The US is in the midst of one of its most important presidential elections in recent memory. President Donald Trump, running for a second term, is being challenged by Joe Biden of the Democratic Party. Still reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic, US society has been torn apart by anti-race protests sparked by killings of black men by trigger-happy policemen but sustained by systemic racism, and the President has deliberately unleashed all the dark forces of American exceptionalism, patriarchy and white supremacy in the name of ‘Making America Great Again’. His climate change denial, support to other right-wing leaders like Brazil’s Bolsonaro, the UK’s Boris Johnson and of course, Prime Minister Modi in India, his fuelling of armament build-up, his support to Israeli expansionism and many other foreign policy stances have earned him global notoriety. Hence this election is of interest, and concern, to people around the world. NewsClick will be publishing these observations periodically.
Three major events happened in last 10 days which may have some effects on the US elections on November 3:
1) The last and final debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden took place on October 22. Both candidates did a reasonably good job in making their cases to the American voters. Trump listened to his advisers this time and did not interrupt Biden frequently. He did much better than his disastrous first debate performance. However, he was still in denial, trying to paint a rosy picture about turning the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, as he has been doing all summer. Trump was also trying to accuse Biden and his son Hunter Biden with money corruption in Ukraine without presenting any evidence.
Biden, for his part, assured the voters that he wants to be the President of all Americans, irrespective of their political affiliations. He pointed out Trump's colossal leadership failure in coming up with a science-based national policy and mobilisation efforts for handling the COVID-19 pandemic which resulted in 225,000 American deaths and a huge downturn of the US economy.
The second round of economic stimulus is stalled in the US Congress for more than four months now. Trump has been unable to hammer out an agreement between the Republicans and the Democrats in the US Congress. As much as 8.4% unemployed people, small businesses and local governments with higher cost and significantly lower revenue are paying a very steep price. This situation does not reflect well on an incumbent President. Since the debate was more or less a draw and Trump is still well behind in the polls, Trump is running out of time and options in changing the dynamic of this race.
2) The second surge of COVID-19 in the US and Europe came at the worst possible time for Trump's re-election calendar. In reality, Trump is not running against Biden, he is running against COVID-19 in this election. This adversary is immune to Trump's bullying, bluster and threats of lawsuits. If a community lowers its guards, it strikes quietly and ruthlessly. The new infection rate in the US reached 80,000 per day this week, the highest ever recorded in the last six months. There was a second outbreak of COVID-19 in the upper echelons of Trump's White House last week.
Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff and few other senior staff members got infected with COVID-19. Instead of following CDC (Centre for Disease Control) guidelines and going into quarantine, Pence kept on holding campaign rallies. Majority of the thousands of people attending Trump's open air campaign rallies do not wear masks or practice social distancing, flouting US Government and CDC guidelines. All these events with active encouragement from Trump display a cavalier approach in addressing once in a century extremely serious pandemic.
3) An iconic liberal justice of the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was battling cancer, passed away in September this year, less than two months before the US election. Trump nominated and the Republican majority in the US Senate rushed through an unusually speedy process to confirm a highly conservative judge, Amy Barrett, to fill this slot barely eight days before the election date of November 3. By that date, approximately 50 million voters, one third of the likely voters, had already voted in the early ballot. So, for all practical purposes, this confirmation was done in the middle of an election.
Supreme Court Justice is a lifetime appointment. With this appointment, the conservative justices will have a 6-3 majority in the US Supreme Court and will dominate the court for next 20-30 years. In 2016, a conservative justice, Anthony Scalia, passed away eight months before the election. President Barack Obama nominated a moderate judge, Merrick Garland, to fill that position. The Republican majority in the US Senate blocked that nomination with the argument that eight months was too close to the general election and the voters should decide which President would nominate this justice for a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court. This blatant hypocrisy on an extremely serious matter has polarised the nation further.
