It appears that the incumbent in the Oval Office, Donald Trump, will be facing Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee in the next presidential elections. The former is uncontested in his own party. Despite the currents of spite and rancour in party ranks, Republicans have rallied behind their leader. Biden has not yet won the majority of delegates that will attend the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this summer. But with a majority of the primaries and caucuses out of the way, it looks like Biden no longer faces stiff competition from his main Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, and that much of the remaining time from now to the DNC will be about ordering ranks in preparation for the confrontation against Trump.
In addition to being a two-term sidekick to the Democrats’ hero, Barack Obama, Biden has a long record of public service as a congressman, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in many other political positions. These are strong advantages. But perhaps for the Trump camp, Biden’s candidacy comes as something of a disappointment. They had been hoping for Sanders, an easier target for them. Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist, which Trump’s mouth can easily reshape into a “communist” and other such fearsome epithets in order to spur a wave of anti-Sanders aversion and contrast himself against a spectre that would drive many borderline Democratic states to his camp. Not that Sanders would have necessarily been easy rival. His fundraising figures and large donor base alone attest to his strong popular appeal. But his health and education policies would make him paintable as a left-wing “extremist” whose extremism drove him, “though Jewish”, to criticise Israel and to champion Palestinian rights against the occupation.
However, if Trump could choose his adversary, his second choice would have been Biden whose campaign at the outset was so lackadaisical he was called “Sleepy Joe Biden”, mentally “not with it”, and infected by the leftist tendencies of his former boss, Obama. But now, the Trump camp must be recalibrating. Despite all the age and ideological challenges, a large array of younger and more energetic Democratic candidates including men and women and gays have been swept aside in the primaries, clearing the way for Biden.
Already the gloves are off. Trump has an amazing ability to fire the zeal of his political base and reap the votes he needs to win. We saw him in action against Hillary Clinton, the daughter of the US political establishment, of which Biden is also a member. However, the Trump offensive will avoid targeting the pragmatic Democratic establishment at first, at least not in the first phase up to the Republican and Democratic national conventions. That assault will be purely personal. In fact, Senate Republicans are currently ramping up a probe into Hunter Biden, the former vice-president’s son, on the very allegation that Trump tried to push, leading to his impeachment, the Senate trial and his acquittal by the Republican majority. Hunter Biden had served on the board of Burisma, an Ukrainian oil and gas company, at the time his father served as vice-president. Ostensibly, the probe seeks to determine whether the former vice-president abused his position in order to serve the company his son worked for. There is no evidence that either of the Bidens had committed wrongdoing and reports have discredited the allegations, even though some government officials have claimed that there was a conflict of interest between the vice-president and his son’s job at the time.
In all events, US elections are not won on the basis of personal mudslinging, as much as it might serve to fill a current media void. The real test is in the race between the two parties, the series of debates between them, and the various policy messages and pledges that ultimately attract voters. As we know, the Electoral College, which is made up of a certain amount of delegates from each of the 50 states, has the final say in presidential elections. For various historical, economic, social, cultural and even technological reasons, these states are traditionally either “Blue” (Democratic) or “Red” (Republican). It is practically impossible to imagine California or New York turning red or Texas or Oklahoma turning blue. In general, the states on the Pacific and Atlantic rims are blue while those in the Mountain States and the Southern States are red. However, there are a number of states where the balance between the urban “blue” and the rural “red” creates a purple hue, known as a “swing state” which, around election time, could go either way. The “purple” states are Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida.
Geography is not the only determinant of red versus blue. The social strata on which the parties depend are also a critical factor. In the 2016 elections, Trump relied on the white working class which makes up 44 per cent of the voters in the “purple” states. They rallied behind his policies opposed to China and moving factories to emergent industrial nations such as Mexico. The Democratic Party also has its base, consisting of minorities (African Americans, Latinos), women and college graduates. Historically, the party also traditionally appealed to the working class, but this has changed in recent elections. Essentially, a candidate’s success is contingent on his ability to garner the highest possible amounts of votes from his particular base and, simultaneously, to detract the highest possible amounts of votes from his opponent’s base. Often this entails homing in on policies of the adversary that have been the greatest source of disgruntlement among his base. In the US, the debates and rhetoric most often focus on such controversial subjects as gun laws, immigration, religious freedoms and gay rights. This year, all of Trump’s policies, successes and failures will be on the line in the debates.
But the incumbent has a great advantage in an election year. His policies can shape public opinion. On the other hand, he can be more vulnerable to criticism, as was just the case when Biden attacked Trump’s response to the Coronavirus crisis. Biden held that Trump’s decision to suspend flights to the US from the 26 Europe members of the Schengen zone was harmful to the US’s historical alliances and an example of the Trump administration’s mismanagement of the crisis. So, which of the two will prevail in November?
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly