SINGAPORE: Role playing as Republican candidate Donald Trump in a mock presidential debate in Singapore on Wednesday (Oct 27), Tina Datta argued valiantly against her Democratic counterparts, but ultimately lost.
Despite trying hard to sway an audience of university students at Tembusu College to the conservative cause, the final vote tally at the National University of Singapore programme was 87 to 13, in the Democrats’ favour.
The debate, which was moderated by college rector Professor Tommy Koh, was held just days before a deeply divided America goes to the polls on Nov 3. Partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 80 million Americans as of Thursday across all states have voted early.
Mr Trump and his running mate Mike Pence face Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, with the latter team currently leading in most opinion polls.
Still, Ms Datta, who chairs the Republicans Overseas Singapore, is undeterred by how Singapore students perceived Mr Trump. Her organisation is the Republican Party’s official association for its citizens living outside America.
Having heard what Singaporeans had to say of her party’s nominee over the years, Ms Datta noted that youths are often focused on his environmental policies, while business folk are more concerned about the global economy and how Mr Trump has pulled the United States out of regional trade pacts.
Most Trump naysayers here also took issue with the combative tone of his politics, she added.
“People can agree that they don’t like his tone, but when I start talking about actual policy, there is actually a broad understanding here of American policy — why there is a need to put pressure on China, why the US needs a tough stance on illegal immigration, et cetera,” said Ms Datta. “And it usually resonates with people in Singapore.”
Four years after his shocking electoral victory against Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, President Trump — with his isolationist “America First” approach — remains a highly divisive figure both domestically and abroad, including in Singapore, where more than 20,000 Americans reside.
And now, with a Biden presidency emerging as a real possibility, political commentators have been trying to decipher the implications of his future policies on the US economic recovery and its engagement with the rest of the world in an election that is primarily focused on domestic issues.
While Singapore may be on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the election buzz can be clearly felt among the American community here — and even among many Singaporeans.
Ms Patricia Reed, who chairs Democrats Abroad Lion City, the party’s official contact point in Singapore, said: “We’ve made thousands and thousands of calls to different time zones, in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere … to help people vote from overseas.”
The number of voters in the US who have cast their ballot early has exceeded more than half of the total voter turnout in the 2016 election.
Of the three million overseas Americans, more are voting early too. States such as Iowa, Colorado and Massachusetts are reporting higher voter registration and ballot requests from this group than in previous years.
“Americans are mobilising more and the people have woken up, because they see that our democracy under Trump is under threat,” said Ms Reed.
With just several days to go, both Mr Trump and Mr Biden, as well as their running mates, are currently making last-minute attempts to win over the swing states, such as Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania, that could tip the 538-member Electoral College in their favour.
And with the polls indicating tight races in several key battleground states, and the possibility of disputed ballot counts in this election, some pundits are predicting that any definitive results on election night is unlikely.
As the presidential horse race enters its final lap, Mediacorp looks at the factors at play in the 2020 US elections and what it will mean for the region if either candidate won, with the help of US pundits as part of a three-month programme by the US State Department’s Foreign Press Centres to discuss the election with the world’s press.
DEEP IDEOLOGICAL DIVIDE
Over the past several months, both parties’ candidates have offered starkly different views of the world and of America, with a large gulf separating what the Democrats and the Republicans stand for.
The acrimonious presidential debates in the past month have also highlighted the depth of these ideological divides.
Both candidates could not see eye to eye on universal healthcare plans: Mr Trump wants to scrap an Obama-era law that guaranteed healthcare coverage at the expense of business costs and the private insurance industry.
Mr Biden, who was vice-president during Mr Barack Obama’s eight-year-presidency, wants an enhanced version of Obamacare that will reduce healthcare costs for all — which he calls Bidencare.
On climate issues, there is also little agreement. Mr Trump, 74, had pulled the US out of the international Paris Accord on climate change on the basis that it unfairly penalised America. Mr Biden, 77, has pledged to rejoin the pact if elected and scale back pollutive and non-renewable energy industries gradually.
But political observers noted that it is the growing role of party-based polarisation in US politics — not the core issues often talked about by both campaigns — that has underpinned the divisions in America over the years.
Dr Bradley Jones, a research associate at non-partisan think tank Pew Research Centre, said in a recent briefing that the role of partisanship has steadily increased where “it is now clearly the most important dividing line in American politics”.