Through her prior writings, Justice Barrett has been hostile to the women's legal right to have an abortion and other critical issues, like government's abilities to regulate business, legislate on healthcare laws like Obamacare and actively enforce environmental and labour protection laws. With Justice Barrett's inclusion in the Supreme Court, the court will most likely overturn in the coming year the landmark Supreme Court decision of 1973 which guaranteed a woman's right to have an abortion based on her constitutional rights of privacy.
The abortion right is an emotionally charged lightning rod issue in US politics for last 47 years, primarily because of the stringent opposition of the socially conservatives and the Evangelical Christians. However, this legal right of a woman is currently supported by more than 70% of the voters nationally. This development has further enraged the Democrats and the urban educated women at a time when Trump badly needed to win over some of the suburban women and independents to win this election.
The situation on the ground has been fairly steady over the last few weeks and all summer. Trump has marginally closed the gap in two swing states (Pennsylvania and Arizona) but is still significantly behind in the polls and running out of time. If moving to the centre and winning over new voters was the game in the last few weeks, let us evaluate how Trump performed:
Trump vs Biden debates: Trump did not win any new converts, strike one.
COVID-19 second surge: Did not help Trump in selling his narrative that we are controlling this pandemic, strike two.
SC confirmation of Justice Barrett with undue haste: It solidified the bases on both sides. But, it did not win any new voters for Trump, strike three.
In the American game of baseball, similar to cricket, if an umpire calls three strikes against a batter, the batter is out. That is what I predict for Trump on November 3, or shortly thereafter.
The Margin for Biden
The situation on the ground is fairly steady over the last two weeks. Currently, Biden is ahead in the range of 9-11 points nationally. In the swing states, the gap is smaller. Approximately 50 million+ people have voted already as of October 27. A total of 150 million are projected to vote in 2020, which will shatter all percentage turnout records since 1908. The voter interest is unusually high since the stakes are really high this year.
The state by state margin for Biden in the swing states are listed below:
Michigan: Biden ahead by 9 points; Wisconsin: Biden ahead by 8-10 points; Pennsylvania: Biden ahead by 4-6 points (statistical margin of error +/- 3-4%; Biden close to 50% approval already.
Arizona: Biden ahead by 3-6 points; North Carolina: Biden ahead by 1-3 points (statistical margin of error +/- 3-4% ), Biden's approval numbers in the range of 47-49%.
Georgia: Toss up, Biden ahead of Trump by 0-4% (statistical margin of error +/-3- 4% ), Florida, Ohio, Iowa : Dead heat
Some polls are showing Texas in this category. I am not including Texas. Trump is ahead of Biden in Texas by 2- 4 points. Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz by 2.4% in the 2018 Senate race.
The slide of the Republican party in Texas and Georgia, both deep red states in the south, in this election cycle has been absolutely stunning. It seems that Trump's toxic politics has hastened the shrinkage of the Republican voters in these two states by two election cycles (eight years).
In Texas, Romney had beaten popular Obama in 2012 by 20 points. Trump trounced Hillary (both unpopular candidates) in 2016 by 9 points. In 2020, Trump is ahead of Biden by only 2-4 points in Texas. Additionally, Democrats are projected to win 3-5 more seats in the US House of Representatives and majority in the Texas House after 20 years -- a seismic event in its own right.
Texas is the second largest state in the US. Any realignment of political power in Texas will have huge significance in the national politics in the coming years. In Georgia, Biden is actually ahead slightly, as per the latest polls. Georgia state house is also in play this year.
Please recall that among the seven states listed above, excluding Iowa, which is a small state, Biden has to win only three states to win the Presidency. If Biden wins the big state of Florida, he needs to win only one more state out of the seven above (excluding Iowa).
Let us look at some of the states Hillary Clinton carried narrowly in 2016. Essentially, there are three: Minnesota, Virginia and Nevada.
