Opinion Piece: Remember, Remember the 3rd of November – What the US Elections Mean for the World and How They Will Be Won
A look at the 59th Quadrennial US Presidential Elections, how they will be won, and their ramifications for the world order
To commence tritely, a week is long time in politics, but in the prevailing US iteration it is a quantum distortion of the space-time continuum. Writing this a week ago would have given it a different complexion. The protests of the past days, many of which have turned into incendiary riots, have shown that the America of today is no longer fit for purpose. If an arguably brazen lack of preparedness for and handling of the coronavirus was the kindling, the dramatic exposure of divisions in society more or less down party lines the logs, then this fresh hell under an all too familiar veil is the long and possibly wind-proof match.
This is a country shaken to its core in the last few months and it reminds us on what foundations it was built, swampy ones. How so? Arrive; deceive, infect, and slaughter the ostensibly primitive (if you can live in judicious peace and harmony with your fellow man and ecology, why reinvent that wheel?) but spiritually superior, at-one-with-their-surroundings natives; impose own religion to justify heinous actions and maintain order; build prosperity on the backs of other at-one-with-their-surroundings natives from across an ocean: captured, chained, culturally castrated, culled at leisure; keep using religion to justify heinous actions; obfuscate grizzly, racist verses of a national anthem held up to be a smiling symbol of freedom, prosperity, and equality trumpeted out at every and any given occasion; don’t teach school children about the slaughter of the people who were here first; religion keeps rearing its misappropriated head; harken at every turn to and cherry-pick from a 250 year-old document to justify the enduring and deeply unequal status quo. President Trump forcefully clearing peaceful protesters of a grievous issue, the flames of which he has done nothing to unfan, from a Washington church for a photo opportunity with a bible – religion misappropriated once more. The grievous issue – police (AKA ‘white’) brutality against African Americans – chaining and culling once more. Values will seep into policy and define this presidential race. How they are debated will shape the policy of the most impactful nation on the planet for years to come.
Electoral Battlegrounds and Polling
With new polls showing his positive rating lower than the usual 35-38%, Donald Trump surely has to win every swing state in order to be re-elected. In a new Reuters poll, only 33% of Americans disapprove of the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death. The President’s heavy-handedness with the protesters along with the ‘stunts’ at the two churches seem to even be offending his hitherto inalienable base. Just yesterday, neoconservative political analyst Bill Kristol was telling an NBC interviewer that a devout, pro-life, deeply conservative born-again Christian friend of his was so offended by the President using the bible as a prop that he was going to vote for Biden. With this being the case, the President might count himself lucky to have approval ratings above 30%.
Vice-President emeritus Biden has a 65%+ chance of winning, but the endurance of the riots could allow Trump’s message of hard-nosed law and order to resound, the more so given most of these riots are taking place in Democrat-controlled cities in Democrat states where local police forces have been rolled over and the liberal pulpit has failed to appeal to people’s higher natures. How do the Democrats level their liberal idealism alongside a promise to maintain order when some of these, ‘blanket blue’, protesters have failed to steady their buffs? The problem the Democrats face for the second time in four years is not so much their opponent, but their choice of candidate. When they could arguably do with rekindling the youthful, generational leadership of JFK, who they do they have on the ticket but the most knackered, albeit highly respected, one-time stallion in the yard.
