If the US presidential elections were held today, then judging by the national polls the next US president would be the Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden.
Biden has been consistently ahead of his Republican Party rival, incumbent President Donald Trump, by double digits, and the most recent national poll gives Biden a clear edge of 52 per cent of the vote versus 42 per cent for Trump. Even with a margin of error of three per cent, it is still clear that the Democratic candidate is way ahead of his Republican rival.
However, the national polls are no longer reliable. In the 2016 presidential elections, the polls predicted that Hillary Clinton would be the winner, but Trump won and became the 45th president of the United States. It is true that Clinton received 2.1 per cent more of the popular vote than Trump, but the US president is elected not by the popular vote but rather by the Electoral College, a unique system that assigns a certain number of electors to each state depending on its size and population. The Electoral College is made up of 538 electors, and the candidate that wins 270 of them is declared the president. So, it is not the national popular vote that counts but which states a candidate wins in order to attain 270 Electoral College votes.
In 2016, Trump won three states that traditionally vote for the Democrats, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Voters in all three states were persuaded by Trump’s promise to bring back jobs to America along with companies that had moved their operations to Mexico, China and elsewhere. If Trump wins the same states he won in 2016 on election day on 3 November, he will probably stay in the White House for a second four-year term effective 20 January 2021. But today’s situation is different from that in 2016.
Take Pennsylvania, for example (20 Electoral College electors), which Trump won in 2016. This state is the birthplace of his Democratic rival Joe Biden, who enjoys a seven per cent lead in it over Trump. The state of Pennsylvania is more likely to vote for one of its own, Joe Biden, even though he has chosen to live in Delaware, a neighbouring state, than it is for Trump. However, with a three per cent margin of error, one might have expected Pennsylvania to vote overwhelmingly for Biden, and not just to give him a seven per cent lead.
Michigan, the US auto-industry hub and where the largest Arab-American community in the US lives, was won by only 0.2 per cent of the vote by Trump in 2016, a very thin margin indeed. Michigan, which voted for the Democrats consistently between 1988 until 2016, will likely abandon Trump and vote for the Democratic candidate this year for two reasons. One is the high unemployment rate in the state, the result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the other is its large bloc of Arab-Americans, who disapprove of Trump’s policies in the Middle East. While the average American voter rarely cares about foreign policy as a factor in voting for a candidate, Arab-Americans, divided as they are, vote almost entirely on their foreign policy preferences.
Trump faces more challenges because of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial violence that has erupted in several states, including Wisconsin, the third traditionally Democratic state he won in 2016. Trump, who presents himself as a law-and-order president, has paid lip service to police reform and criticised peaceful protesters, even though some of his own armed supporters have engaged in violence against both peaceful demonstrators and looters. The demonstrators had taken to the streets across the country to protest against the killing of African-American men by white police officers.
Trump has also been accused of making false statements, and according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker database he made 20,000 false or misleading statements in the 14 months ending in July. An example of one of his false statements is his repeated declaration that the United States is “rounding the corner… and the numbers are plunging” in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic when in fact the death toll in the US is rising. As of 13 September, the country had lost about 200,000 people to the virus.
For his part, Biden has been accused of plagiarism, but nobody is focused on the accusation because it goes back to the 1980s when he allegedly lifted paragraphs from speeches by then British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock without attribution. He did the same thing with speeches by US politicians Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.
In interviews and town hall meetings organised by media outlets separately for the two men some important differences have been clear. Biden’s verbal stumbles have made voters worry about his mental fitness. If he wins in November, former US vice-president Biden will be the oldest ever president of the United States, turning 78 in November. Both Trump, who is 74, and Biden have been attacking each other because of age and ability to run the country. But Biden has difficulty finishing two complete sentences by himself and is never far from a teleprompter. Maybe voters would be more understanding if they knew he was still fighting a stutter he first suffered from when he was a child.
Trump, perceived to be an entertainer and a showman, seems unable to control his words because he does not adhere to the text of his speeches. One of his biggest blunders came when he publicly praised white supremacists marching in the city of Charlottesville in Virginia and killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old female counter-protester. While Biden is always in need of a teleprompter, his Republican opponent ignores his teleprompter at his own cost.
History both stands for and against Trump. Over the past four decades, no US president has failed to win a second term in office apart from one. On the other hand, no president in the history of the United States has ever won a second term while the economy was in decline. Trump had relied on a strong economy until the virus struck in February, causing not only 200,000 deaths but also millions of unemployed. For this reason, he is desperately pushing for an accelerated, even if unlikely, Covid-19 vaccine by 3 November, while hoping to reduce already declining unemployment rates.
In contrast, Biden presents himself as a former vice-president who helped former president Barack Obama turn the 2009 economic recession into a boom. His female running mate, senator Kamala Harris, will definitely attract the woman’s vote, and he enjoys the support of African-Americans. Harris is racially mixed. But this presidential run by Biden is his third, and he has failed twice before. Trump, who has been endorsed by police associations across the country, also counts on the support of two main blocs: white men living in rural areas with no university degree and Christian evangelicals, who for their own religious reasons approve of his unyielding support for Israel.
A few weeks before election day, Trump has succeeded in accomplishing normalisation between Israel and two Arab countries, the UAE and Bahrain. He has also persuaded Kosovo, a Muslim-majority country, not only to normalise economic relations with long-time foe Serbia, but also to recognise Israel. For those acts, Trump has been twice nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize that will be awarded in October 2021 long after election day has passed. And while foreign-policy achievements rarely influence how average voters in the US cast their ballots, they will certainly enhance Trump’s support among the evangelicals. His running mate, Vice-President Mike Pence, is also one of them.
Healthcare and climate change issues play in favour of Biden. But Trump, a vibrant performer, has spread fears among voters that Biden is influenced by a radical left agenda within the Democratic Party that wants open borders. “Under Biden America is not safe. If Biden wins China wins,” he says.
Although foreign policy is taking a back seat in the elections, China is an important economic rival of the US. As election day approaches, Americans also have other concerns to worry about. In California and several other western states, wild fires have been raging for months. And in Florida and several states in the south, hurricanes are threatening life and property. Biden and the Democrats say both the fires and the hurricanes are the result of climate change, and they accuse Trump of being in denial. Indeed, when Trump, who has pulled the US out of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, was urged recently to listen to the science, he said “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
So, Biden is leading in the polls at this moment, but can he maintain his edge on 3 November?
In these uncertain times nothing is certain. The only certain outcome is that on 3 November, one of two men will be elected US president: either Joe Biden or Donald Trump. And as 3 November approaches, the race is tightening to perhaps meet the margin of error. For this reason, each side is forming a council of legal experts and teams of lawyers, as many expect the election results to be contested.
*The writer is a Washington-based lecturer and journalist.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly