United States Presidential Elections 2020 A neck-and-neck contest
On 3rd November, 2020, the United States (US), arguably the world’s most powerful country is going to vote its President for next four years. Customarily, the US American Presidential polling date is the Tuesday after the first Monday in November of the election year. The elected President and Vice President formally join the office in January. This is called inauguration of the offices. A president can have maximum two terms. Donald Trump, the current President, is seeking re-election.
American Political System
The American political system has adopted a Presidential form of government. In the Presidential form of government the head of the state and the head of the government are the same. Article II, Section 1 of the US Constitution lays down details for election of the President and Vice President. Only a natural born Citizen who is at least 35 is eligible to the Office of President. The Presidential candidate needs to stay at least for 15 years as a Resident within the US.
India and the United Kingdom have adopted the Parliamentary form of government in which the head of the government is formally selected/elected by the Parliament. The head of the state could be either elected or a monarch depending on whether the country is republic or monarchy. In the US, a President is elected directly by an electoral college. However, the constitution of electrical college is in itself a highly complex design. American voters first choose presidential electors for the Electoral College. These electors eventually elect the President and Vice President of the US. This is considered a settlement between a ‘popular vote by citizens and a vote in Congress’.
The US constitution lists details of the Electoral College. The College consists of 538 electors and a candidate getting 270 votes wins the Presidential election. The Article II. Section 1 of the US constitution has the provision: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.” Thus, different American states will have different electors depending on the size of its House of Representatives—the lower house.
As a result, eight American states such as Alaska and Delaware have 3 electors each and some just 1. California has got the largest number of electors (55) to the Electoral College. Texas sends the second largest (38) and Florida and New York the joint third largest (29). Pennsylvania (20), Illinois (20), and Ohio (18) are other big states contributing to the Electoral College. Each elector has one vote. The fault of the electoral democracy may haunt the Presidential system as well. Even if a party/candidate wins more popular vote, it may secure less electors because of the state quota in the Electoral College.
The nomination of electors figuring on a slate is done through a two-part process. First, a political party in a state selects a ‘slate’ of probable electors before the election. Second, on the Presidential Election Day, the voters decide on their State’s electors. The first part is under control of a political party. Under the US Constitution, there is no uniform or single procedure for nomination an elector. A state is free to choose its own device of nomination for the electors. However, 36 states use state party convention to nominate electors and 10 states prefer state party committee for the purpose. A political party generally pick up trusted party persons for the slate.
For the second part of this process, voters in a state generally elect the slate of their Presidential candidate. It is not necessary that the name of potential electors should figure just below the name of the Presidential Candidate they are supposed to elect after getting themselves elected. However, no uniform procedure or practice exists here as well. Each state is free to choose its own procedure and practice. But in in Nebraska and Maine, proportional distribution of the electors takes place. As one of the official documents of the US government notes: “in Nebraska and Maine, the State winner receives two electors and the winner of each congressional district (who may be the same as the overall winner or a different candidate) receives one elector. This system permits Nebraska and Maine to award electors to more than one candidate.”
The first Monday after the second Wednesday in December means on December 14, 2020, all the electors or the slate will cast its votes to elect the President. This normally takes place in the state legislative assembly. Separate ballots are used to vote President and Vice-President. Counting and recording of the votes are done, and results are attested by the Governor of the state and sent to the President of the U.S. Senate, that is, Vice President. Although there is no constitutional or legal obligation for the electors to vote the Presidential or Vice-Presidential candidate they are elected to supposedly vote for, yet the electors rarely deviate. On January 6, in a joint session of Congress, votes are counted and the president-elect is declared. And on January 20, the ‘inauguration’ of President and Vice-President takes place.
As discussed, the campaign for 2020 is taking place under the shadow of the Covid-19. The Republican Presidential candidate caught the virus after the first round of debate. The second round of the crucial presidential engagement went without any action. For a long period, the political system had already discussed the feasibility of holding election and the fearful scenario of running a crowded campaign. Although the nominating process of Presidential candidate for Democrats did see some thaw, yet it picked up momentum later. The Vice Presidential Candidate of Democrats also elicited curiosity and enthusiasm notwithstanding her politically controversial positions on many of the issues.
As the Presidential election is held under the shadow of the Covid-19, quite obviously, the management of Pandemic is the most dominant theme. The debate on the management starts from the lockdown to the testing to the availability of vaccine. President Trump’s positions on medicine and vaccine are catching flak. Democrats have been trying to build public opinion against Trump’s loose statements. His move to short-circuit the vaccine’s availability also became a major issue. The medical community was roped in to counter his move. It appears before the election date, no vaccine is going to hit the normal commercial market. Equally important is the management of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic
Racial mishandling by the police is also haunting the election. George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May 2020 triggered a massive protest all over the US. This put the Republican Party on defensive, and gave an opportunity to Democrats to mobilise public opinion against Trump for his divisive racial policy. The Vice-Presidential nominee of Democrats represents the African and Asian racial feelings to correct racial injustice. The voice is raised for a national commission to review racially discriminatory practices and policies. The demand to reform criminal justice appears quite frequently. The protest led to the demand for police reforms as well.
Democrats are more vocal on racial equality than Republicans. They have been emphasising on an inclusive economic development model. Yet, in general, the political environment seems to be worried about health and the future health policy for Black and Brown Americans. The Covid-19 has relatively badly affected the Black and Brown communities both. The idea is that systemic racism will end when the civil society and state both make positive intervention. Biden pushed for racial equality in his build back plan and promised a number of measures and mechanisms to end unemployment in the Black and Brown communities. Democrats issued a fact sheet on how to empower the black community.