Biden was the youngest elected senator, at 29, in US history, but he couldn’t be inaugurated straightaway because of archaic age restrictions. He was a much-admired VP under Barack Obama and seen by some as a surprising choice by the already iconic President emeritus, but not so for those who understood his popularity amongst African Americans. So, who are the people who will decide this election and where do they live? Suburban women went to Trump, not Hillary, in 2016, but came back to the Democrats in the mid-term elections two years later, along with the states that swung to the Republicans in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – those states will be the bellwether come November, so too Arizona and even Florida this time round. Suburban women could go back to Trump if any more women come forward with credible stories about being harassed by Biden. Given his otherwise impeccable reputation, credibility to any such story will be critical and his polling has not yet been hurt by the initial allegations. We will, come what may, see record turnout from women in November. Students of US political history will recall how women turned out to back Richard Nixon in 1968 under a not dissimilar political and socio-economic climate. African Americans turned out in record numbers for Obama and it will be close to that number again for Biden and fortunately for the Dems, 92% of this demographic votes Democrat. Seniors who may previously have voted Republican may punish Trump for whimsically putting their lives at risk through his cavalier handling of the coronavirus crisis (though rather like closet Conservative voters over here, what one might say to a pollster is a thing apart from the deed itself). Hispanic voters saw Trump as a tough guy who would protect their jobs back in 2016 but the separation of children from their parents at the Mexican border, an abject act of tough-guy cruelty, has worked against him.
Young people may not exactly dig old-timer Joe, but they will turn up if it means unseating Trump. Millennials and Gen Z make up 39% of the population but they did not show up in 2016 for ambivalence over Hillary’s messaging and an assumption that, despite not liking her one bit, she’d just win anyway. Fast forward two years to mid-terms and this demographic turned out in record numbers. 80% of them will vote Democrat which is not to say that 80% are Democrats – a good many identify as independent – but they vote on issues and to them, climate change, gun control, student debt and the like all align with the Democrats’ messaging. The same demographic turned out in the Primaries in surprisingly high numbers once more, albeit not to vote for Biden, galvanised instead by the more revolutionary candidates that were Mayor Pete, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie, and Elizabeth Warren (whose trajectory Trump somewhat derailed by nicknaming her Pocahontas over made-up native American ancestry for which she has since apologised). But remember this when looking at polling numbers – the youth does not participate as actively in polls – polls didn’t capture the enthusiasm for Mayor Pete – do not underestimate the mobilisation and enthusiasm of the youth vote. Trump has done more to galvanise the Democrats than the Democrats possibly could.
Where do we see the swing state polls leaning? RCP (Real Clear Politics) average spreads (%) as follows:
Michigan: Biden +4.2
Wisconsin: Biden +2.0
Pennsylvania: Biden +4.0
Florida: Biden +3.4
North Carolina: Trump +0.6
Arizona: Biden +2.5
Polls can be all over the place from week to week so they must be looked at directionally, but why do these states matter so much? Florida – the potentially pee’d-off elderly and riled-up Hispanics. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan (the rust belt) – hit hardest by the trade war with China and so too the Global Financial Crisis where unemployment was as high as 25% and blamed on the incumbent party (prior to Obama) and could be again. Despite the current high unemployment rate not being the President’s fault, these states might just feel like they need the protection of the state. It was a rational assumption, in 2016, that the rust belt would vote for Hillary – you had to look back to 1980s for an example of just one of those states voting for a republican candidate in a presidential election, but Hillary was a much-disliked candidate who barely bothered to campaign in them and it cost her the job. It is, however, a rational assumption that there will be little to no movement in both candidates’ core bases and as such, the voters in these swing states are all important. Trump did remarkably well among them in 2016, but he faces a much more popular opponent this time around.
Trump’s pre-COVID approval hinged largely on a booming stock market and commendably low unemployment, irrespective of whether his predecessor or he deserves that credit, as well as a toughness, which his predecessor was perceived by many to have lacked, with the ‘baddies’ that are Iran and China. The economy, first and foremost, has been his fallback, his trump card, and with COVID, it has suffered exorbitant unemployment with little in the way of security blanket. Per- and post-COVID, people’s care for their jobs, the economy, and crucially, drug prices, which are unaffordable for many families, have really come to the fore and this could hurt Trump to the tune that directional polling is humming. The issues of environment, climate change, and gun laws follow them in the bi-partisan pecking order, but expect security, of economy, of health, of (just) justice, and cultural values (cf. China) to form the vanguard. The September and October Consumer Confidence numbers, a measurement of security under another guise, reflect how Americans are feeling about their futures, the economy, their families, real estate, and the stock market. These numbers either help or hurt the incumbent and the level of unemployment come autumn will have a significant bearing.
