Battle lines have been drawn for the US Presidential elections, with “law and order” versus “poor leadership”, especially during Covid-19, emerging as the key rival themes.
The campaign kicked off officially over the last fortnight, with the Democratic National Convention (August 17-20) and Republican National Convention (August 24-27) — both online for the first time ever. The Republicans nominated President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for a second term, while the Democrats named former Vice President Joe Biden for President and Senator Kamala Harris for Vice President.
What is the Republican pitch?
At the Republican National Convention (RNC), Trump said America is under attack from “anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters and flag burners”, and that only he can stop the destruction. His reference was to protests over the shooting of Jacob Blake in recent days, and demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd in May-June — both men of colour.
American analysts have said that Trump’s tapping into the politics of fear and lawlessness recalls the 1968 elections in the US.
What is common with the 1968 elections?
In April 1968, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, followed by protests and violence across the country.
Richard Nixon, Republican Presidential candidate, made restoring “law and order” the centrepiece of his campaign. At the 1968 RNC in Miami, he said, “As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night… And to those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, there and here is a reply… our goal is justice — justice for every American.”
Reaching out to white suburban voters, Nixon referred to them as the “voice of the great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators”. Driven by the fear of violent mobs of black men, white voters in the suburbs carried the day, and Nixon won.
In 2020, Trump is tapping into the same instincts of white, suburban voters with a fear-based “law and order” appeal to a “silent majority”.
But will the suburban electorate not have changed since 1968?
Between 1968 and 2020, the suburbs have acquired a much more diverse and mixed-race demography. The “suburban voter” is not “overwhelmingly white” anymore: According to a 2018 study cited by The Washington Post, only 68% of suburbanites were white, 14% were Hispanic and 11% were black.
In recent decades, suburbs have been sites of Black Lives Matter protests, too. A New York Times analysis said suburban voters disapproved of Trump’s handling of recent protests and race relations by an even wider margin, and 65% had a favourable view of Black Lives Matter.
Another difference is that in 1968, Nixon wasn’t yet President. This time, the protests and violence are taking place under President Trump’s watch. That complicates the situation — in fact, Nixon’s similar rhetoric later in the term didn’t work.
To counter the charge of racism, the Trump campaign also fielded Black speakers. Football legend Herschel Walker, who is black, said at the RNC, ”I have seen racism up close. I know what it is. And it isn’t Donald Trump.”
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What is the Democrats’ pitch?
At the Democratic National Convention (DNC), Bide focused his campaign on lack of leadership to tackle the pandemic, which has claimed more than 1.8 lakh lives in six months. His campaign has pointed to the mask-less convention at the White House lawns, which he called “a super spreader event”.
Biden cast himself as someone who can take America out of the crisis, as an “ally of the light, not the darkness”. With Harris as his VP nominee, and testimonials from people of colour, the Biden campaign tried to reach out to the non-white voting constituency and the college-educated white voter as well.
Overall, Biden’s key message has been to caution American voters that another four-year term would lead to more deaths and chaos on the streets. His team wants to keep the spotlight on Trump, rather than himself — he has made gaffes in his speeches in the past. Trump named Biden 40 times in his speech, while Biden didn’t name him even once.
Why the Republican focus on Biden?
The Republicans have labelled Biden as not physically and mentally fit to lead the country. The Trump team has labelled the Biden-Harris duo as the “radical left”, and one who encouraged the “violent mob”. Trump has pointed out that Biden, 77, would be the oldest first-term President if he should win in November.
The Democrats, for their part, have portrayed Biden as someone with long and deep experience as Senator and Vice President, and someone with empathy. Biden’s calling card is also his extensive experience and has worked with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office where they tackled H1N1 and Ebola. And his convention speech was without any gaffe.
The DNC also put out stories from Biden’s own life — he lost his wife and 13-month-old daughter early in a car crash, and a son died of brain cancer — and pitched him as someone who can become the “griever-in-chief”, according to American analysts. Democrats are harping on Biden’s “empathy” to appeal to the American families who have lost their loved ones to the pandemic.
How is the race placed?
Both Conventions got the same amount of online attention — about 50 million social media interactions (likes, comments, shares) on related stories.
Two first ladies — former and current — dominated the viral stories from the two Conventions. While Michelle Obama was the most popular from the DNC, Melania Trump was the most viral from RNC. Michelle Obama’s speech was 5 times more viral than former President Barack Obama’s, according to online data trackers. Melania Trump’s message on Covid-19 and empathy was something Democrats found most effective, as they attacked her husband over the pandemic.
The national polls had been steady until May-end, when Biden was leading with 5 points. After the protests over Floyd’s killing in May-June, his lead is now 8 points. Currently, it is at about 50% for Biden and 42% for Trump.
How indicative are such leads?
Upsets can happen. As Axios, a news outlet, pointed out, “It feels like August of 2016 all over again. Polls show Donald Trump losing big. Pundits proclaim he can’t win. Reporters sneer at Trump voters on Twitter and cable.”
While Biden’s lead is higher than Hillary Clinton’s lead over Trump in August 2016, Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, wrote, “But leads like the one that Mr Biden currently enjoys have been overcome before. In 1988, Democrat Michael Dukakis was 17 points ahead after his party’s convention but lost in November (to George W Bush).”
He quoted a survey from mid-August that showed Biden seven points ahead. “But when voters were asked who they thought their neighbours were supporting, Mr Trump was ahead by five points. This may point to the existence of a group of ‘shy; Trump supporters, who will not admit their allegiance to pollsters.”
Another poll taken in July in Pennsylvania — a key battleground state — showed a 13-point lead for Biden. “But when voters were asked who they thought would win the state, they opted narrowly for Mr Trump by 46-45,” Rachman wrote.
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