A Pew study, conducted through telephone surveys over the past 25 years, looked at a range of core political values that had appeared to characterise past elections, ranging from social mores, the role of diplomacy to the feelings about the environment.
The study found relatively little change in how people perceived these issues based on their gender, race, age, religiosity or education level.
The role of partisanship, on the other hand, has dramatically become more important, said Dr Jones. In other words, a voter’s party affiliation is more likely to be the overriding factor when determining whether the person takes a conservative or a liberal stance on any particular issue.
“One way of thinking about this past-quarter century is a sorting of Democrats as the party of the left and Republicans as the party of the right, where that wasn't such a clear distinction even 25 years ago. I think this is one of the most important things to understand about American politics — the preeminent importance of partisanship as a driver of so much,” he said.
Such a distinction explains why Americans today appear to take partisan views on nearly all matters, including why Republicans rely on Mr Trump to access facts about COVID-19, for example.
When issues are greatly split along left and right, such a political landscape also makes it increasingly difficult for moderate, or centrist, politicians to try to win at elections.
In the US context, the right represents conservative traditions of economic individualism, limited taxes and government, self-sufficiency, and support for Christian views. The left represents liberal values of civil liberty, equality, social justice, and the idea of America as a society that helps those who cannot help themselves.
Dr Jeffrey M Stonecash, distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University, told TODAY: “(Centrists) have a very difficult time. They can't communicate to those who are really liberal or conservative.”
Against this backdrop of party-based polarisation, the insult-hurling Mr Trump — an unconventional choice for a presidential candidate — was elected in 2016 by playing on his supporters’ intense dislike for the rival Democrats in general, and pandering to those sitting on the extreme end of the conservative spectrum.
Contrast this to Mr Biden who, according to Dr Stonecash, is “not an extreme liberal”.
“He has got to maintain the middle in his case because he's got to take votes away from Trump… Traditionally, the two candidates are trying to get a little bit closer to the middle, but not turn off their supporters on the wings. It's a very difficult challenge.”
THE POLITICS OF AGE
The economy, healthcare policies, the recent Supreme Court appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and COVID-19 were regarded as the most important topics of the US election — in that order, another Pew poll found last week.
But voters were divided along party lines on these issues, the study concluded, based on the responses of more than 10,000 people.
About eight in 10 Biden supporters rated the coronavirus outbreak as a “very important” issue, compared with about two in 10 Trump supporters. Healthcare was also very important for eight in 10 registered Democrats, and four in 10 Republicans.
The state of the US economy, however, was seen as very important by 84 per cent of Republicans and 66 per cent of Democrats.
Professor Mark J Rozell, founding dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said: “I don't believe that Trump is helped at all by his handling of the pandemic. Indeed, polls show that he has lost some significant support among older Americans during the pandemic.
“But most of Trump's followers simply do not blame him for the nation's failure to control the virus. They blame China, they blame Democratic Party’s state and local leaders, and some of them even say the danger from the pandemic is overstated.”
However, one demographic that could sway the election is senior voters, particularly those in Florida, which has a large proportion of elderly due to its popularity as a retirement place for white seniors.
Florida is a key battleground state since it has the most number of electors (29) among the swing states, and its choice of the candidate has been a reliable predictor of how the vote may go.
In recent weeks, both candidates have poured advertising dollars into the state in a bid to woo swing voters there. But while senior voters have traditionally leaned towards the Republicans, experts said that Mr Trump’s handling of the coronavirus might have put off this demographic.
On Wednesday, the Republican camp pulled out all ads in Florida — a sign that Mr Trump’s campaign either believes he has sneaked out ahead in the state, or that he has given up trying. State polling averages for Florida shows Mr Biden just marginally ahead of his rival by 0.5 percentage points.
Pundits said another growing trend nationally that could have an impact in 2020 is the large turnout of younger voters, who are historically less likely to cast their ballot.
Last week, a Harvard Kennedy School poll of Americans aged 18 to 29 found that enthusiasm for voting in 2020 was on par with the 2008 election, which was won by Mr Obama.
In 2008, 51.1 per cent of young adults between 18 and 29 had voted, compared with 2012 and 2016 which was 45 per cent and 46.1 per cent respectively, according to the Centre for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (Circle).
More than five million young people aged between 18 to 29 have already voted in the 2020 election, including nearly three million in the battleground states.
