What makes a president in November?

Ezzat Ibrahim
Tuesday 20 Oct 2020

Could the upset that took place in the 2016 US presidential elections when Donald Trump won the presidency despite losing the popular vote happen again in November

The course of the US presidential elections, which will be held on 3 November, have changed unexpectedly in recent months, as the Covid-19 pandemic has strongly disrupted the campaign of current US President Donald Trump. 

His campaign team was almost sure of his ability to win the presidential race nine months ago against the background of a strong economic performance and declining unemployment rate in the US. But the coronavirus has given the Democrats an irreplaceable opportunity to return to the White House in January 2021, despite the many areas of weakness in the performance of their candidate Joe Biden and his unusually confused campaign that many consider to be a shadow of that of former US president Barack Obama.

After leaving hospital last week, Trump addressed a speech to the American nation that relied on two clear strategies, the first being to maximise “fear”, especially among undecided voters who tend to vote for the Republican Party, and to emphasise that the American left under Biden would launch a crackdown on the police. Biden had betrayed law-enforcement and African-American and Hispanic voters, and he would not be the best option to lead the nation, Trump said. 

In his second strategy, Trump touched on the Democratic Party candidate’s economic programme and began attacking Biden’s economic doctrines. He said that the Democrats’ programme was “socialist” and may be “communist”. Talking about his proposals for healthcare in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, Trump said that he would present a new programme that was better than Obama’s. 

In an effort to contain voters’ anxiety about unemployment, Trump also said that unemployment rates among blacks and young people had fallen to unprecedented levels. But he did not pay attention to the violence and strikes that have broken out in a number of states due to the police killing of citizens in recent months, and he said that crime rates had decreased.

These statements reflect Trump’s fear that the economic situation, ethnic unrest and losses due to the spread of the coronavirus could mean he will lose the elections in November.

The American electoral scene over the span of 50 states can be difficult to comprehend in all its difficult details outside the United States and perhaps within it as well due to the great diversity and disparity in positions between ethnic, religious, and ideological groups and the difficulty of understanding the electoral system itself and the fact that it is the focus of attack today in an unprecedented way. 

This is for two main reasons. The first is that voting by mail represents a major factor in determining the winner of the elections, and it is being criticised by the Republicans and Trump because of their scepticism over the states’ ability to oversee a fair voting and counting process based on previous experiences in presidential elections. 

The second reason is that the Democrats are making a remarkable effort to undermine the credibility of the Electoral College system, which has been in place throughout US history without major change. The system gives Republican candidates and conservative blocs an advantage even if they lose the popular vote, on the most recent occasion in 2016 when Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate, won by three million votes and nevertheless lost the elections because of the Electoral College system. 

The Republicans say they oppose ending the Electoral College or amending its current form because it gives small states the opportunity to participate in deciding the new incumbent of the White House in the face of the votes of the large states and urban areas that traditionally vote for Democratic Party candidates. 

The Republicans also base their rejection of any amendment to the Electoral College on the claim that Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 with the votes of only one sixth of the US states, concentrated in the Northeast and Northwest, without winning a majority of the rest of the states. 

The process of questioning the voting system and the indirect voting by delegates in the Electoral College appears to be a prelude to a turbulent scene after 3 November, unless one candidate wins the elections in an overwhelming manner.


With the electoral system continuing as it is, there is a battle going on between the Democratic and Republican candidates in the swing states, which are the states in which the result of the vote can be decided by a small difference in numbers.

The number of such states has increased significantly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, although the largest battle will take place in three swing states. These states, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, narrowly won by Trump four years ago, could decide the results of the November elections. Today, independent voters in these states feel the burden of poor economic conditions and of the chaos in the country due to the rhetoric used by the US far-right, one of the main supporters of the Trump campaign. 

Trump has not succeeded in achieving what he promised four years ago, when he promised the so-called “Rust Belt” states in parts of the American Midwest and Northwest witnessing difficulties in reviving their stalled industries that he would combat competition from China and stop the exit of American investment to foreign markets.

There is a race against time within the Trump campaign over how to win the various “belts” for which American politics are known, such as the “Rust Belt” and the “Bible Belt”, for the Republican candidate, the latter being made up of states in the southeast from Virginia to Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and Missouri.


Biden’s weaknesses also cannot be overlooked in the context of the race for votes in the swing states. 

In the light of the health of the Democratic Party candidate, there are concerns among independent voters regarding a possible Biden presidency. Many of them may turn to the difficult choice of voting for Trump instead, as a section of the electorate fears that Biden will disappear from the scene during his presidency, which means that his deputy Kamala Harris will replace him as president.

Biden and Harris have been unable to overcome the trust gap with the progressive camp in the Democratic Party. Supporters of former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders have levelled sharp criticisms at their unclear or indecisive positions in the election debates. Biden’s apparent health problems have also settled the positions of undecided voters in the swing states, and these voters may decide the decision of the Electoral College by a narrow margin.

Three issues that have crystallised the gap between what progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party want are taxes, the Supreme Court and the climate issue. The lack of clarity of the party’s candidates on these issues has led some Democratic-leaning parts of the electorate to lose their motivation to participate on election day. Moreover, receiving more points in public-opinion polls does not necessarily mean much for the final result. Winning the popular vote, unless it is translated into votes in the Electoral College, could mean a new loss for the Democrats, and this is a lesson that is looming again as it did in 2016.

The next 20 days will witness escalating excitement and a new urgency in winning the votes of voters in a number of swing states in the South and Midwest in contrast to the voters in the Northeastern and Northwestern states that have already decided. It is difficult to verify the ability of either of the candidates to achieve an advantage in the former states in their favour. The ghost of the 2016 scenario thus appears once again, this time with changes in the circumstances and details.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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