The vote for America’s soul

Fawad Hasan Fawad examines the dynamics of the American electoral system, the red and blue divide and the key narratives in a vote which can determine the course of events across the globe

The vote for America’s soul
Listening to the first US Presidential debate last week, I could not stop thinking about the leadership crisis the world faces today in the midst of one of the most challenging periods of modern human history. Much that one would hesitate to say this, both the mannerism, contents and quality of the debate felt just like home — knowing that in less than a month, one of these gentlemen will be the most powerful elected leaders in the universe was virtually frightening. But then one of them has been the most powerful individual for the last four years and the heavens didn’t fall, so let’s hope that we survive another four too.

The election of the American President every four years has become a global event, not only for students of politics and history but for governments, institutions, leaders, academia, stock exchanges, big business and even civil-sector organizations across the world. In fact, no single event on the global calendar actually has the potential to determine the course of the world in all or most of these areas; as the votes cast and counted on the third day of November, every four years. While politics in the US and most of the modern democracies is traditionally driven by party platforms or manifestos as they are known in some jurisdictions, once elected to the job the office of the American president has overshadowed everything else.

Individuals like Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama left a lasting impact on not only their own parties and politics but far beyond the scope of state institutions and geographical boundaries. After the Second World War, the US presidential elections became more important as the US represented unprecedented progress and prosperity by providing an inclusive society which respected people for their ability rather than ancestry, hard work and commitment rather than wealth and even more, innovation and change rather than compliance. This made USA the dream destination for people from all continents in the second half of the 20th century.

Dynamics of Electoral College

It is important to understand how the electoral system works for these elections before analysing prospects of the candidates because the electoral college in US is unique in many aspects. The American constitution describes how many electors each state gets out of a total of 538 who elect the American president. The number of electors in turn are determined on the basis of a population census which is carried out every ten years. However, it is not that simple as irrespective of the margin of victory in each election and state, the presidential candidate winning the state gets all the electoral votes of that state in all but two states of Maine and Nebraska where the electoral laws allow a split. This is further compounded by the number of votes which some of the states carry which is disproportionately large to smaller states. In fact, it is possible for a candidate to be elected president without winning 39 out of 50 states altogether. Again one can become the president by winning just 11 out of 12 states including California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. In fact, he can get more than half of 270 electoral votes required for becoming president from only four states of California (55), Texas (38), Florida (29) and New York (29). Even more the sum total of electoral votes from the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and West Virginia are less than just the three states of Texas, Florida and New York. The fact that all electoral votes of a state go to the winning candidate, irrespective of the margin of victory, also makes it possible for someone to lose the popular vote and yet make it to the White House. This has happened five times in the elections of 1824, 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016 — the winner was always a Republican candidate. More recently in 2000 George W. Bush with 47.9 percent of the popular vote defeated Al Gore who polled 48.4 percent and in 2016, Donald Trump with 46.1 percent of the popular vote defeated Hillary Clinton who ended up with 48.2 percent. Many analysts have already ruled out the possibility of President Trump winning the popular vote altogether in 2020 yet they don’t write him off altogether at this stage even when he has been consistently lagging behind in opinion polls in most crucial states for the contest. An underlying reason widely recognized in this regard is that like 2016, both the candidates are widely disliked —  so it will stretch the fight to the last day with the one less disliked on that day winning the race. Still, the fact remains that Vice President Biden has consistently led the opinion polls on a national basis by a safe margin for the longest stretch.

Can VP Biden still lose?

Those considering the elections still repeatedly point out to his advanced age — he will be 78 on the date of inauguration, if elected and the alleged cognitive decline to which Vice President Biden has reacted angrily when confronted. On the other hand, President Trump is also 74 but oozes boundless energy every time he is in front of cameras. It is also argued that American voters have traditionally considered long experience in government a disadvantage as it makes one hostage to traditional bureaucratic systems. At the same time, they normally like to give a second term to the president to complete his agenda.

In the history of the United States, 14 vice presidents have become president, of which nine reached the office only because of succession i.e. death or assassination of the incumbent president. Out of the remaining five, only two; George H.W. Bush (who was the sitting vice president at the time) and Richard Nixon (non-sitting vice president) managed to get elected to the office of the president. Only three incumbent presidents lost a re-election bid, out of which one; Gerald Ford was not an elected president and came to office after President Nixon resigned. As such, only two elected presidents; Jimmy Carter in 1980 (losing to Ronald Reagan) and George H. W. Bush in 1992 (losing to charismatic Bill Clinton) failed to get re-elected. One must remember that both lost to exceptional candidates in rather unique circumstances.

The battleground: safe states or toss up?