The build-back plan of Democrats has several pillars. Engaging the black and brown communities is one of the pillars. They are promising to put emphasis on curbing the high unemployment rate since the Great Recession. To deal with underemployment or end the pay cut or health care, Democrats are projecting a different economic growth approach during the campaign. Democrats are also talking about giving a boost to the small business.
President Tump is highlighting his achievements and accomplishments. On September 4, 2020, Republicans claimed: “Job growth marked the 4th largest gain in American history, 2.5 times better than any month under the Obama-Biden administration.” President Trump is also highlighting the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which according to his election publicity materials, has succeeded in extending benefits in terms of ‘tax relief for 82% of American middle-class families.’ He, too, projected benefits to small business by his 20% tax cut. He told the American people that the cut had yielded in $415 billion relief for small business.
Trump also underlined tax benefits for 500 companies which in turn has led to wage increase and bonus for workers. New investments into the American economy, projection of around 3% growth rate of economy before the break out of Covid-19, plan for reducing already reduced unemployment among Hispanic, Asian and African American communities and so on are other poll planks of Republicans.
Whether it is Trump or Biden, economic growth and reduction of unemployment in the US are very significant in the Presidential election campaign because the American society is hit hard by the slowing of the growth rate. The Covid-19 has worsened the situation. Trump, no doubt, gave hope to Americans by reviving the economy before the Pandemic crisis. The voting will show whether it could be really turn Trump’s economic improvement into a victory march. Trump has succeeded in pushing protect America or America First policy in economy and trade. Now even Biden has to speak “made in all of America”.
Immigration has continued to remain an important election issue even in 2020. Both the candidates have positioned themselves on it. For Trump, immigration laws and policy are meant to protect American communities and American jobs. For Biden, his Presidency will have a ‘plan for securing’ American values as a ‘nation of immigrants’. Democrats hold: “Generations of immigrants have come to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs, the hope in their heart, and a desire to claim their own piece of the American Dream. It’s the reason we have constantly been able to renew ourselves, to grow better and stronger as a nation, and to meet new challenges.”
For Trump, it is going to be ‘the transition to a merit-based immigration plan’, ‘a wall along the Southern border’, plugging ‘legal loopholes that enable illegal immigration’, ending ‘chain migration’, and the end of the ‘visa lottery program’; no ‘negotiations for a Global Compact on Migration’– the idea for ‘global governance of immigration and a refugee policy’ and the like. In a nutshell, Democrats are campaigning for soft border, and republicans for strict immigration policy through laws and law enforcement machinery.
As for security, both the political parties and their Presidential candidates have articulated their points. But President Trump looks more assertive and aggressive. He has been highlighting that his first term saw an increase in the defence budget for military modernisation, and his promise is to do it even in the second term. Trump’s glorification of the United States Space Force, and his pledge to take new initiatives and revive the dormant programmes may witness a continued militarisation and weaponisation of space. He is also making statements to take the leadership in new or emerging technology. On North Korea nuclear weapons, the Iran nuclear deal, confrontation with Russia, etc the campaign witnessed all old pronouncements of President Trump.
Biden also pledged to maintain American military superiority by not making any defence cut but he maintained that his concept of defence will be affordable, and the military waste will end. His idea of modern and affordable defence has the massive plan for artificial intelligence and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. So, like Trump Biden is also promising to focus on new or emerging technology. Like Trump, Biden is also in favour of reducing large deployment of combat forces abroad. It means allies and friends will be asked to contribute to maintaining common security.
Both the candidates are promising a new strategy for Afghanistan by putting pressure on the Taliban and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Trump’s pronouncement on Afghanistan appears more favourable for India’s involvement to promote safety, security and development of Afghanistan. However, Biden as Vice-President, had assured that India’s security would not be adversely affected. America’s Afghanistan policy, whenever implemented, will factor in India. Biden is promising to shift its focus on dismantling the Al-Qaeda and ISIS. On Pakistan, the viewpoint of Trump is much more pronounced. He warned it by saying that “no partnership can survive a country’s tolerance for militants and terrorists, and they must take action.” But India should not feel complacent.
When the candidature of Kamala Harris was announced, in India and the India community, there was an apprehension that Democrats will be anti-India. Kamala Harris, in the past, had made adverse statements on India’s move on 370 and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). However, if Biden becomes the President of the US, his administration may have to reconcile its stand on these two issues. Already, Biden has made several statements on the asylum for persecuted Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan. This solves the crux of the matter. With little efforts, the Biden Administration, if it becomes a reality, will understand the merit of CAA. It is well known that propaganda, not facts, has driven the entire anti-CAA movement. It is quite possible that Kamala Harris became a victim to such propaganda. She needs to be engaged. The Indian government and civil society both may have to do the task on other issues such as 370, visa and tariff as well.
China is another area where India may have a good working relationship with the US. Trump’s trade war has already brought India closer to the American economic map. The Ladakh standoff has emitted positive signals from the Trump Administration and the same signal may keep coming when he gets the second term. Some analysts view that Biden will be neutral on China. In fact, Biden has also come out in support of India during his election campaign, and sees a greater role for it in Indo-Pacific in the light of aggressive and assertive Chinese behaviour. However, the real statecraft becomes different from election promises. The US has a highly complex and unpredictable decision making process. India will have to negotiate well whosoever comes to power.
This brings to the question: Who will win the election? The world nowadays relies on opinion polls, which despite the methodological sophistication, lack precision in prediction. At times, polls go wild. Yet, these polls are consulted to get indication. And the indication shows that it could be a Biden Administration. Leave alone CNN even conservative media groups such as Fox news and Financial Times are predicting so. Late turnaround cannot be ruled out. But India should oil its machinery to deal with the new US government of any US political party.
By Rajiv Nayan