This year in Texas, for example, some 750,000 young voters had cast their votes 11 days before election day, compared with 106,000 who did the same in 2016, according to Circle data.
However, it remains to be seen how large the final turnout among youths will be. A proclivity for voting does not equate to actual voting, since most young adults are not familiar with the voting process and may not understand how mail-in voting works.
Dr Elizabeth Matto, associate research professor and director of the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University, said: “Young adults are more politically savvy in 2020 than they were in 2016, and they recognise how not turning out on election day can have a real impact.”
But she added that there could be a reversal in youth turnout since college students have been displaced by the pandemic. This has an impact since voter registration drives and free shuttle rides to help mobilise younger voters are often conducted on campus.
Among these younger voters in 2020, the Harvard Kennedy study found Mr Biden to be the favoured pick, by 63 per cent compared with Mr Trump’s 25 per cent.
When it comes to ideology, young adults today certainly lean more towards the Democrats than the Republicans, said Dr Matto. She then pointed out that the same situation was the case in 2016, but it did not translate into political participation.
“We had a lot of young adults who were very supportive of the Bernie Sanders candidacy.
“A number of democratic campaign consultants inaccurately assumed young adults would automatically vote for the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton when the Bernie Sanders candidacy wasn't successful,” she said of the 2016 episode.
In the 2020 election cycle, some believe that the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that erupted in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor could have given new impetus for younger Americans to register and vote.
A poll of young voters by the NBC News and the Wall Street Journal last month found them pessimistic about the future, worried about COVID-19, and positive about the BLM movement.
However, they were not enamoured by the Democrats, though their approval of Mr Trump was even lower, the study of 2,000 respondents showed.
In a briefing on the African-American vote, Dr Lorenzo Morris, chair emeritus of political science at Howard University in Washington DC, noted that the position on policing and race by the Democratic administrations over the years had not met the expectations of the BLM advocates.
Minority races — African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans — in recent elections have mostly leaned towards the Democrats. Since World War II, no Democrat candidate has won the majority among white voters, except in 1964.
“When you survey black voters and ask them how important race is, they rank it as important, but it is not more important than other issues, such as education, such as police violence, which of course is related to race but nevertheless, it's not the same thing, as well as labour issues and healthcare issues,” said Dr Morris.
CONSENSUS ON TOUGH CHINA APPROACH
When it comes to differences on foreign policy between both presidential candidates, however, pundits have noted a growing agreement in the US from both sides on how to take on China.
“There is a broad-based bipartisan consensus in Washington that China is America's number one rival,” research fellow Adrian Ang said in a podcast on the US election by the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ (RSIS) United States Programme on Oct 19.
“That is probably the one and the only thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on today.”
Because the approach to China is a bipartisan issue, experts do not believe that foreign policy will fundamentally affect the election’s outcome.
American diplomat and former ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro said: “One of the things that is hard for people to understand is that the US is such a large country geographically and in terms of population, that it is easy for Americans to ignore the rest of the world in a way that you can't if you live in Belgium or you live in Hong Kong or Singapore or United Arab Emirates.”
Nevertheless, the Trump presidency remains a disruptive force in global politics, which has changed how regional relationships work in the long term.
Since 2017, Mr Trump has been publicly calling China his country’s “strategic competitor”, which has rattled the generally cordial US-China relationship under the previous US administrations.
He has also made the deep US trade deficit with China — along with that of other countries — a key issue, and launched a tit-for-tat trade war that has heightened geopolitical tensions around the world.
Apart from trade, the protracted US-China conflict has also evolved into one involving technological supremacy, intellectual property, energy, security and geopolitics.
Mr Taimur Baig, DBS managing director and chief economist, noted that the world is unlikely to revert to “status quo ante”, even if Mr Trump is not re-elected.
“Tariffs, once they go up, it will be tough to bring them down,” he said at a Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) webinar on Tuesday.
Both sides have adopted a “tough on China” stance, most tellingly in the presidential debates, when Mr Trump once again blamed China for the pandemic and Mr Biden stating that China will be forced to play by international rules.
Dr Stonecash said: “Right now, Trump is posturing as being tough on China in hopes it will help his re-election chances and he can escape blame for the spread of COVID. Biden does not want to look weak.
“But ultimately a lot of this is election posturing. Things may change a lot in January (when the new president is inaugurated).”