Minnesota: Biden ahead by 6-7 points, Biden close to 50% already (statistical margin of error +/- 3-4% ),
Virginia: Biden ahead by 10+ points, Biden at 50% already (statistical margin of error +/- 3-4% )
Nevada: Biden ahead by 5-9 points, Biden at 50% already (statistical margin of error +/- 3-4% )
Trump has a very narrow path to victory in this election. Michigan and Wisconsin are out of his reach for all practical purposes. He will have to win an upset victory in Pennsylvania and retain Arizona, North Carolina , Florida, Georgia and Ohio in his column. Currently, he is behind by 4-6 points in both Pennsylvania and Arizona after trailing in these states for many months. So, this will be a very tall order for Trump.
My projection with 85% confidence limit: Trump will lose this election. There is over 50% chance that Trump will lose big even in the electoral college ( I do not mean a landslide). Even Republicans concede that Trump will lose the popular vote by a few million votes.
US Senate election in 2020 is equally important as the Presidential election. Any legislation has to pass through the House and the Senate and signed by the President to become law. Democrats are expected to retain and possibly expand their majority in the US House of Representatives.
Let us review the prospect of the Republican candidates in the Senate. The current Senate make-up is 53-47 in favour of the Republicans. Democrats have to pick up three seats if Biden wins, four seats if Biden loses to gain majority in that chamber. Republicans conceded in summer that if Trump does not win or lose narrowly, Republicans will most likely lose their Senate majority.
Democrats Chances of Pick-Ups (in decreasing order of likelihood)
Arizona: Ron Kelly ahead of appointed incumbent Martha McSally by 8 points (Republican state)
Colorado: Current popular Governor Hickenlooper ahead of incumbent Cory Gardner by 8 points (Democratic state)
Maine: Current speaker of the Maine House, Sarah Gideon, ahead of incumbent senator Susan Collins by 3 points (Democratic state)
North Carolina: Challenger Cunningham ahead of incumbent Tom Tillis by 1-3 points (Republican state). Tillis reduced the gap but still behind in the race.
Iowa: Challenger Greenfield ahead of incumbent Joni Ernst by 2-4 points (both women candidates, Republican state). Joni Earnst reduced the gap but still behind.
South Carolina: Challenger Harrison, a black businessman essentially tied with incumbent Lindsey Graham, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman who changed his mind regarding confirming a Supreme Court Justice two months before the election. They blocked Obama's nominee eight months before the election in 2016 (heavily Republican state with 30% black voters)
Montana: Popular Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is behind incumbent Senator Daines by only three points. Trump won Montana by 20 points in 2016. (Republican state)
Georgia 1: Dead heat between incumbent Perdue and challenger Osoff (Republican state)
Georgia 2: In this special election, if nobody gets a majority among the four candidates running, there will be a run-off election in January 2021 among the top two vote getters. Democrat Warnock, black pastor in the Atlanta church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, is leading the pack with 9% margin from the nominated incumbent Kelly Loeffler. Run-off election in January 2021 likely. (Republican state)
Republicans Chance of a Pick-Up
Alabama: Republican challenger ahead of Democratic incumbent Doug Jones by 10+ points (Republican state).
My projection with 85% confidence limit: Democrats will pick up four-five seats and lose one seat in the US senate. Democrats will gain majority. If Trump loses in North Carolina, Georgia or Iowa, the Democrats may pick up more seats in the US Senate.
After the election is over on Tuesday, November 3, Trump may try to create trouble and mayhem while mail-in ballot counting goes on for few more days in some states, possibly till Saturday, after the election.
The Secretary of State in each of the 50 states is responsible for conducting the election and certifying results in his/her state. Trump does not control that process. He can create uncertainty by going to courts, creating street violence etc. But, he cannot change the outcome of the election. If he loses a big state like Ohio or North Carolina or Texas in the first night, his ability of creating uncertainty and chaos will reduce significantly. He is trying to undermine the credibility of this election because he knows he will most likely lose in the end.
Based in Dallas, Texas, the writer is in the thick of the US Presidential Election campaign.