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US Elections: Predicting the Unpredictable

US Elections: Predicting the Unpredictable

Friday, 4 September, 2020 - 05:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

The way the chatting classes in Europe portray the forthcoming US presidential election one might form two erroneous views on a contest the outcome of which could affect many aspects of international politics.

The first, and most current portrayal, is one that has the incumbent Donald J. Trump as the inevitable loser. That view is backed by numerous opinion polls that show the Democrat nominee Joe Biden as ahead by 8.2 percent at the time of this writing a few days ago.

Despite much improvement in recent years, however, polls have seldom proved on the bat in what is a complicated electoral system.

In 1976, President Jimmy Carter was 26.6 percent ahead in the average of polls at the same period before voting day. In 2016, at this time, Hillary Clinton was 6.6 percent ahead. In 2008, Barack Obama was slated to win at a statistically insignificant 0.5 percent margin. Even the hapless Michael Dukakis was given as winner with a 5.6 margin in 1988.

To be sure, it is always better to be ahead in the polls. However, one other factor makes it more difficult to predict the outcome of US elections than that of other major democracies. That factor is the chronically low voter turnout the US has experienced since the 1970s. This means that there is always a big chunk of eligible voters who respond to opinion pollsters but do not go to polling centers on voting day.

At the same time, another chunk of voters, on both sides of the divide, have always been shy of revealing their voting intentions to pollsters. Thus we have had “shy Republicans” and “shy radicals of the left” in at least half of the past 10 presidential elections. There is some anecdotal evidence that this time round we may have many more such “shy” voters in both camps. That in turn increases the importance of each camp’s ability to mobilize its core support base to the highest level possible.

The past 10 elections show that the two main parties, Democrats and Republicans, have a slid voting base of between 20 to 25 percent which means neither side can win without attracting at least some of the floating voters who might decide to go to the polls. The floating voter is even more important in eight to 10 swing states that decide the final tally in the Electoral College. The latest average of polls, at the start of the week, showed Trump and Biden tied in eight of those states. All that makes it vital for both candidates to mobilize their hardcore supporters who could offer them victory even without winning a majority of the total votes. In his first election as President, benefiting from mass mobilization of supporters by Democrats and division in Republican ranks, Bill Clinton won with just over a third of the votes cast. In 2000, George W bush benefited from base mobilization to win the presidency while losing the popular vote.

In that context, Trump seems to be in a stronger position than Biden. While he drives many Americans up the wall with his idiosyncratic style of politics he also generates great energy among core supporters. Not all the 85 million, some 20 percent of all adults in the US, who follow Trump on Twitter, are likely to vote for him. But the fact that the number of Trump’s Twitter followers is increasing by a weekly average of 55,000 shows that he is still attracting support.

A more important sign of that came during recent primaries for Senate and House of Representatives nominees for the Republican Party. In every case, but one, candidates endorsed by Trump won the party’s nomination. (Sole exception was Lynda Bennett in North Carolina).

Efforts to split the Republican Party through no-Trump groups seem to have had little effect on his core base while making some Biden supporters uneasy.

Some radical Democrat groups have bitterly denounced Biden’s decision to invite such turncoat Republican grandees as former Governor John Kasich and former Secretary of State Colin Powell to speak at the party’s convention.

On the Democrat side, the picture is different.

The hardcore of the party’s support, consisting of radical progressives or Bernie Sanders’ “insurgents”, won only 17 of the 217 nominations for the Congress, highlighting the strength of incumbents, many of whom are branded by “radicals” as closet Republicans. Even in open primaries, the “insurgents” won only five of 30 nominations. Thus, a good part of Biden’s chance of success depends on mobilizing the Sanders supporters who regard him, together with Barack Obama and the Clintons, as the old guard that have turned the Democrat Party into a pale copy of the Republican.

Some Americans seem prepared to blow up the whole system if that evicts Trump from the White House. That emotional aspect of the campaign renders readings of pre-election polls even more problematic.

The second erroneous portrayal of the current campaign presents it as a titanic duel between Left and Right in the European sense of the terms.

That view is buttressed by some of the rhetoric on both sides with Trump supporters depicting Biden as a “Socialist” and Biden backers repaying baptizing Trump as” the American Mussolini”.

Neither suggestion is worthy. Biden is an old stalwart of a system whose core ideology is self-perpetuation. He was on the left of Jimmy Carter when it suited him and on the right of Obama when a different hand was dealt.

Some suggest that because of the narrowness of his support base, Biden may end up a captive of “insurgents”. But, even if that were to happen, the “cold monster” that is the US machinery of state, is designed, geared and tested to prevent dramatic changes of course on major issues.

The Goldwaterites who thought that Ronald Reagan would realize their dream of radical change found that out to their chagrin. At the other end of the spectrum, Obama started as an idol of the “insurgents” and ended up a traitor in their eyes.

Branding Trump as a closet Fascist is equally off the mark.

Leaving aside his addiction to twittering the first thing that passes through his head, there is nothing in Trump’s record as president to justify classifying him as an icon of the ideological right. Many ideologues of the far right, among them Steve Bannon who saw himself as a Lenin of the right, found that out to their cost.

Trump’s chief interest is to promote his brand in politics as he did in real estate. He is a pragmatic deal-maker, always looking for the easiest way to secure his goal. Not being an ideologue, Trump builds the political version of his towers or golf courses one at a time without an overarching dogma in mind. He has been building even his wall in bits and pieces in a variety of styles dictated by opportunities and setbacks.

All this does not mean that US politics is totally free of ideological subtexts. But that is another story.

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