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In the U.S., it could go either way

Combo image of U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden during the first debate on September 29, 2020.   | Photo Credit: AP

With scarcely two weeks of campaigning remaining before voting day in the U.S. presidential election, it appears that the Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, is building a considerable lead over the incumbent, President Donald Trump. However, there are warning signs that the Democrats would be unwise to take the prospect of victory for granted.

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First, consider the onslaught of the pandemic, which brought the U.S. economy to its knees. A grinding slowdown in business activity led to a historic high in unemployment levels (14.7%) in April 2020. While the joblessness rate has come down since, it has put the spotlight on the federal government’s failure to respond with an agile, science-driven pandemic strategy that could have saved lives and refloated the economy.

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Many may now consider Mr. Trump a bungling commander-in-chief, who attacked masks, lockdowns and social distancing as Democratic scare tactics. Yet — and this is where it is important to understand the psyche of American society — there is a considerable segment of voters — mostly white, in semi-urban and rural areas, either blue collar workers or small business owners — who genuinely abhor diktats on mask-wearing and dread the crushing economic impact of lockdowns. This is why, even though the latest polls suggest that north of 53% of Americans disapproved of Mr. Trump’s performance of his job and only a little more than 41% approved, his approval ratings have remained stable. Not only does this reflect that Mr. Trump likely has a core cohort of supporters who are intensely loyal and will vote for him, it is also driven by the intensifying partisan polarisation of voters — namely the fact that over the course of his term in office, an average of 87% of Republicans have approved of Mr. Trump’s handling of the job, compared with an average of only 6% of Democrats.

Second, the election outcome will be driven to a large extent by undecided and independent voters, many of them situated in swing states. Currently, Mr. Biden enjoys a lead in the swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona and Michigan, whereas Mr. Trump holds the lead in Ohio and Iowa. However, a caveat that most sensible analysts of opinion polls underscore is that these polls undercounted Trump supporters in 2016, and there is no clarity on whether they have corrected this; and also that the same polls may be overcounting Democratic support given the likelihood that more people may express support for Mr. Biden than actually turn out on voting day.

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Anecdotal evidence from battleground states suggests that undecided voters are seeing the election as a choice between an incumbent with a weak character but a Republican-based economic policy that lifted up the economy until COVID-19 struck; and a challenger who has integrity of character — read as ‘not prone to abuse people on social media and elsewhere’ — but might raise crushing taxes on the middle classes.

The possibility of a showdown

Third, the historically unfounded controversy whipped up by Mr. Trump around mail-in voting has the potential to dent Democratic prospects as election month rolls around. In a survey by the Pew Research Center, 50% of Trump supporters said they would cast their votes in person versus 20% of Biden supporters. Similarly, 51% of Biden supporters said they would vote or already have voted by absentee or mail-in ballot compared with 25% of Trump supporters. With Republicans rushing to confirm a conservative Supreme Court nominee and Mr. Trump refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power, the stage may soon be set for a political showdown of biblical proportions that sees the election outcome decided in court.

These factors point to swirling uncertainty over which of the two candidates hold sway. Regardless of opinion polls — proved wrong in predicting the 2016 outcome — neither candidate ought to find reasons for complacency in this terrain, during these final, critical days of campaigning.

narayan@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2020 8:48:33 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/in-the-us-it-could-go-either-way/article32903360.ece

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