OPINION

After the Ohio debate chaos, the essential politics

Tuesday’s chaotic Presidential debate, and the first, between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, was unusual in that it was not focused on a substantive discussion of policies, but overwhelmingly focused on the speakers and their dynamics. So much so that debate moderator Chris Wallace, who, prior to the debate had declared his desire to be invisible, also became a talking point.

Therefore any analysis of the debate (and its aftermath) must, rather than focusing on specific policy positions alone, examine other signs to get a fuller sense of the priorities at this stage of the campaign.

Suburban focus

It is clear that both candidates are reaching out to suburban voters but their conception of the suburbs are different. Additionally, Mr. Trump catered to his base — evidenced by his reluctance to condemn outright, white supremacism. His calling into question the legitimacy of the election because of mail-in voting also stood out in the debate. On the other side, Mr. Biden’s response to the charge that he was controlled by the “radical left” and his reference to his working-class Scranton, Pennsylvania, roots are indicative of the votes he is specifically targeting at this stage in the campaign: those in the middle class (some of whom have likely not decided how to vote) and working class white voters, who have over the years shifted to the Republican party.

Since Tuesday, Mr. Trump has found distance between himself and some key Republicans on Capitol Hill for his failure, during the debate, to condemn the ‘Proud Boys’ — an all-male group of “western chauvinists”. Instead, the President instructed the group to “stand back and stand by” before immediately saying that somebody had to do something about “Antifa and the left”.

Several Senators including Trump supporter Lindsey Graham and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell distanced themselves from Mr. Trump’s comments. Others, such as Susan Collins of Maine who faces a tight electoral contest also criticised Mr. Trump. With all House seats and over a third of Senate seats being contested in November, Republicans on Capitol Hill fear alienating moderates (i.e., those who are outside of Mr. Trump’s loyal vote base) and losing support among racial minorities. Mr. Trump walked back his ‘Proud Boys’ statement on Wednesday.

Trump’s voter fraud narrative

The President, who trails behind Mr. Biden in the national polls, signalled, as he has been doing for some time now, that in the event of a tight contest, he would allege voter fraud over mail-in ballots. Americans are expected to vote by mail in unprecedented numbers due to the pandemic and there is no evidence that mail-in voting is associated with a significant level of voter fraud in the U.S.

Mr. Trump urged his supporters to watch polls at polling booths on Election Day. Critics have said this is tantamount to voter intimidation.

Other talking points

The President has also tried to get Mr. Biden to alienate moderates and undecided voters, who are particularly important in battleground States. He did this on Tuesday by repeatedly accusing Mr. Biden of being controlled by the “radical left” in the context of health-care policy and the Green New Deal (progressive Democrats’ framework for climate action and the economy).

Presumably, Mr. Trump’s strategy was to discourage moderates from voting for Mr. Biden, who is a centrist.

Mr. Biden denied he was “dominated” by the left flank of the party and that the party platform was approved by him and that he had defeated progressive candidate Bernie Sanders “by a whole hell of a lot”. Mr. Trump’s response was that Mr. Biden had “just lost the left”.

Several progressive leaders have since closed ranks with Mr. Biden. For instance, on Wednesday, Mr. Sanders told ABC that he was campaigning for Mr. Biden and that his and Mr. Biden’s health-care plans were indeed different, as per a report in The Washington Post . With regard to suburban voters, especially women, Mr. Trump’s narrative is that Democrats’ reluctance for law and order would impact suburbs. His administration has also rolled back some Obama-era fair housing policies.

During a debate segment on crime, Mr. Trump said that if Mr. Biden got to run the country, “suburbs would be gone”. Mr. Biden’s response was that he was raised in a suburb and that it was not the 1950s, so dog whistles and racism do not work and that suburbs were “by and large integrated”. (While suburbs are more integrated than in previous decades, most Americans do not live in substantially integrated neighbourhoods, as per PolitiFact).

Mr. Biden has highlighted his working class city of Scranton as a campaign theme, contrasting it to his characterisation of Mr. Trump’s background: Scranton vs. Park Avenue. On Tuesday, he said Mr. Trump and his friends looked down upon Irish Catholics like him “who grew up in Scranton” and on people who did not have money (Mr. Trump shook his head in disagreement). Abstracting from whether or not this is a fair characterisation of Mr. Trump, this is the populist theme Mr. Biden has been pushing (it is true that Mr. Biden’s family did fall upon hard times when he was young).

On a post-debate campaign tour of Ohio and Pennsylvania by train (Mr. Trump flipped both States from Democrat to Republican in 2016), Mr. Biden reached out to white working class voters. In Alliance, Ohio, he drew parallels between the economic hardships faced by those whose factories risked closure to his own father’s experience of having to leave Scranton when coal mines started shutting down.

Judicial nomination

Also important was the discussion around Mr. Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court; the Senate confirmation hearings of the judge are scheduled to begin on October 12. Democrats and Republicans will use the hearing to show-case issues to voters.

Given how polarised the country is and how stable candidate vote shares are, there is a view that the controversy around the timing of the nomination itself will not impact Mr. Biden’s or Mr. Trump’s chances significantly.

Elaine C. Kamarck analyses this in a paper for Brookings. Mr. Biden has maintained his national lead through this year of “unimaginable drama” — the pandemic, racial tensions, shutdowns and conventions. He led by 5.4 points in February and has a 6.6 point lead now. While these numbers are indicative of stable vote shares, they do not mean that Mr. Biden will necessarily win the presidency. First, polls undercounted support for Mr. Trump in 2016. Second, these are national and not State polls.

Winning the popular vote is one thing, winning the elections is another. As in 2016, the outcome might come down to a handful of votes in a few key battleground States altering the Electoral College arithmetic enough to make a winner of the candidate who loses the popular vote. The candidates are clearly aware of this.

sriram.lakshman@thehindu.co.in