Mr Biden, in laying out his foreign policy approach in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in April, had mentioned China only in competitive terms, striking a more hawkish tone that the Obama administration had avoided.
It is also noteworthy that he had framed his approach to China around its “abusive behaviours” and human rights violations.
Critically, he wrote that the US should take down trade barriers that penalise Americans, and also to resist “a dangerous global slide towards protectionism”.
“The wrong thing to do is to put our heads in the sand and say no more trade deals. Countries will trade with or without the US. The question is, who writes the rules that govern trade? Who will make sure they protect workers, the environment, transparency, and middle-class wages? The US, not China, should be leading that effort,” said Mr Biden.
WHERE DOES SOUTHEAST ASIA FIGURE?
One effect of the Trump presidency is to walk back the Obama-era engagement in Southeast Asia, pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that had underpinned Mr Obama’s strategic economic involvement in Asia.
In 2011, the Obama administration placed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) at the centre of its Asia-Pacific relationships, with Mr Obama visiting all but one Asean state while in office, marking a high point in US-Asean relations.
With the US out of the TPP under Mr Trump’s watch, analysts said Washington started to view Asia primarily from a North Asia lens, focusing on a nuclear North Korea as well as America’s main rival, China.
President Trump, together with Japan, then embarked on a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. His administration portrayed China as an overt threat to the region, even as Japan continued to emphasise that the FOIP was not meant to contain China.
As former Singapore Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar noted in his updated book Diplomacy: A Singapore Experience, the FOIP was partly a response to what the US saw as a return to power competition with China and Russia.
“For Southeast Asian nations, the perpetual challenge will be in convincing the US to view its engagement of Southeast Asia as a worthwhile end in itself and not simply through the prism of strategic competition with China,” said Prof Jayakumar.
Could a Biden presidency also herald the US’ return to the TPP, which has been replaced by the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)?
Ms Angela Mancini, partner and head of strategic consultancy Control Risks, said at the LKYSPP webinar that Mr Biden may see the CPTPP as a way for more economic engagement in Asia, but the left wing of his party might push hard against it.
“I think the inclination is there, but it's going to be very hard to do in practice,” she said.
ASIA AWAITS CLEARER SIGNALS
On the other hand, a re-elected Trump’s approach to China is a known quantity to its US allies, while uncertainty over Mr Biden could cause anxiety, as Dr James Crabtree, associate professor in practice at LKYSPP, argued in the Foreign Policy journal last month.
Some quarters in the Japanese government had been unimpressed by Obama-era China policy, which they perceived as soft, he noted. They preferred Mr Trump’s imperfect, but less ambiguous, confrontational strategy.
For India, Dr Crabtree argued that a Biden presidency could complicate New Delhi’s strategic position against the backdrop of rapidly deteriorating Sino-Indian ties.
And in Taiwan, where changes in US-China policies are highly scrutinised, he pointed out that some felt Taiwan would back “the current course over untested campaign promises”.
“Ultimately, Asian nations will adapt to whichever candidate ends up in the White House,” said Dr Crabtree.
“Were Biden to prevail, he may be able to assuage his doubters quickly, leaving little nostalgia for Trump’s era of unpredictability. For now, however, Asia’s doubts about him are real.”
The need for clarity is amplified for delicate issues such as the South China Sea dispute and China-Taiwan relations, both of which were hardly mentioned by Mr Biden in his pronouncements over the course of the election campaign.
LKYSPP visiting senior research fellow Drew Thompson said that US engagement with its allies in the South China Sea issue has strengthened under the Trump administration.
He noted how these countries are standing up against China more, and pointed to the fact that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been visiting several countries in Asia in recent weeks.
“I mean, if you look at Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, they're all now pretty actively hedging away from China, after the benefits of (China’s) deeper engagement just didn't materialise,” said Mr Thompson.
When asked about Taiwan, Mr Thompson said that the Trump administration has also invested heavily in arms sales to the island, as well as building up US-Taiwan relations.
“That's not necessarily a China play. That's really a reflection of the US pursuing its own interests. I mean, Taiwan is the US’ 11th largest trading partner.”
Mr Thompson added: “That said, there's certainly a great deal of concern about the US’ credibility. Trump is unpredictable, so there are concerns that as Mr Art of the Deal, he might, you know, trade away Taiwan's interest for a better deal with China.”
