The President of the United States is the most powerful political office of the world’s most powerful country. A US President’s foreign policy inclinations as well as his approaches on some domestic issues, such as on immigration and the environment, have significant political, economic and even social global impact. This is despite the presence of an American establishment which attempts at maintaining elements of policy continuity rooted in a broad, but never absolute, consensus. This is also despite the inherent checks and balances of the American constitutional arrangement. On account of these factors a US Presidential election is closely observed all over the world. The coming Presidential election which will be held on November 3 will attract more than usual international attention and will be of special interest to all major countries, including India, because never has a US President created such turmoil in as many aspects of global life as has Donald Trump.
The period after the Second World War demonstrates that an incumbent President begins with a great advantage over his rival. Only twice in this period has a successful challenge been mounted to deny an elected President a second term: Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election and Bill Clinton ousted George Bush in 1992. President Truman was eligible to run in the 1952 election but chose not to do so. The question in everyone’s mind now is if Trump’s poor handling of the COVID-19 health crisis and its devastating economic impact will help Joe Biden, the Democrat’s nominee, to send Trump out of the White House to join the ranks of Carter and Bush.
As of now most polls show that Biden is in overall lead. However, this does not mean that a Biden victory is certain. As the saying goes—a week is a long time in politics and there are still nine weeks to go till the polling date. And, in 2016 except for die-hard Republicans serious political commentators had written off Trump. So, had the polls. Therefore neither the present polls nor commentators can be relied upon. This is because the American voter, as his counterpart in all democratic countries, can and sometimes does, surprise pollsters and commentators. In the US it is also because the Presidential election is a complex exercise and is not decided by which candidate secures the highest number of votes nation-wide; if that was so Hillary Clinton who had secured around 3 million votes more than Trump would have won.
Technically, the US President is elected by 538 members of an electoral college. Each state of the country has a fixed number of members in this college based on its share of members in the House of Representatives plus the two senators that each state sends to the Senate. The names of the electoral members are not on the ballot but each candidate, in keeping with the tradition of each state, makes them known. In this context a crucial tradition is, except in two states, that if a candidate secures a majority of votes in a state then the full number of electoral college seats of that state go to him. Thus, in California which at 55 has the highest number of electoral college seats, a candidate has to secure a majority of votes for the full number of 55 to go to his credit.
This electoral college system and the way it operates means that candidates do not seek to maximise votes in all states but focus most of their attention on what are called swing states. These are states where there is no fixed indication of who would secure a majority. In others, where there is a tradition of the state giving a majority to one party—California, for example, usually votes for the Democrats—all candidates do campaign but as the election day approaches their attention gets more and more narrowed to the swing states. There are dangers inherent in this strategy if a candidate does not correctly read the mood of a traditional bastion and neglects it. Hillary Clinton did so and, among other reasons, it cost her the election in 2016.
In the coming election the four big swing states are Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Between them they have 75 electoral votes. There are other states to watch too but these deserve particular attention. Biden has narrow leads in all of them. In overall terms too Biden is ahead of Trump. This will no doubt lead to Trump going all out in the coming weeks to corner Biden on personal and political grounds. He will indulge in his aggressive and even abusive rhetoric against Biden as well as Kamala Harris who is the Democrat nominee for the Vice-President’s post. This will appeal to his base but would it be sufficient to sway voters in the swing states to his side because of the country’s economic woes due to COVID-19? Also, while Trump is using the China card to shift the blame away from himself for the initial US inaction and confusion on the way the pandemic was handled the impact this will have on the voter remains to be seen.
This is an election where many more postal votes are expected then earlier because of COVID-19. Trump is alleging that this will help Biden to steal the election. Hence, there are worries in the US political elite that this election will be very messy and the result may be delayed. That will further polarise an already divided country.
Surely, such a prospect will bring smiles in China and make US allies even more anxious.