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How investors are gaming out U.S. election night

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A voter fills out her ballot during early voting at ONEOK Field in Tulsa
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A voter fills out her ballot during early voting at ONEOK Field in Tulsa

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By Lawrence Delevingne and Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON/BOSTON (Reuters) – From the beach towns of Pinellas, Florida, to the suburbs of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Wall Street will be closely watching a few dozen counties on Tuesday night for hints on who will win the U.S. presidential race.

Investment firms, faced with the prospect of a chaotic election complicated by an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, have hired political analysts and crunched voting data to try to identify crucial counties and Senate races that might tell them which way the vote is headed.

Pinellas, home to St. Petersburg-Clearwater, has picked the winner of every presidential election since 1980 except for the disputed 2000 vote. Bucks County, north of Philadelphia, is seen as an indicator of suburban enthusiasm for Democratic contender Joe Biden.

The calculus is by no means definitive or comprehensive. With Democrats more likely than Republicans to vote early, for example, initial results from some counties could show a strong Biden lead that gets tempered or reversed as in-person ballots are counted.

“They are trying to find the signal from the noise. It can seem overwhelming,” said Andy Lewin, who works with financial services clients for Washington lobbyist BGR Group.

He sees Pinellas and another county in Florida, Sumter, as bellwethers for older voters. If Biden outperforms Hillary Clinton – the Democratic candidate in 2016 – in Pinellas, or if President Donald Trump loses his margin of victory from 2016 in Sumter, the Republican is unlikely to be re-elected, he said.

“They are great proxies for investors on where the election is headed,” Lewin said.

A spokesman for the Biden campaign declined to comment for this story. Representatives for the Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Several investment strategists singled out Florida as critical to Trump’s re-election. The state, with 29 Electoral College votes out of a total of 538, was vital to Trump’s surprise win in 2016.

“The absolute most important thing to watch on election night is what happens in Florida,” Ben Melkman, head of hedge fund firm Light Sky Macro LP, told Reuters during a recent online forum.

Florida, along with North Carolina, Ohio and Texas — all states that investors are monitoring closely — has already begun to process mail-in ballots. Election experts say these states will likely be able to count the majority of their votes by the end of the night.

AFRICAN AMERICANS AND SUBURBANITES

Biden is leading Trump in national opinion polls, but the race is tight in several battleground states, which can swing to either party and decide the race.

Noel Dixon, global macro strategist at State Street (NYSE:) Global Markets, said he was watching North Carolina’s Bladen and Granville counties as indicators for the African-American turnout. An increase would be a good sign for Biden.

Ed Mills, managing director for Washington policy at Raymond James, views North Carolina’s Mecklenburg, Wake and Durham counties as indicators for suburban voters.

The state also has a close race for the Senate seat held by Republican Thom Tillis. If North Carolina goes for Biden and Senate challenger Cal Cunningham, it would likely be a Democratic sweep, Mills said. But if Trump wins by more than a few percentage points, he would be “thinking of a repeat of 2016.”

Other battlegrounds, such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, do not begin processing absentee ballots until Election Day so experts say initial results will likely skew Republican and the full tally could take days to complete.

To get an early read on Pennsylvania, investors can look to Ohio, said Libby Cantrill, head of U.S. public policy at the bond fund manager PIMCO. The two states have similar voter demographics and both flipped in 2016 for Trump.

If Trump wins Florida and Arizona, the outcome will rest on Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Alec Phillips, U.S. chief political economist at Goldman Sachs (NYSE:), said on a recent call for clients.

Michigan’s Kent County, where Trump beat Clinton by 3 percentage points, is on the watch list for Jon Lieber, U.S. managing director at Eurasia Group, as is Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, which narrowly went for Clinton.

Garrett Roche, chief market strategist at Uxbridge Capital, a New York-based private investment advisor, said he will be watching Michigan’s Macomb County, where Trump outperformed by 6 points Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance, and where Clinton underperformed former President Barack Obama by 10 points.

In Wisconsin, Roche said he was monitoring Kenosha County, which voted for Obama by double digits before narrowly going to Trump.

Other investors said they were keeping an eye on Maricopa County, the most populous in Arizona. The longtime Republican stronghold has a growing Hispanic population that leans Democratic.

Whatever the outcome there or in other bellwether counties, it’s clear investors have been searching for an edge, even if the results are far from certain.

It’s “hard to know what to focus on,” BGR’s Lewin said, “so everyone has their own secret sauce.”

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