H I G H L I G H T S
• US election race is tightening
• Republican campaign strategy
• Race not the card it was
• Covid and the undecideds
• Two party conventions
• Indians as future faces
• Intra-party Battles
US election race is tightening
After months of showing US Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, comfortably ahead of President Donald Trump, the opinion polls show Biden’s lead in most swing states starting to shrink. Realclearpolitics.com’s aggregate numbers of local polling in the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona show Biden’s lead shrinking from 6.3% in late July to 3.3% in early September.
Other pollsters label Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia, Texas, Arizona and Georgia as battleground states as well. Once solidly conservative states like Texas, Georgia and Virginia have been leaning increasingly blue since 2016 going by local election results. Minnesota and Wisconsin, however, are shifting in the other direction. But all of them remain too close to call with Biden’s or Trump’s lead within the statistical margin of error. State-level polling is infamously poor in quality with sample sizes as small as 400 voters and margins of error of as much as 4%.
This tightening is less evident at the national level. Biden’s 9 plus percentage point lead in late July is a still healthy seven per cent. However, the national vote is less important than state-by-state results because of the US’s electoral college system. Democratic candidates have traditionally had their support overly concentrated in large, urbanised states which ensured they handily won the national vote. They would lose the electoral college as it is weighted in favour of less-populated states in the Midwest and South. This gives the Republicans, my some calculations, a built-in two percentage points advantage in their meta-margin – the margin of votes needed to swing elections.
Both candidates launched their physical campaigns in the first week of September and have targeted swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Wisconsin is particularly volatile following riots in the town of Kenosha triggered by the police shooting of an unarmed black American, Jacob Blake.
Minnesota is a template of battleground state politics in the present US election. Trump lost the state by a mere 45,000 votes and is known to be obsessed with how close he came. He publicly says he would have won if he had made “one more speech” there. The state has voted a record 12 election cycles for the Democrats but poor education levels and declining income among its white working class has meant non-urban Minnesota has turned increasingly Republican. Biden’s lead in the state is just one or two percentage points. It was the murder of George Floyd by police in the state capital Minneapolis that sparked the present wave of urban unrest and laid the basis of Trump’s law and order election platform.
Republican campaign strategy
Republican Party campaign managers say their strategy is to draw attention away from the pandemic and economic recession and instead focus on a “narrow set of cultural issues.” The president has hammered away at liberal-left “cancel culture” and the reinterpreting of large portions of US history and tradition. He and his party have hinted a Biden administration would mean uncontrollable racial riots across the country, the imposition of socialist economic measures and an authoritarian political system. Biden and his vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, are portrayed as radical leftists. Facebook ad spending by the Republicans between May and August show the bulk of the advertising has been on the themes criminal justice, defunding the police, fake news and socialism.
With some difficulty there is an attempt to portray Trump as less divisive and more decisive. He had a number of minority speakers at the Republican convention to reassure educated whites that he is not racist. Of particular importance are “wobbly Republicans” who are unhappy with Trump but reluctant to vote Democrat. One of his strengths is that a majority of voters have a greater confidence in his ability to handle the economy than there have in Biden’s.
But many rightwing commentators believe Trump will simply double down on his “disruptive” presidential style and try to persuade voters that this is the right response to the pandemic, China and economic recession. This reflects a view that it is impossible to change Trump’s idiosyncratic ways so it is best to convert them into an asset. As a politico.com dissection of the Republicans noted, “Trump’s party is the very definition of a cult of personality. It stands for no special ideal. It possesses no organizing principle. It represents no detailed vision for governing. Filling the vacuum is a lazy, identity-based populism that draws from that lowest common denominator.” If this mobilizes the base of the party and enough moderates can be made to question Biden’s competence, say supporters of this strategy, Trump should squeak through.
Race not the card it was
President Trump’s wants to play the race card but he will find it has less resonance with the US electorate than in the past. One, public opinion on race relations and police misconduct has moved leftward. Sixty percent of white Americans admit racism is a “big problem” in their society, three times more than a decade ago. Two in three say incidents like Floyd’s death reflect broader problems in US law enforcement. A CNN/SSRS poll in June showed voters saying race relations would be a more important factor in deciding their vote than the economy, health care and the pandemic – albeit by a slender margin.
Two, though opinion has hardened against the protestors, the public remain largely supportive. In June, 88% of white Americans felt peaceful protests were justified. By August this figure had fallen by about 15 to 20 percentage points, but remained a plurality. There was also an increase in the numbers of people who felt the protests had gone “too far,” especially after the violent protests in Wisconsin, but only by five or six points.
Three, most US voters believe Biden would be better able to handle race relations than Trump. Polls in August and September were consistent in giving the Democratic candidate a 20 percentage point lead over Trump on this point. Biden even led Trump by about 10 percentage points when voters asked who had the better law-and-order policy and who would better handle the criminal justice system.
Large scale shifts among suburban voters, especially among suburban women, have made re-election more difficult for Trump. Suburban women were a group who helped put Trump in the White House. Their turning away from the Republicans helped the Democrats capture the House of Representative in 2018. The suburbs have become both larger and more diverse over the past several years making talk of “soccer moms” more difficult. The recent spate of race riots has led Trump to position himself as the “law and order” candidate to appeal to suburban women’s concerns about family security. But this important voting bloc sees the president as having exacerbating the racial divide and shown poor leadership.
