Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Nov 07, 2016
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, the world has become wary of the unpredictable and is bracing for a neck and neck outcome of the Clinton-Trump battle.
Clinton vs. Trump: An election which can go either way

The elections for arguably the most powerful leader in the world and to House of Representatives (435 seats) and one-third of the Senate (34 seats) of the US Congress will be held on 8 November and final results emerge within the next few days. This has been by far the most divisive and bitterly fought US presidential election in recent memory. The level and tenor of discussions has touched new lows, not witnessed thus far. Neither of the two candidates viz. Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump have conducted themselves impeccably, although Hillary has been considerably more decorous while not giving any quarter to her adversary when he was found wanting.

The long drawn out election process has clearly brought out the strengths and weaknesses of the two main protagonists.

Both candidates are deeply distrusted by large swathes of population of USA. Both Clinton and Trump excite deep revulsion among significant sections of society. Final result would hence depend not on which candidate is liked more, but on who gives rise to feelings of lesser animosity.

Several damaging accusations have been levelled at both candidates during the extended campaign. While Clinton has been charged with being dishonest and prone to hiding things and being economical with truth even when it comes to the nation's security, Trump has been criticised for being erratic, unpredictable, having an uncontrolled rage and making derogatory remarks against women, minorities and immigrants.

Clinton is seen as a representative of the ''System'' and establishment. It is expected that if she is elected, it will be at least four more years of the policies pursued by Obama Administration. She is considered to be well entrenched in the Washington Beltway and closely connected to the US federal government, State Department and Pentagon, to its contractors and lobbyists, and to corporate media as opposed to interests and priorities of the general US population. With her in the Oval Office, her opponents contend, there would be no improvement in economic condition of the country and its people, its burgeoning trade deficit with China, the rising health-care costs, the disintegrating infrastructure etc.

To her advantage, Clinton is perceived to be a formidable political fighter. She does not give in easily and can punch back hard in adversity. During her many encounters with Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as during congressional hearings she has proved that she can do remarkably well when confronted by political opponents. Aside from debates, she has proven to be a public official who can absorb many body blows. Clinton has demonstrated the ability to build broad electoral coalitions in different parts of the country, something that will be pivotal in the swing states on 8 November. This was the key to her success against Sanders, who often had trouble reaching beyond his core supporters of young, educated and independent voters.

Clinton's appeal as a strong partisan leader has been a big attraction to different segments of voters enabling her to develop strong loyalties among groups such as minorities, immigrants, women and African-Americans. Clinton has emerged as a robust defender of Democratic domestic agenda even though she is often criticised by progressives for being too much in the centre. Over the course of the primaries, she has witnessed the growing unrest in the Democratic electorate and the demand for a more progressive set of policies. The fact that, if victorious, she would be the first woman president of USA makes her candidacy truly historic. The decision would mark a huge step forward in a nation where women were not even allowed to vote until 1920 and where gender inequality and sexism remains part of the national culture.

Clinton has developed strong relations with Democratic elected officials and candidates whom she is helping in Senate and House races. This is an invaluable asset. These connections will be instrumental to ensuring the best possible relations with Congress if Clinton is elected.

Trump is considered to be an outsider who has never earlier held a government or official position. He is seen to be a successful businessman who, if given an opportunity, could significantly improve the economy and living conditions of the people. He could be expected to take a strong stand against China, protect jobs of the average American people, create more employment and improve the economic conditions of the country.

To Trump's credit, he knows how to tap into and speak to the anger that exists in the electorate. Like others before him, for example George Wallace in 1968, he has a strong feel for the anger in the electorate and has no qualms about articulating that angst. He is willing to say things that a certain section of the voters want to hear, even if there are potential risks in doing so. He can connect with that anger in a way that has proven difficult for others, like Jeb Bush, or takes him into territory they would rather avoid. Being an ''Outsider'', Trump can use his inexperience and distance from Washington to his advantage. At a moment when many voters don't trust anything in Washington, he can claim that he is not part of that city.

If there is one strength that stands above all others is the manner in which Trump handles the media. Despite blasting reporters in press conferences, Trump has demonstrated that he has a crafty feel for the way the modern news and social media work, and has the capacity to shape and direct conversations in the direction that he wants. He has the uncanny ability to make statements that will dominate news discussion for days. Trump has also learned to use the flip-flop to his advantage. Whereas many politicians like John Kerry in 2004 were greatly damaged by taking different sides on a given issue, Trump often gets away with it. He says many different things, providing a little for many to agree with. He refuses to get pinned down when questioned about these inconsistencies. He has argued that flexibility is a positive, particularly in a president who needs to negotiate with Congress and leaders overseas.

Trump has through his utterances managed to alienate and antagonise several significant constituencies and interest-groups including the Republican leadership and core right-wing supporters. This could prove to be a huge disadvantage on polling day. He will need to ensure that his traditional bastion of white, male, unemployed, underpaid, blue collar workers turn out in large numbers in his support on 8 November. This is the only way that he will be able to tilt the scales in his favour. It however appears to be a formidable task.

Notwithstanding or possibly because of all the above reasons, the election on 8 November is an open and shut case. It is too close to call and can go either way. It became even tighter over the last week when on 29 October, FBI Director announced that they were reopening investigations into a fresh set of e-mails sent by Clinton from her personal server that had come to its attention. This has helped Trump to bounce back. While Democrats have understandably been critical of this move, Republicans have welcomed it.

Support for the two candidates has been shifting over time although Clinton has been consistently in the lead except for a short while just after the Republican Convention in July 2016. As of 3 November, Clinton is maintaining a slender preference in percentage terms although she commands a clear advantage in terms of electoral votes in her favour. According to more than ten national polls, Clinton enjoys a significant advantage with 252 confirmed delegates while Trump has the assured support of 163 delegates. 123 seats are still undecided. 270 votes are required to clinch the final prize of the US presidency. While Clinton would need less than 20 out of these toss-up States, Trump would be required to negotiate a much steeper climb.

Clinton hence appears to be in a more comfortable position although nothing can be stated with any degree of certainty. The result of Brexit vote has taught the world to be always prepared for the unpredictable. Trump's own unexpected rise and claim of Republican nomination is testimony to the fact that even the most unforeseen outcome should not be brushed aside. Increasingly, democracy is becoming like a game of cricket. The result cannot be announced till the final ball is bowled.

In the case of the US presidential election, even the polling on 8 November might not be the proverbial final ball. Donald Trump has threatened that he will refuse to accept the result of the election unless he wins. In 2000, results of presidential elections could not be declared after the counting was over as discrepancies of voting in Florida had to be decided by the US Supreme Court. In 2016 also, it could take a while after polling is completed for final result of US presidential election to become available.

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Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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