The choice of running mate can often be a token affair (or individual), but not this time. Normally you’d plum for a respectable, harmless cheerleader with a warm smile, or the grey-man type, a ruthless behind-the-scenes operator a la Dick Cheney. Both iterations, crucially, quiet. Not until the youthful, bullish (and to be honest, excruciatingly-squeaky) Sarah Palin, whose candidacy was an attempt to better woo evangelicals, housewives, and those further to the right for a Republican candidate in John McCain who was perceived by some to be too centrist, but by all to be worryingly old, had there been such a deliberate effort to deploy a VP candidate as a weapon. Palin, the gun-toting born-again with questionable geographical and more concerningly, geopolitical, knowledge, self-styled ‘Pitbull in lipstick’, was a sketch writer’s Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. The VP candidates of this quadrennial cannot be like her and won’t be, but they will have to have something in the way of pulling power and genuine leadership credibility because, simply, their own running mates have toes dangerously proximate to two kickable buckets.
Biden has openly acknowledged that his venerable station in life is not an ideal quality for a man seeking this office and as such has publicly declared his willingness to be a one-term president. The selection of his VP is therefore, arguably, the most important in modern history. This writer is sticking his flag in the ground and telling you that it’s going to be a woman and the electorate must believe that she could run the country on day 2. The issues at play – she cannot be somebody, a la Elizabeth Warren, who would risk upstaging him by openly criticising his policies, who would be difficult to work with (she has that reputation in the Senate), for whom his policies would be insufficiently progressive, or who would risk being a lost Senate seat for the Democrats a few months after the Election (a successful VP nominee would have to relinquish their prior-held seat and a de-facto by-election is necessitated).
Despite a need to do more to reach out to Hispanic voters, I don’t think Biden will choose the albeit almighty-impressive Senator Cortez-Masto of Nevada who has leaped towards the top of the charts despite being the most unknown of all the prospectives. The frontrunner candidate is, almost doubtlessly, Kamala Harris. She has not long been a senator, but that is merely demonstrative of her (relative) youth and previous tenure as Attorney General of California by which means she has already, crucially, been vetted. Importantly for somebody Biden will really feel he can work with she is not as progressive as an Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Mayor Pete, and he has an already strong connection with her. Her not being viewed as too progressive should not be downplayed – Biden cannot afford to miss out on republicans disenfranchised by Trump, especially in the rust belt. She would appeal to both African American and Asian American voters because of her ancestry, and despite some thinking she would be a terrible idea, it is arguably hers to lose. Highly tempting must be the 30-year-old phenom of the Democratic Party, elected a congresswoman at the age of 29 prior to which she had been an activist working part time as both waitress and bartender, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. She has a pretty gigantic social media presence relative to her fellow members of Congress, 4.5 million followers on Instagram alone, and has described her Puerto Rican community (she grew up in New York’s Bronx) as an amalgamation, stating, “we are black; we are indigenous; we are Spanish; we are European.” She’s already appeared on the front cover of Time magazine and would have Obama-esque wow-power. Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Senator John McCain, and host of prominent talk-show The View, said that there were more paparazzi waiting for Miss Ocasio-Cortez outside her studio than there were for pop-culture and rapping sensation, Nicki Minaj. She would appeal to the young, to African Americans, to Hispanics, not risk alienating white liberals, and could even appeal to certain blue-collar Republicans, but will be let down by the need to send a more reassuringly-conservative message to jumpy swing state voters more concerned with putting bread on the table than enacting rafts of green and minorities-related policies. There’s her age too… On a such a lofty ticket within the next 8 years, however, assuredly.
A little briefer on Trump’s choice of VP and it may surprise many to hear that he is seriously considering fighting fire with fire and choosing a female running mate of his own and shockingly, yes, pussy-grabbing comments and all, there are women who support him and would gladly/with gritted teeth run alongside him. This would mean somewhat cruelly dispensing of the steady Mike Pence who is a good deal more popular than many would credit him for, especially amongst Democrats in Washington for whom he is the only door into the White House, keeping the light on and being willing to listen to concerns from all sides. Nikki Haley (née Rhandawa), the immensely popular former US Ambassador to the UN, first female governor of South Carolina, and first female Indian-American governor elected in the US would be the clear choice. Her brother served with the US Military in Desert Storm and her husband is a National Guard officer who served a tour in Afghanistan. She also happens to have become a friend of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka. In the run-up to the 2016 elections, then presidential candidate Trump attacked her on Twitter after she said he should release his tax returns. Her response to his characteristic jibe was a deftly-placed piece of backhanded Southern charm, “Bless Your Heart”. Right, so why choose her? She’s popular, she’s charismatic, has military connections, and has genuine credibility in the private sector having sat on Boeing’s board which she rather laudably left over her conviction that the airline manufacturer should not accept a whopping-great government bailout during the coronavirus crisis. To give her even more credibility, at least from a PR perspective, The Economist described Haley as a politician with high approval ratings who possesses a combination of “fiscal ferocity and a capacity for conciliation”. What a VP battle we could have on our hands.
To be a little punchier here, this is what this election and a possible Biden victory means for the most important and polemic nations on the planet.
Iran – Biden wants to negotiate a new nuclear deal. Bringing them back into the world economy and slowing down their access to nuclear technology is important for global stability.
Saudi Arabia – Trump shows unconditional support for MBS, the crown prince currently twisting the nobs of power. Biden’s support will be conditional on them pulling out of Yemen, making progress on human rights, and MBS taking responsibility for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. MBS is personally viewed with some suspicion and concern in Washington over his recklessness.
Russia – don’t underestimate the residual anger about interference in 2016. They got away with interference more than actually throwing it to Trump, but it could mean a new round of sanctions should Biden prevail.
China – assumption that Biden, as an incrementalist, will be softer on China. There has been a fundamental and permanent change to the US’s relationship with China because of what this virus has revealed about the regime’s smoke and mirrors and naked self-interest (cf. effectively exporting the virus around the world, manipulating the WHO, attempting to subjugate Taiwan, suppression measures in Hong Kong). Trump deserves credit for standing up to China for their years of trade behaviour and IP theft, but he was not tough enough on human rights violations, especially regarding the Uighur Muslims. Biden will know the relationship needs redressing – trade will be a flashpoint, so too the ongoing 5G debate and its current world-leading manufacturer, Huawei, which he will want to shut out of US telecommunications networks – in 3 years’ time, Samsung or Nokia Eriksson will have gazumped Huawei, however. Chinese investment vehicles will also need to be kept out of US capital markets and from a human rights perspective, Hong Kong and the Uighur will need proper addressing. China’s approval rating has flatlined in the US – the view is that they poisoned Americans and crushed their economy. The decoupling had begun before the crisis which only accelerated it. This gives the presidential victor domestic carte blanche to deal severely with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), holding their ideology up to the world as a poison, whilst back-channelling to salvage an economic relationship.
Hong Kong – of greater ideological importance to US voters than we might think. There was outrage at Chinese NBA (basketball) players who came out in support of the CCP during the protests. This disapprobation has permeated pop culture as well as politics – complaints galore over the Disney channel’s cow-towing to the Chinese nationalistic agenda via its tv show rendering of Mulan. Hong Kong has become a flashpoint of us vs you from a values point of view.
Domestic policy – not as meaningful if the Democrats don’t win the senate, but if they do, there will be a significant rise in taxes to fund biggest infrastructure project, sorely needed, in US history, There will be a structural revolution on climate change – green reforms – carbon tax. Americans will be put back to work, in part through mammoth public infrastructure spending. Racial inequality will also be actively addressed should Biden prevail.