All these facts and history aside, the actual battle is being fought on the ground. Both parties have significant voter base in each state but there are few where their traditional lead has remained intact repeatedly. Key statistics used to determine such states is the number of times such states have voted for a particular party and also the respective margin of victory. Called “safe states” for that particular party, they are also referred to as “blue wall” and “red wall” since the 2000 elections — blue wall representing the Democratic stronghold and red wall the Republican. The outcome of the elections in most of these states is pre-determined and it is very seldom that a party stronghold tosses up a different result. In the present campaign, this may change as more and more voters appear to be leaning towards Vice President Biden with the latest CNN poll showing him leading by a clear 16 percent margin. At the same time, every nine out of 10 voters (90 percent) in the poll said that they have already made up their mind while only eight percent said that they might change. However, the split of these eight percent votes is also in favour of VP Biden at the moment as those still open to a change include 10 percent of President Trump’s voters and eight percent of VP Biden’s. Put together, this is likely to ensure a return of blue wall states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which the Democrats lost for the first time in 2016, after four consecutive election cycles of 1992—2008. We may see a win for Democrats in at least some of the popularly Republican states on the pattern of 2008 when Barack Obama flipped red wall states like North Carolina (held by Republicans since 1976) and Indiana and Virginia (held by Republicans since 1964) as well as the 2004 Republican states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio. Ironically this list contains seven out of the eight states which are being considered “swing states” for 2020 elections along with Arizona in the South West.

The swing states

Florida (29 electoral college votes or ECVs) went Republican in 2004 and 2016 and voted for Democrats (blue) in 2008 and 2012. On September 22 this year, it showed a 1.6 percent lead for VP Biden in opinion polls. Pennsylvania (20 ECVs) which went Republican (red) in 2016 after voting for the Democrats in 2004, 2008 and 2012, showed a comfortable 4.9 percent lead for Biden on the 26th September, indicating a safe return to the blue wall. A Fox news survey on September 23 showed a five percent lead for Biden (49 percent to 44 percent) in Ohio (18 ECVs) which had voted red in 2004 and 2016 and blue in 2008 and 2012. Michigan (16 ECVs) did even better on the in the same survey with a 7.1 percent lead for VP Biden (49.8 percent to 42.7 percent) showing a swift return to the Democratic fold (as in 2004, 2008 and 2012) after voting for Republicans in 2016. North Carolina (15 ECVs) also appeared to be drifting towards VP Biden (46.9 percent to 45.4 percent) two days later on the September 25, although it had voted for the Democrats only once in 2008 in four election cycles of 2004 to 2016. On the other hand, Wisconsin (10 ECVs) which only voted red in 2016 for Trump during the same 16-year period was showing a massive return to Democrats with a 7.3 percent margin on September 24 (50.6 percent to 43.3 percent). The biggest surprise was reserved for Arizona (11 ECVs) which had voted red in all four election cycles but now leaning towards Biden by a 3.7 percent margin on September 22. However, fresh reports indicate a debatable reversal for President Trump in Arizona. The only exception in the swing states remains Iowa which showed a thin lead of 0.4 percent for President Trump (46.1 percent to 45.7 percent) after showing a 15 percent lead for Biden in July 2020. As such, VP Biden appears to be well in control of most if not all of the 125 electoral college votes in 2020 from the swing states which makes the job of upsetting the odds even more unlikely for the incumbent president.

Key narratives 

Close to the end of his third year in office, President Trump was doing fairly well in terms of election prospects in spite of an extremely divisive impact on the American society, an impulsive style of governance at home and an explosive diplomacy abroad. He appeared to be doing well on the economic front with the unemployment figures at an all-time low, a gradual but significant increase in manufacturing jobs at home, a booming stock-market, an apparently successful trade war with China and an increasingly assertive relationship with his NATO allies — asking them to contribute more monetarily for the alliance if it was to survive. He repeatedly called the United Nations to question on its role and threatened reduction in American contribution to its organizations and programs.

He declared climate change a “hoax” and repeatedly argued with experts and scientists on the validity of their key assumptions. He was vocal in expressing his disappointment on Pakistan’s alleged lack of cooperation in Afghanistan and his famous New Year tweet in 2018 sunk the bilateral relationship to an all-time low. He followed it up with a mix of coercive and astute diplomacy to achieve his objectives of Pakistani support for an early pull-out of forces from Afghanistan and a breakthrough of talks between Taliban and the National Unity Government. He expressed suspicion on President Xi’s Belt and Road initiative many times and declared India a strategic ally in his “contain China” policy. His rapid hire and fire tweets established a unique style of governance at this level as he continued to rattle all established norms of the White House with impunity. The fact however remained that 82 percent of Republicans approved his work and expressed complete satisfaction which meant that he had significantly improved upon his following from within the party from the time of his nomination and election. At the same time, only seven percent of Democrats thought that he was doing well which showed the divisive impact of his style of governance on the American socio-political landscape. His targets were very clear as he continued to appeal to a traditionally conservative and increasingly exclusive white voter base for the second term. However, the start of 2020 appeared to change his fortunes rapidly.

