The corona crisis is causing significant damage to President Trump, whilst the polls show his Democratic rival making gains in more and more swing states. Is Biden a threat to Trump? No matter who wins the election, the new president will be the oldest ever elected in American history.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is ahead of President Donald Trump by about 9 percentage points in national polls. Yet according to professor of international relations and American politics Bart Kerremans, it makes little sense to rely on that prediction, as Biden's lead does not guarantee a victory in the Electoral College. ‘If you look at the number of electors, Trump's position is comparable to that of four years ago,’ says Professor Kerremans.
Voters are distributed on the basis of a winner-takes-all system, where the candidate who obtains the most votes in a state takes control of all of the electors in that state. That’s how, in 2016, Trump won in Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin with a difference of barely 0.23, 0.37 and 0.77 percentage points respectively. For swing states, a small difference between the polls and the final number of votes can suddenly tilt the election results.
Competition for voters
That backlash against Trump in the national polls has everything to do with the corona crisis. ‘By minimising the dangers of the virus, he put off a lot of voters,’ says Professor Kerremans. ‘Elderly and female voters from suburban areas in particular are not happy with his handling of corona and how he’s dealt with his own infection.’
Whilst Trump won with many elderly people in 2016, he is now in danger of losing those votes. In Florida, in particular, older voters can make the difference, given that many white, affluent voters move to this southern state in their old age, making up a significant portion of the population. ‘There’s a fierce battle for the vote of older voter in the run-up to the elections because the electoral turnout for that group is on the high side,’ says Professor Kerremans.
In Florida, Biden is doing worse with Latinos compared to his predecessors. ‘That bad score there can compensate for the damage Trump incurred with older voters as a result of the corona crisis. Trump will therefore try to increase his margin among Latino voters."
That makes Florida an important swing state this year. ‘If Trump doesn't win Florida, he won't be able to count on states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.’ Biden has a robust lead over Trump in Michigan, whilst in Wisconsin that lead is narrower. Pennsylvania appears likely to emerge as the ‘tipping-point state’, or the state that will push one of the presidential candidates past the 270 electoral votes needed to win. ‘On the other hand, Biden will have to repeat Hillary Clinton's results and still bring in some swing states, such as Arizona.’
The debate on 29 September also played slightly in Biden's favour. According to the polls, the so-called ‘suburban housewives’ in particular were dismayed by Trump's performance during the first presidential debate. ‘Voters who were still in doubt were clearly turned off by the way Trump handled that debate. In most swing states, it’s cost him two to three percentage points.’
On 7 October, a more civilised debate ensued between running mates Kamala Harris and Mike Pence. Will they play a more prominent role in the run-up to the elections due to the advanced age of the presidential candidates? ‘Vice presidents usually don’t weigh heavily in the minds of voters,’ says Professor Kerremans. But running mates can have a mobilising effect on certain voter groups. ‘With Kamala Harris, Biden may be able to retain some female voters more easily,’ says Professor Kerremans. 'Trump's choice for the deeply religious Mike Pence is one of the elements that will allow him to re-convince conservative voters.’
Before the outbreak of the virus, Trump had a dream scenario at hand. Just before the corona crisis, unemployment in America was at an all-time low. ‘Unemployment was already falling under Obama and Trump continued that trend,’ says Professor Kerremans. In addition, Trump had delivered on most of his promises during his presidency: a tax reduction for all income categories, active climate and anti-discrimination deregulation, the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, and tougher trade and immigration policies. He’s also kept his word on the appointment of conservative judges to the Supreme Court.’
However, his infrastructure plan to restore roads, bridges and public transport never materialised. Trump has also been unable to completely undo Obamacare, but that doesn’t stop his supporters from voting for him. ‘For example, farmers suffering from the trade wars started by Trump say that they’ll vote for him again. Identification with Trump therefore takes precedence over the consequences of his policy.’
It recently came to light that Trump has barely paid taxes for years. According to Professor Kerremans, this won’t repel his supporters either. ‘His supporters see it as a ploy by The New York Times, whilst his detractors see it as confirmation of what they thought they already knew.’
For many Democratic voters, a vote for Biden is primarily a vote against Trump. ‘That is, of course, less powerful than the Trump voters who support the president through thick and thin.’ The risk of low turnout is also greater for Biden than for Trump. That’s why it’s important for the Democratic presidential candidate to get voters to the polls. ‘Four years ago, lower turnout by African-American and Latino voters in battleground states played a role in Hillary Clinton's electoral defeat.’
In the past, low voter turnout has been disadvantageous primarily for the Democratic Party. Low turnout figures are usually noted in groups that vote predominantly Democratic, such as young people and Latinos. The number of undecided voters this year is lower than in 2016. Less than five percent of likely voters are still in doubt.
One aspect not characteristic of these presidential elections, but reinforced by the current political polarisation, is voter suppression. This is a danger to democracy, according to Professor Kerremans. ‘You’re seeing more and more practices that raise the threshold to vote, mainly from the Republican side.’ A reduction in the number of polling stations and mailboxes mainly affects minorities, a group that predominantly vote Democratic. ‘A democracy must strive to get everyone to the polls. Nevertheless, that starting point isn’t accepted by everyone in the US.’
Postal voting fraud
Will there be an unambiguous result on 3 November? That chance is smaller than in previous elections, because the number of postal votes is much higher this year due to the corona pandemic. In 2016, about 24 percent of Americans voted through the mail; this year, that share has increased to one in three, and maybe even more. That growth is mainly occurring among Democratic voters. ‘There’s a reasonable chance that we won’t know the election results on the night of 3 to 4 November. Unless one of the candidates secures a landslide, the difference won’t be determined until all postal votes have been counted in the crucial battleground states.’
Legally, this delay is not a problem, as states have until 8 December to report their results. Politically, it’s a different story. ‘The longer it takes, the more credible Trump's claim that postal voting leads to fraud. In addition, the validity of postal votes will generate discussion under almost any circumstances.’
If the result is disputed, it will trigger a legal battle that is likely to end in the Supreme Court. Such a scenario has played out in the recent past; in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that victory in Florida would go to the Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush. He therefore narrowly achieved the required majority in the Electoral College and became president, at the expense of his Democratic rival, Al Gore.
What do the election results mean for Europe?
Does it matter to Europe who wins the elections? ‘Because of geopolitical tensions with China, the US will undoubtedly seek closer ties with Europe under Biden,’ predicts Professor Kerremans. ‘That whilst Trump is confronting both Europe and China.’ As for the nuclear deal with Iran – which the US left in 2018 – the stance of a Biden administration will also be closer to that of the European Union.
‘In that sense, we can expect a change, but we shouldn’t be under any illusions. "Artificial" trade wars – against the automotive, steel and aluminium sectors – will be turned into trade relations, but the existing trade conflicts will not disappear.’ For instance, demand for more European investment in defence within NATO will remain on the table.
‘During an Ambassador's Lecture on the US presidential election, diplomat Frans van Daele identified the challenge facing Europe: “If Biden becomes president, and Europe reaches out a hand, will Europe be able to overcome its internal divisions to formulate an unambiguous answer?” The question, then, is whether Europe will find the necessary political capital in its foreign policy to act in unison.