The UK – do we get shunted to the back of the queue in our post-Brexit state, as Obama made explicit during his tenure, without a second term for Trump? We are not the military might of old but are still a key diplomatic ally and bridge over many troubled waters for the US. It is hard to see Biden prioritising us, but his administration will likely not abandon us either. How far trade deal talks have already progressed behind the scenes will have a reasonable bearing on whether, frankly, we get left in the dirt or not.
What still gives DJT a chance
From the point of view those who feel ‘looked down upon’ and ‘jeered at’ by supposed elites, keeping the country closed looks suspiciously like Washington only caring about the coasts (again). A lot of coastal workers (read, ‘elitists’) are perceived to be happy as Larry working from their sitting rooms, the paycheques continuing to roll in, but that is not the story for a large portion of the population, mostly in central states, who need to be physically present at their place of work in order to earn. To a lot of these voters, Trump is still very much their guy, not because the Billionaire from New York City is somehow one of them, but because he stands between them and the elitists who scorn him and them. Suicide hotlines have seen a 2,000% increase in caller volume in the last 2 months and the opioid crisis at terrible levels – the country being locked down does nothing to help those in an already vulnerable socio-economic position: non-salaried workers; contractors; hourly workers. The well-heeled afraid to catch even a cold – suits them just fine.
Deep State – it appears to be only conservative media looking into ‘Obamagate’ and is likely to be taken seriously only by Trump’s already immoveable core base. Nonetheless, there are insinuations that the Democrats knew there was no Russia collusion but went ahead with pressing charges anyway. Biden is the establishment man and Trump may try to cast himself as the rebel once more.
Trump may be OK on the economy – 66% of Americans felt the economy was headed in the right direction at the beginning of the year and new CNN polling suggests Trump is ahead on the economy in the battleground states, but enduringly-high unemployment could hurt Trump if swing voters feel desperate about their own futures, even if they commend his economic performance.
The UK massively misjudged the youth turnout on Brexit and in the last election – could the US make the same mistake, and could Biden end up losing a significant number of projected voters?
Media is the most disliked industry in the US – because of its perceived elitism. Fox News is number 1 for a reason (7x the viewership of CNN), but Fox’s star presenter, Anderson Shephard, still only gets 300k viewers a night. The media live in an echo chamber and believe themselves much more important than they really are. For all the hair-pulling and, as Fox News viewers might see it, self-righteous disapprobation of the liberal media, their messaging dies at coastal state lines.
Trump can only improve his position by choosing a new VP to run with him whilst Biden could only damage his, rather than improve it, by the choice of his own. Even if the economy points skywards, Trump has committed certain errors in 2020 that may just prove to be unforgivable. Laying down lives at the altar of his own re-election chances may have actually awoken the ire of blue-collar workers the nation over, not just of those sent back into infectious factories mid-crisis who would have voted Democrat anyway and not been lost votes for Trump. There was also Trump’s Dettol plus UV suggestion as a cure for the virus though that is likely to have been largely forgotten. The biggest mistake he might have made in his entire presidency could have been in the last week – condemning and assailing peaceful protesters, fanning the flames of racial hatred, and worst of all… using the bible as a prop. The people may finally be sufficiently outraged to give Trump the boot and the country the moral and values-based overhaul it just might need. The polls point directionally towards as much in any case and perhaps, with the appointment of a black mayor of Ferguson, Missouri – the place the Black Lives Matter movement was spawned – as well as the dethroning of a white supremacist senator in Iowa and the church publicly condemning the president, the sands of time have shifted. Voter turnout is the key and greater numbers, which would have favoured the Democrats in 2016 but failed to materialise, will likely hand Biden the keys to a building he already knows so well.
By Ed Downpatrick – Strategy Director, Fintuity