SYDNEY: The US presidential election is being shaped by the two crises that have defined 2020 so far: The coronavirus pandemic and the national reckoning over aggressive police action and racism.
COVID-19 has infected millions of Americans and killed 125,000, while causing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Camera phone footage of George Floyd’s death sparked America’s largest wave of protests at least since the 1960s.
The term “unprecedented” has been used widely to describe these events, but they are just the latest versions of the two oldest and biggest problems in American politics: Government dysfunction and racial injustice.
There were bewildering government failures, despite the nation’s immense wealth and resources. There was an absence of coordination between different parts of the government. There was a visible disregard among some whites for non-white lives.
And there were familiar claims by Trump that his opponents were exaggerating the scale of the crisis, this time to sink his re-election chances.
Even now, as experts stress the need for widespread testing, Trump complains that testing inflates coronavirus numbers, and says it should slow down.
After a very brief “rally round the flag” boost in polling, voter ratings of Trump’s handling of the pandemic have been poor, and are dropping.
Meanwhile, the kinds of experienced public servants Trump and his allies deride are enjoying much higher approval as Americans rediscover the virtues of scientific expertise.
The pandemic itself may be less electorally consequential for Trump than its economic effects. It is very rare for presidents to win re-election during a recession.
Trump’s re-election hopes rest on a swift economic recovery, but that is unlikely while infections continue to surge, driven by attempts to reopen too quickly.
WHAT ABOUT BIDEN?
Joe Biden has been much less visible than Trump during the pandemic, which so far is working well for his campaign. Trump seems desperate for a fight with Biden, and his campaign is reassuring nervous supporters that things will turn around when they get the chance to “define” Biden.
Biden is hard to paint as a radical. He has been quick to distance himself from proposals such as defunding police, and he has never supported “Medicare for all”, despite its popularity with the Democratic base and relevance during the pandemic.
As president he would be unlikely to bring the kinds of lasting changes that most Democrats want to see.
READ: Commentary: Joe Biden’s establishment credentials suddenly look attractive with this coronavirus outbreak
This is why Trump and his allies cast Biden as “sleepy” and senile. They warn that he would easily be manipulated by radicals, and Trump is really running against the “far left”. So far, however, this approach has compelled Trump to talk a lot about his own physical and mental fitness.
Trump is a classically charismatic leader, whose hold on his supporters stems from their perception he is blessed with unique powers.
This might be why Trump worries about any sign of weakness or change in his image – why he refuses to wear a mask, feels the need to physically prove himself, and is crushed by the sight of empty seats at a rally.
Biden, whose support stems from a perception that he is safe and familiar, having served as vice president in the Obama administration, chooses instead to display certain vulnerabilities. This helps explain his rising support among older Americans during the pandemic.
And in a year when race is a defining election issue, Biden has a vast advantage with African American and Hispanic voters, despite parts of his legislative record and his cringeworthy “you ain’t black” interview.
He also owes his nomination to African American voters. As Juan Williams put it bluntly, “Joe Biden would be retired if not for the black vote”.
AN UNPREDICTABLE RACE
Averages of national polls currently show Biden leading Trump by between nine and ten points. Even without the pandemic, Trump was never going to have an easy contest against Biden.
Before he secured the nomination in March, Biden had an average lead of 5 per cent in hypothetical poll match-ups with Trump, which is the likely reason Democrats settled on him as an alternative to Bernie Sanders.
Polls still show Trump’s supporters are a lot more enthusiastic about voting for Trump than Biden’s supporters are about voting for Biden, which could be important if voting becomes a health risk.
But enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate may not matter. The 2018 midterm was effectively a referendum on Trump, and the 2020 election will be an even more focused one.
There is reason to believe the race could tighten, if only because no candidate has won a presidential election by more than 9 per cent since 1984, and partisan divisions have become a lot sharper since then.
Many conservative-leaning Americans who are undecided about the election may return to Trump. Closer to the election, many pollsters will restrict their samples to people who they believe are likely to vote, rather than just able to vote.
These likely voter screens may reveal Trump’s standing is stronger than it currently looks.
Of course, the election isn’t decided by a national popularity contest. Democrats are haunted by the 2016 election, in which Hillary Clinton got 2.8 million more votes than Trump but still lost the state-based electoral college.
Currently, The Economist’s election forecast gives that scenario about a 10 per cent chance of happening again.
Everyone will be watching key swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina, as well as newly competitive states like Arizona and Minnesota.
Polls show Biden leading in most of these contests, but these leads are smaller and more volatile than his national lead. The quality of many state polls has also been questionable, raising the possibility they will repeat the same mistakes as last time.
Biden is discouraging complacency. Referencing a recent NYT/Siena poll that showed him leading Trump nationally by 14 per cent, Biden tweeted: “Ignore the polls”.
COVID-19 has sabotaged the usual election-year registration drives that bring millions of new voters into the electorate, which could disadvantage Democrats who traditionally benefit from younger voters.
WOULD TRUMP ACCEPT DEFEAT?
Trump’s resistance to the factual possibility that he could lose has raised fears he might not accept a defeat. Biden, noting that military leaders criticised Trump’s handling of Black Lives Matter protests, has fantasised that the military would escort him from the White House if he tried to “steal the election”.
Extensive lawsuits are a more likely scenario than military intervention, but there is also the danger Trump’s supporters would not accept the legitimacy of a Biden victory.
Given Trump has often warned his supporters that their enemies will take away the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), there is a possibility of a violent backlash, even if it only consists of isolated incidents.
At the same time, it is increasingly normal that large parts of the population dispute the legitimacy of the president.
From Bill Clinton’s impeachment to George W Bush’s contested victory; from Trump’s “birther” conspiracies about Obama to his own impeachment last year, refusals to accept the lawfulness of the presidency, on grounds real or imaginary, have become a standard part of America’s political repertoire.
A lot can happen in four months, as we’ve already seen this year. The outcome of this race is far from certain, but its ugliness is guaranteed.
David Smith is Senior Lecturer in American Politics and Foreign Policy at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.