The growing dynamics of US presidential campaign

Published : 16 Sep 2020 08:12 PM | Updated : 17 Sep 2020 12:16 AM

Both Biden and Trump have entered the final stretch of the US Presidential election to be held on 3 November this year. They also have to confront certain grave challenges - a crisis resulting from racial discrimination and an economic recession. The United States is also facing a pandemic with over 6 million people infected and almost 190,000 dead. It may also be mentioned that nearly 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment and 10 million Americans have lost their health insurance.

Voters in America will decide on the above date whether Donald Trump remains in the White House for another four years.

Racial discrimination has continued to gain momentum. Police and demonstrators have clashed for many nights in Wisconsin after police shot a black man multiple times as he tried to get into a car in the city of Kenosha on 23 August. Jacob Blake is reportedly now in a stable condition. Protests erupted in the city soon after. Governor Tony Evers of that State has called for a special session of the State legislature on 31 August to discuss a package of laws announced earlier this year on accountability and transparency of the police. Mr Evers announced the need for such legislation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in the neighbouring state of Minnesota. His death in May highlighted discriminatory nature of police brutality and sparked protests around the world. It also impacted on the Republican Party.

After the August third-week Democratic Convention we have witnessed the Trump-heavy hybrid convention.

In fact on 24th August we have seen him participating in person in a Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina and casting doubt in advance on the proposed use of mail-in voting as supported by the Democrats. He also disputed Democrat claims of having failed to contain the pandemic and its economic pain and racial unrest. Instead he focused on the growing strength of the stock market and also attacked Democrat officials who have imposed coronavirus restrictions.

The four-day Republican Convention eventually saw Donald Trump officially becoming the party’s candidate to take on Joe Biden in November. Mike Pence will be the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate.

Subsequently, the Republican Convention focussed heavily on the economy, which had been strong before being devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. It also directed its attention on law and order (amid weeks of Black Lives Matter protests that have persisted nightly in some cities), on the danger of being overtaken by the “radical left” and also on the need to move forward in the area of trade by controlling China and also suggesting lines of guidance with regard to other trading partners from North America, the EU and also the Far East.

Over four days and nights the Republican political leadership in general and Trump’s family in particular gave attention towards portraying the USA as a “Land of Promise”, “Land of Opportunity”, “Land of Heroes”, and “Land of Greatness”. They also accused the Democratic Party of disregarding radical elements within the continuing racial justice protest movement that have posed a threat to public safety.  

The Democrats countered the Republican Convention through nightly counter-programming that included nightly videos highlighting what they view as Trump’s biggest failures.

Turning now to the Democratic Convention which was convened before the Republicans, one needs to refer to Joe Biden’s “return to normalcy” speech. Many analysts have compared it with Warren G Harding’s slogan when he ran successfully for the US Presidency in 1920, with a campaign centred on healing, serenity, restoration and calming Americans after the trauma of World War One. Some have observed that Biden chose this approach because of the prevailing pandemic and the other associated factors. Biden billed his campaign as a “battle for the soul of this nation” and also observed that “it’s time for people to come together. This is not a partisan moment; this must be an American moment.”

Political strategists have in the meantime pointed out that Biden is trying to build a coalition within the Democrat paradigm. After the Obama presidency, a clear and significant divide appears to have emerged within the Democratic Party. On one side are the progressives, best embodied by Senator Bernie Sanders, who advocate pro-active government programmes and policies to address income inequality, racial injustice and environmental degradation. On the other side are the pragmatists, who preach more incremental change and bipartisan consensus. Biden appears to be closer to this camp. Biden in his speech on 20 August tried to steer a middle course. It was noted that while he paid tribute to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, his speech was light on ambitious, big-government rhetoric.

Through this he was also seeking the support of disaffected Republicans and independents. He also interestingly noted that while he will be the Democratic candidate, he will “work as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did”. His love for humanity was also upheld through the intervention of Brayden Harrington, a 13-year-old boy with a stutter who spoke of how he was befriended and counselled by Biden, who himself had dealt with a childhood stutter.

There were moments big and small for Biden that reflected on his leadership potential. The big ones were mostly around his selection of Kamala Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants as his running mate. She has been in the spotlight of the national media for some time, having campaigned for President in 2019. Kamala Harris has also been the first African-Asian American to serve as California’s Attorney General, the top lawyer and law enforcement official in America’s most populous state. By choosing her, Biden reflected the growing diversity of the Democratic Party. 

It would be important to recall here what happened in 2016 - the last time the US Presidential election was held. That year, Hillary Clinton led in the polls and won nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump. However, she still lost. That was because the US uses an Electoral College system where winning the most votes does not always win you the Presidential election. In the Electoral College system that the US uses to elect its President, each State is given a number of votes based on its population. A total of 538 Electoral College votes are the bench-mark. Consequently, a candidate needs to obtain 270 to win.

Many political analysts have noted that Joe Biden has been ahead of Donald Trump in national polls for most of the year. He has apparently hovered around 50% in recent weeks and has had a 10-point lead on occasions. This situation has been slightly different from that of 2016 when the polls were less clear. Just a couple of percentage points separated Mr Trump and his then-rival Hillary Clinton as Election Day neared.

At this juncture, polls in the battleground States look good for Joe Biden, but there is still a long way to go and things can change very quickly. 

The polls suggest Biden has big leads in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin - three industrial states his Republican rival won by margins of less than 1% to clinch victory in 2016. However, Trump’s campaign team will also have to be particularly worried about Iowa, Ohio and Texas where Trump’s winning margin was between 8-10% back in 2016 but, this time, he is neck-and-neck with Mr Biden in all three at the moment.

It would be important to highlight another factor which might make Biden’s path to victory difficult. US President Donald Trump continues to command the support of the majority of white and male voters in America.

It has now emerged that despite widespread social unrest and overwhelming national discontent over his dismal foreign policy record, notably on China, North Korea, and Iran- a majority among white and male voters have informed pollsters that they will vote for Trump again.

In this context it has been observed that based on the more conservative interpretations of the polls, Trump is leading Joe Biden by 7 to 9 percentage points among white male voters. This is almost as many points as he is trailing Biden among all Americans nationally. It has also recently been revealed that about 55 percent of white Americans believe that white people experience racial discrimination. Some 84 percent of white Republicans also reckon that their country has already gone far enough in giving Black people equal rights.

US media outlets appear to have been rather timid in highlighting or discussing the issue. Media have on the other hand been paying attention on how there has been a slow change among, white women, white college graduates and white senior citizens. They have refrained from tackling the issue of consistent support for Trump among whites. This, at the end of the day, might make the difference.

It needs to be noted however that Biden seems to be conscious of this. Consequently, unable to break Trump’s hold on the majority of white and male voters and also white evangelists, he is focusing on his high support among female and minority voters to help him win the race. This has obviously persuaded Biden’s team to select Kamala Harris. They, in all likelihood consider that choosing a woman of colour as his running mate will inspire and motivate the diverse Democratic base to come out and vote in large numbers in November.

Now we have to wait and see what happens.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance