The Race for the White House

By ALI ATIA


The 2020 general election will serve as a historic test of American democracy. The combination of a global pandemic, an economic downturn comparable to the Great Depression, and civil unrest on a scale unseen since the late 1960s, the leadup to November 3rd, and the outcome, will be unlike that of any election in recent history.


As the race stands, Democratic nominee Joe Biden is the clear favorite. Many pundits and commentators, drawing the wrong lessons from 2016, dismiss entirely the relevance of public opinion polling for predicting the outcomes of elections. But polling is the clearest representation of the stark contrast between this race and 2020. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump in most polling averages peaked at around eight points, with her support level never rising over 50%. By the end of July, Trump came within 0.2 points of overtaking Clinton. Polling averages now paint a remarkably different picture: Biden consistently achieves averages around 50%, and the gap between candidates rarely falls below eight points.


Why is President Trump doing so badly – and Biden so well? For one thing, the former is relying on a strategy which served him well as a challenger, but is unlikely to work for an incumbent: that of the maverick outsider. It is clearest in his reaction to protests and unrest around the country – the message being given to voters is not that the administration has been successful in responding to these events, but that they are representative of “Joe Biden’s America.” When he was a candidate, claims that he could challenge the ‘Deep State,’ “drain the swamp,” and generally challenge establishment politicians could appear somewhat credible in the eyes of disillusioned voters.


But now, it is Donald Trump who resides in the White House, not Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or any other Democratic scapegoat. So his message to voters – that only he can bring back law and order if elected – cannot work, because he already has been. In fact, according to an August 27 poll, 43% of voters believe the country would become less safe after a Trump victory, compared to 38% who believe the same of Biden. And recent falls in support for protest movements have not been accompanied by declines in Biden’s numbers, which have remained remarkably stable.


Biden’s success thus far is not just attributable to poor strategic choices by the Trump campaign. It is also a result of the fact that Joe Biden’s name is not Hillary Clinton. Unlike Clinton, who readily admits that “I can be perceived as aloof or cold,” Biden struggles less with perceptions of elitism and extreme unfavourability, particularly among those swing voters who were so essential to Trump’s victory. While almost half of voters had very unfavourable views of Clinton, only 35% do of Biden – and importantly, the same is true of independents, of whom only 31% view Biden very unfavourably compared to Clinton’s 51%.


President Trump’s 2016 win can be attributed in large part to his performance among white, non-college educated voters in the Rust Belt region of the Midwest. His margins in those states were razor thin: in Wisconsin, the tipping point of the election, 22,000 voters made the difference. In Pennsylvania, 44,000, and just over 10,000 in Michigan. Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pa., is doing far better among non-college educated white voters in those states than Clinton did. Though this group continues to make up one of Trump’s strongest sources of support, there are signs that Biden could draw enough votes, particularly from non-college educated white women, to flip at least one of those three crucial states back to blue. And Trump’s performance in responding to the coronavirus pandemic may have turned off some senior voters. This is particularly clear in Florida, where the polling gap between Trump and Biden has widened significantly since March, giving Biden around a 5 point lead.


Rural and elderly voters were instrumental to Trump’s success. But the suburbs, which Trump won by a five point margin nationally, cannot be ignored. At the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the end of August, the importance of moderate suburbanite voters, a group which Biden leads nationally, was made very clear. Rather than solely appealing to Trump’s base, the RNC endeavoured to reassure such voters that Trump’s rough edges do not define him, from a diverse set of speakers who emphasized that Trump “truly cares about black lives” to an impassioned speech by Ivanka Trump defending her father’s personal character. Republican outreach to moderates afraid of the economic outcomes of a Biden presidency may pose the greatest threat to Biden’s campaign, and his choice of Kamala Harris as vice presidential nominee, while it does not seem to have moved the polls much yet, may damage his chances. Trump’s new strategy may be effective: post-RNC polling showed a bounce for Trump nationally, particularly among suburbanites (though he still lags behind Biden by significant margins). Whether this narrowing will last is another question.


Predicting the winner of what is sure to be a close election in the Electoral College, if not the popular vote is difficult. Predicting the victor’s decisions once in office is not much easier. For one thing, within both camps exist competing sub-camps hoping to maximise their influence within the administration. The conflict within the Biden campaign reflects that of the Democratic Party at large – it is a divide between the more mainstream centre-left, and the far-left, embodied most vividly during the primary race by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Given the fact that Biden recently emerged from a months-long conflict with Sanders in which the former was cast as an uninspiring, establishment centrist, Biden is unlikely to serve as a “trojan horse” for the far-left faction. But the Trump campaign’s attacks contain a grain of truth: Biden has ceded much ground to the left, to the extent that a Biden administration would likely be among the most progressive in American history, for better or for worse.


On economic policy, for instance, Biden has accepted the leftist call for a $15 minimum wage nationwide. He has promised a reversal of some of President Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, including raising the corporate tax to 28%, among the highest in the developed world. And while Biden may roll-back some of the Trump administration’s tariffs, he has embraced protectionist rhetoric in an effort to win over Rust Belt voters. Perhaps the most telling indication of the far-left’s growing influence is in the Unity Task Forces' Policy Recommendations, a 110-page document released in July by the Biden campaign, compiled by six task forces seeking to unite the progressive and moderate factions. In the words of Bernie Sanders, who was responsible for much of its content, “the goals of the task force were to move the Biden campaign into as progressive a direction as possible, and I think we did that.”


A Biden administration’s foreign policy will backtrack on most of President Trump’s initiatives. Instead, following in the footsteps of President Obama, Biden is likely to take a significantly more multilateral approach, in stark contrast to Trump’s attacks on international institutions like the World Health Organisation. While such an effort would go a long way in reassuring allies increasingly alienated by the Trump administration, it may also lead to a repeat of Obama’s foreign policy missteps, among them a failure to commit to American action abroad when necessary in Syria, premature withdrawal in Iraq, and capitulation to the Iranian regime, an inability to deter Russia expansionism behavior in Ukraine, and an inadequate response to a rising China.


Despite Biden’s flaws, and the potential policy missteps his administration will inevitably make, there is little doubt that he represents the better choice for voters this November. We know what a second Trump term would look like. From his habit of conducting foreign policy by tweet to a catastrophic federal response to Covid-19, the worst national disaster in decades, the record is not exactly glowing.


A Biden administration does not promise a true return to American global leadership, or the rectification of all of the country’s domestic problems. What it does promise is a return to normalcy at home and abroad. After experiencing what four years under an outsider who vowed to shake things up is like, that’s really all voters can hope to ask for.


IMAGE - Flickr (The White House)