First the shut-down of the global economy post COVID-19 disrupted economic growth as financial markets, travel, shipping and other industries suffered badly and unemployment figures jumped back. Much of this would have been taken as a natural consequence of a global pandemic but for the unique style in which President Trump confronted it. Again, he opted to challenge public health experts in all areas and on all counts. With the death toll surpassing the dreaded 200,000 mark, the infections continuously on rise and his claims of getting a vaccine before end of the year rebutted by both experts and the pharmaceutical industry, his support rapidly dwindled even within his own party. On a national basis, he has also come under scathing criticism for a lack of leadership and even a fair understanding of the infectious disease. His shift to blame China for everything related to COVID-19 also didn’t find many supporters at home or abroad. Ironically this has also affected his brightest spot so far which was an economic boom and employment opportunities. His response in this regard was a typical Trump show, just plain and simple denial. This was also manifest in the first presidential debate as he insisted on carrying his tagline of having “made America great again” but he failed to come up with anything to support his claims other than just rhetoric.

The racial relationship in communities across America and the incidents of black deaths during his presidency particularly that of George Floyd in May this year has also done major damage to his prospects. With discrimination against blacks and police reform at the core of the debate, President Trump again opted for twisting by terming it as a racial discrimination issue, rather than anything affecting the black Americans alone. While this too hasn’t gone well with Americans at large, he has at least achieved the objective of rallying his far-right white supremacists behind him.

The issue of a pull out of American forces from Afghanistan and giving up the quest for “nation building” as an American strategic ploy altogether has good support from families that have lost their members to American adventures across the globe. The focus with which he has pursued this objective in spite of repeated dissensions from Pentagon and even his own team has a Trump stamp on it. One has to acknowledge that very few presidents would have played this against such odds and with such clarity. Having said that, one does feel that the actual pull out may not be the ultimate Trump objective and we may find a different narrative from him, if elected again, as he can change course very swiftly.

His biggest success so far in terms of potential impact on elections has been first the recognition of Israel by two front-line Muslim states of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the Middle East. Back in December 2017, when Trump announced recognition of disputed territory of Jerusalem as capital of Israel, everyone considered it potentially explosive for peace in Middle East. Yet in less than three years, Trump has surprised almost everyone by getting what all other US presidents failed to achieve; some success on integrating the state of Israel in to the largely Muslim Middle East with its long history of conflict on the issue of Palestine. All other issues aside, no one can undermine the impact of the strong Jewish lobby on the American politics.

President Trump has also succeeded in creating a bi-partisan consensus within the US to a large extent on the issue of trade dispute with China. Many believe his tactics to be unfair and a complete departure from the concept of free trade world that US itself championed since the formation of the WTO, yet he has done this with virtual disdain. While he may be pleased with himself so far, the fact remains that on the long-term the conflict is neither advisable nor sustainable. On the other hand, China and President Xi have responded to all this with usual restraint and trademark diplomacy. Those understanding the dynamics of mutual dependence of the global trading system argue that in the end it will be the United States which will suffer. However, with the appeal of bringing industrial production back to America being so strong and the political cost of even an academic challenge to this so high —  no one of note has even whispered against it across the political divide.

Having watched all this keenly over the last few years particularly after the famous Florida vote in 2000, I believe that this is now an election for VP Biden to lose. While one can always be prepared to see a trick or two from President Trump in the last three weeks leading up to the elections and also leave the space for the usual bad calls in opinion polls — I feel that the majority of American electorate has made up its mind on restoring some sanity to the system. While the society remains divisive, the American dream is still alive in their hearts. Over the last four years, the appeal of President Trump’s narrative became more and more isolated as it failed to demonstrate universality, equality and respect for the rule of law. The final nail in the coffin was perhaps when he referred to white supremacists as “very fine people” and followed it up with a rather poor performance by his own standards in the first presidential debate. With the global economic slow-down and rising unemployment, he is pitched against heavy odds which may not be solely mitigated by his successes in mainstreaming Israel, some positive progress in Afghanistan or even the bi-partisan consensus on containing China.

The writer is a retired civil servant from the Pakistan Administrative Service, a poet, public policy practitioner and a noted expert on the socio-political and economic development of Pakistan and the South-Asian region

The author is a civil-servant — former-Secretary to Prime Minister of Pakistan; a trained lawyer (LLM), poet, public-policy practitioner & an expert on the socio-political & economic developments of Pakistan and the South Asia region. He tweets @OfficialFHF | W: