expected soon.

Adding urgency to the legislative push are the midterm elections in 2022, when Democrats risk losing control of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

“The rest of the world is intimately familiar with midterm elections and how the US Senate works, because they are concerned that the domestic delivery of the climate promises is imperilled by the toxic politics here,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. 

Republicans have argued that the infrastructure proposals should focus more on roads, bridges, and construction projects and objected to provisions that would subsidise electric cars and support non-fossil energy. 

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Meanwhile, not all Democratic senators are aligned. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a coal-producing state, is likely to have a decisive influence on the shape of any climate proposals as his vote would be needed to pass bipartisan or reconciliation bills.

Energy experts acknowledge that achieving zero-carbon electricity by 2035 would be daunting even if a clean electricity standard was to pass, because of an ageing US grid. 

Patrick Luckow, analyst at IHS Markit, expects power demand to rapidly increase over the next decade as more vehicles and home heating systems run on electricity. “When you are adding renewable energy and getting rid of fossil fuels, there is demand growth as well, which makes it more challenging,” he said.

Democrats say Biden needs a win on climate for political reasons as much as environmental ones. “The Democrats can’t risk the failure of Biden’s climate and economic policy. It would cripple the president,” Bledsoe said.



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Analysis

Mexico enjoys break from economic gloom with the help of Biden

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Business gloom has been so pervasive in Mexico since Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency in 2018 on a strident anti-establishment platform that a recent burst of optimism about the country’s growth prospects feels like a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds.

Last October, the IMF was forecasting that Mexico would grow just 3.5 per cent in 2021 after shrinking a seasonally adjusted 8.5 per cent last year during the pandemic. Yet as the economy rapidly opens up, coronavirus infections remain low and the effects of the giant US stimulus ripple across the border, many economists and bankers here now see Mexico expanding almost twice as fast. 

“The combination of continued reopening with strong remittances and a US-led global recovery has allowed Mexico to close the gap with other Latin American economies, outperforming all of them in the first half of 2021,” said Marcos Casarín, chief economist for the region at Oxford Economics. The consultancy’s recovery tracker shows Mexico is returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity more quickly than any other Latin American country.

“Mexico will grow 6.0 per cent this year and it could be higher,” said former finance minister and academic Carlos Urzúa, citing the spillover effects of US fiscal stimulus and increased remittances from Mexicans working across the border. These could reach $55bn this year and are “much more important than oil”, he added.

But few believe this year’s US-inspired growth spurt heralds a bright new dawn for Mexico. The expansion, bankers and economists say, is almost entirely thanks to President Joe Biden’s policies, rather than López Obrador’s. The biggest beneficiaries are Mexico’s export-oriented manufacturing companies in the north of the country and the tourism industry, while firms servicing the domestic market struggle with depressed demand.

“Mexico will grow 6 per cent this year whether it likes it or not, dragged along by the US,” said one dealmaker who runs an investment fund in the country. “It will grow quite well in 2022 also. That’s not the point. What matters is what happens after 2023.”

Here the picture is much less sunny. A near-universal complaint in the business community is that López Obrador’s hostile rhetoric, constant attacks on regulators and the judiciary, his unpredictable policy announcements and preference for state-owned companies have scared away the foreign money that should be coming to Mexico to take advantage of preferential access under the US-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement.

“The ritual of bringing the global CEO to Mexico to announce a new investment is over,” said one leading member of the international business community. “There is a pause. Nobody is leaving the country but nobody is proposing incremental investment either.”

The example cited most often as deterring investors is the energy sector, where López Obrador is attempting to reverse an opening to private money begun under his predecessor and revert to a state-run fossil fuelled model, throttling a once-promising renewable energy boom in the process.

“The problem is investment and the issue is medium-term and long-term,” said Gerardo Esquivel, deputy governor of the central bank. “It’s been stagnant since 2015-16.”

Urzúa said that public investment would be only 2.7 per cent of gross domestic product this year, barely more than half the level it should run at. Much of the spending is directed towards López Obrador’s pet projects, which include a new oil refinery in his home state of Tabasco and a new tourist railway around the Yucatán peninsula.

Despite his government’s focus on social programmes to help the poor, López Obrador stands out from other populists for his stubborn refusal to increase borrowing to allow more spending. Most economists here do not believe that his decision last week to switch finance minister and appoint longtime ally Rogelio Ramírez de la O, 72, will change this.

Those close to the president say his aversion to debt stems from a conviction that the Mexican governments he admires most in the 1960s and 1970s were crippled by excessive borrowing. “Amlo turns into a panther when you suggest that he should take on more debt,” said one former minister. “It’s simply not something you can discuss. He will not spend.”

Even amid the pandemic, López Obrador was one of the very few presidents in the world to reject extra borrowing to alleviate suffering, despite the fact that Mexico had the fiscal space to do so. Critics dubbed his policies “austericide”. And while public investment remains weak, the president does little to encourage the private sector to take up the slack.

“López Obrador must promote private sector investment,” said the CEO of one Mexican bank, adding that the private sector accounted for 86 per cent of Mexico’s total investment. “There is no way to grow without private investment. “This rejection of private investment has to stop.”

And as for Mexico’s recovery: “To grow 6 per cent this year and 3.5 next year is not magic, it is inertia.”



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