Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 29, 2020
Biden has a tough hill to climb

 The Democrats are slowly coalescing around Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee for the party. Barack Obama finally endorsed his former Vice- President, donations are pouring in and political ads are flooding in boxes. America is getting ready for the presidential election in the midst of a pandemic, an economy in a free fall and workers in deep distress. At least 26 million have filed for unemployment benefits and websites have collapsed in some states because of the surge in claims.

President Donald Trump’s approval ratings have fallen from 49% in early February to around 43% in early April. Although his handling of the Corona crisis comes in for heavy criticism on a daily basis, he hasn’t lost too much ground. But lately he has been trailing in battleground states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.

But the fact the US has the highest number of reported Corona cases (1,010,507) and deaths (56,800) is grim and no amount of rationalization can hide the failure to respond early and effectively. The response to the pandemic has been a patchwork of federal and state initiatives that has left large holes in testing and availability of medical equipment.

Trump was slow in recognizing the threat and the country was caught in a crisis with not enough resources to fight back. The missteps and paralysis of the Trump Administration have been amply documented. The situation has improved since early March and the US is now producing enough ventilators to be able to help countries in need. But the idea of the US fumbling in its initial response will be remembered.

Against this background it should be easy for the Democrats to take the White House. The “Anyone But Trump” is a strong factor -- video clips of Trump’s less-than-optimal responses from just the last two months should be enough to sway voters. Yet, it doesn’t appear so given the small lead Biden enjoys in battleground states. In other words, it won’t be a cakewalk.

At this time too many factors are in play that could work against Biden, not the least of which is the country’s ability to hold an impartial election in the midst of a crisis. The politics of “how” to vote – whether in person or through mail – is a big question. The answer could tip the scales in battleground states.

Wisconsin is a case in point where the 7 April primary became a legal fight going all the way to the state’s highest court and then to the US Supreme Court. The controversial verdict ultimately forced thousands of voters to stand in line for hours and risk contracting the virus. At least 19 people tested positive after the vote. Many states that still have to hold primaries are considering mail-in ballots as the Corona virus upends the electoral process. Legal challenges will be aplenty and the fights exhausting. The Democrats remember the 2000 presidential election all too well when Al Gore lost to George W. Bush because of a Supreme Court decision on stopping the recount in Florida.

The ‘Bush vs. Gore” is one of the most politically consequential decisions by the Supreme Court. The wounds haven’t healed and 2020 could see a replay. James Carville, a Democratic Party strategist from that era, wrote that the recent decision to prevent Wisconsin voters from mailing in ballots so they could literally avoid dying (from the Corona virus) “was as blood red as it gets.”

He argues that voting by mail should be the norm in 2020 if the pandemic is not under full control by this summer. But the Republicans don’t want to commit either way. They swear that by November things will be “normal” when people go to vote. But Democrats’ fears are not unfounded given the history of voter suppression by Republicans who routinely target African American voters for “special” attention.

Biden said last week that he was worried Trump might try to delay the presidential election. He told supporters that Republicans were trying to “force in-person voting no matter the health cost. No one should have to risk their lives to cast a ballot.” He said between Trump and the Russians, attempts will be made to interfere in the elections. As for delaying the election, Trump can’t change the date of 3 Nov without an act of the US Congress. However, Republicans can use measures to “suppress” the vote, a fear that’s ever present for the Democrats. If mail ballots are not allowed by certain states, voter turnout will be low and ultimately hurt the Democrats.

Beyond the admittedly huge logistical problems, would Biden be able to defeat Trump if this were a normal election being fought in normal times? Not really and many Democrats agree. Biden is past his prime and tends to have difficulty remembering facts. Even though both Trump and Biden are septuagenarians, Trump is a younger 73 and Biden is a much older 77. And it shows in nearly every interview even though friendly anchors tend to ignore Biden’s lapses.

Then Biden’s public policy record is all over the place – as a long-time senator he has been on all sides. He voted for the Iraq War and justified working with segregationists. In addition, he has been accused of sexual misconduct by more than five women and sexual assault by a former senate staffer. Trump’s history with women is far worse, no doubt, but it didn’t seem to matter with voters in 2016. If it does become an issue, would the Democrats justify Biden’s conduct as marginally better than the incumbent’s?

Biden has also made outrageous claims which upon investigation have turned out to be false. One such was his claim of being “arrested” in South Africa before apartheid ended. Nothing close to an arrest can be documented. Debates between the two candidates could be devastating for Biden if only because Trump is perpetually aggressive and doesn’t bow always to facts or history.

The daily Corona Task Force briefing provides Trump with a readymade platform while Biden struggles in his basement to effectively connect with voters. His campaign is still struggling to come up with a good digital strategy. His advisors are fighting over whether to use an in-house team or hire outside expertise. Trump’s digital army has been preparing for the last three years and even has a “rapid reaction force” to quickly rebut Biden’s messages and ads. The fight seems one-sided at least for now.

Biden’s war chest leaves a lot to be desired. Trump and his political action committees have a total of $244 million in cash while Biden and his supporters had only $57.2 million after accounting for debts, according to the New York Times. In addition, there is an intense rivalry and bad blood among various Biden political action committees. But two billionaires – George Soros and Michael Bloomberg – have donated generously.

All the money may not be sufficient if Bernie Sanders’ supporters don’t come out for Biden. Without them Biden would limp. Progressive voters face a stark choice – they recognise Biden is a flawed candidate but will they make the strategic choice of voting for him to prevent a second term for Trump? The choice is starker in battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where staying home and not voting would ultimately help Trump.

As the campaign season progresses, there could be many surprises and it would be unwise to make any assumptions, especially after the experience of 2016 when even Trump didn’t think he was going to win. But he did.

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Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi

Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC. She writes on US foreign policy in relation to South Asia. Seema has worked with several ...

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