Covid and the undecideds
Trump has received a boost from the Covid-19 virus. US cases peaked in late July and so did concerns among voters ,show data by Morning Consult. Positive views about the president’s handling of the pandemic have begun to turn northward. Between July 23 and August 21, the share of voters who say the virus is a severe health risk fell from 66 to 59%. In February Trump’s approval/disapproval rating regarding his handling of the virus was 36/59%. This moderated last month to 40/54% with the trend expected to be good news for the president. Trump has been marginally helped by agreeing to wear masks in public since end-July.
Ten percent of prospective US voters, with three months to go until the election, are still “undecided”. They haven’t made up their minds between the Republican and Democratic nominees, currently back third-party candidates or just don’t care. Analysts say there are fewer undecideds this year than in 2016, when a surge of last-minute converts to Trump among them helped decide the election. But it’s still a sizable enough —particularly in battleground states—to potentially determine the 2020 result. Who are the undecideds? They tend to be under 40, more likely to be female, half are white but Hispanics are disproportionately represented, and they are less likely to have a college degree than the typical registered voter.
Two party conventions
The Democratic and Republican party conventions were both virtual. The Democratic convention saw the selection of Kamala Harris as vice-presidential candidate, the first person of either Indian or African origin to be so chosen in the US. Neither Biden nor Trump received a sustained bump in the ratings following the conventions. Biden’s speech carefully avoided mentioning Trump once, spoke largely about the need to bring the country together but avoided talk of his economic plans. Trump’s speech mentioned Biden 40 times and sought to portray the rival candidate as an ideological extremist. The historical record shows incumbent president’s rarely rise above their post-convention rating. The last person to do so was George H.W. Bush in 1992 and his ratings were insufficient to ensure victory.
The New Yorker ran a lengthy history of the party convention, noting that no presidential candidate even showed up at the conventions until 1932 and it was not until 1968 that the state-level primaries actually got to decide who the candidate was.
Indians as future faces
The Republican Convention had prominent speaking roles for Nikki Haley, the Indian-origin former US ambassador to the United Nations and ex-governor of South Carolina, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Both praised Trump, highlighted his foreign policy successes and then spoke about their own diplomatic careers. “Both of them have an eye on 2024,” said Mark Groombridge, who served as a Republican political appointee at the United Nations. Republican insiders say both Haley and Pompeo are both contenders for the Republican presidential ticket. Haley also spoke of the racism she had faced as a child of Indian immigrants and defended the Republican Party against claims it was institutionally racist. Pompeo may return to domestic politics after the present election while Haley, if Trump is victorious, is expected to join the cabinet, possibly as secretary of state.
Haley used the convention to advertise herself to Trump’s support base but laid out a more moderate rightwing stance with a reminder of her Indian origins and her removal of the Confederate flag as South Carolina’s state symbol.
Another convention speaker was a black American, Senator Tim Scott. Scott is the first black American to be Southern senator since the Reconstruction, the period just after the American Civil War. That he should represent South Carolina, a state historically seen as steeped in the culture of slavery and racism, was a telling sign of Haley’s influence. Both Scott and Haley, in turn, were helped by a revolt against the Republican political establishment by the so-called Tea Party movement over a decade ago.
Kamala Harris has attracted an enormous amount of coverage. She also represents a newer and more flexible concept of race in US politics. Harris has made no bones that she identifies as a black American. “I’m black. And I’m proud of being black. And I was born black and will die black,”she has said. But she is also explicit about her Indian origins but insists she prefers to be called simply “American.” In her interviews she has emphasised that racial identity in the US has moved beyond a black-white binary. University of California Riverside political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan, a specialist on race and politics, has argued, “What she calls her Indian heritage is more intimate, private and familial. Her black identity is more community and more political. This is true of all of us. People have very complex dimensions to their identity.”
Besides the presidency, the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate seats will also be up for election in November. And each of these contests has required primary races to choose the candidates for either party. Until this election, an incumbent congressman was almost guaranteed to be given his party’s ticket. This year has been marked by remarkable intra-party campaigning, with a younger more ideological generation running against the establishment candidates of both parties.
Left-liberal candidates, backed by the Progressive Caucus and other such groups, have promoted a number of successful challenges to long-standing congressional leaders. Progressive representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been endorsed a number of challengers who have led to the unseating of long-standing congressional leaders like Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. The Democratic establishment has responded with Speaker Nancy Pelosi unusually declaring her support for a challenger to Senator Ed Markey. Similar instances have been seen among the Republicans with different party leaders backing different candidates in the primaries.
This breakdown of congressional electoral culture means candidates with stronger ideological messages will become more prevalent than before. Republican insurgent Matt Gaetz was quoted as saying, “The old ways of Washington empower leadership through money. But we’re starting to see that the message and movement may be more important than money.” Social media, crowd funding and the fragmentation of institutions are making it harder for establishments to shield incumbent candidates.
(The views expressed are personal)