Experts said that a nuanced reading of the past three years of Mr Trump in Asia will show some bright spots in US relationships with its allies, even though his chaotic antics may have reduced its standing in the region.
Some observers note, for example, that Mr Pompeo’s recent visits were in the context of building new bridges, as opposed to reaffirming already close relations. He visited Indonesia on Friday, which some said was because Indonesian president Joko Widodo rejected a request to host US spy planes amid growing US-China military tensions in the region.
According to an Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute’s Asean Studies Centre survey earlier this year, some 47 per cent of South-east Asians polled said they had little or no confidence in the US as a strategic partner, up from 34 per cent in 2019.
The survey also found that more than six in 10 respondents believed their confidence in the US would increase if a new US president was elected.
DBS’ Mr Baig said the reality is that South-east Asian nations crave for clarity and leadership from the US, and are not keen on picking sides.
“The rhetoric has been disconcerting. It would help a lot for sentiments for long-term business opportunities ... to change the rhetoric to one that is a little lower in decibel level, and is more engaging and akin to a win-win narrative.
“A zero-sum narrative makes everybody nervous, because that would then require somebody to lose for somebody else to win,” said Mr Baig.
Ultimately, other countries do not get to decide on the fate of the next US President — the view from America is all that matters. Despite how Mr Trump is perceived elsewhere, Ambassador Shapiro said he is amazed by how the Trump administration has sharpened the way America views China, simply by focusing attention on unfair trade issues.
“In many ways, the Democratic Party has also adopted part of that position in response to Trump. And so, in that sense, the Republicans have moved the Democrats to the right on dealing with China. And I think that that’s fascinating,” he added.
WILL HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF?
Most opinion polls have placed Mr Biden slightly ahead of his incumbent rival.
National polls indicate that Mr Biden is 7.4 percentage points ahead of Mr Trump based on the latest polling averages by RealClearPolitics, while state polls in battleground states also show a slimmer 3.5 percentage points lead by the Democrat.
In the Electoral College, Mr Trump is predicted to have secured 125 votes out of the 270 needed to win, while Mr Biden has 232. Another 181 votes are toss-ups.
Even then, those familiar with US elections may recall that opinion polls had failed to predict Mr Trump’s victory in 2016.
The polls then had predicted a victory for Mrs Clinton, as the Democratic candidate had seemingly secured 257 electoral college votes and needed only 13 more to clinch the White House.
George Mason University’s Prof Rozell recounted: “Donald Trump was able to pull off a great surprise on election night (in 2016), winning three upper Midwest states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — that typically had gone Democrat in every election cycle.”
He won by a slim margin of around 107,000 votes in the three states.
Dr Doug Schwartz, director and vice-president of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said a major reason for the upset was that “late deciders” in those states ended up supporting Mr Trump.
When asked about the accuracy of this year’s polling, Dr Scwartz said pollsters had begun to weigh their samples by education levels, which was not done in 2016 and was believed to be the cause of the inaccuracies then, as polls underestimated white voters without a college degree.
With more than 80 million votes already submitted amid a rush to mail in votes early during the pandemic, the 2020 opinion polls would have incorporated the results of actual votes, and are hence more accurate.
But with so many mail-in ballots this time round, the full result of the US presidential election is not likely to come on election night, and is expected to take several days to weeks as state officials tally and certify the votes at varying rates.
More than 200 legal battles have also reportedly commenced across various states related to early ballots, which will also take time to resolve.
Furthermore, the pandemic, as well as Mr Trump’s attacks on fraudulent mail-in voting and cost-cutting measures at the US Postal Service could also significantly delay the result.
Mr Trump has also refused to commit to the peaceful transfer of power if he loses, which led the Biden campaign to state: “The United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”
On the charge of possible fraud with mail-in voting, the likelihood of actual fraud is very low, according to multiple government and independent studies.
Mr David Levine from the Alliance for Securing Democracy said: “Mail-in voting is a secure process.”
Voters are able to track their ballots through the mail system, and post-election audits are conducted as well — around 92 per cent of voters will vote on paper ballots that can be audited, based on an estimate from the US Department of Homeland Security.
“Of course, if someone is going to try and engage in that kind of (fraudulent) behavior, I think it's worth underscoring that the likelihood that they're going to impact the outcome of the election is very small and that the penalties can be very significant,” said Mr Levine.