World holds its breath for U.S. election

October 29, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

Ahead of the United States presidential election next Tuesday, the world is holding its breath. Never has so much been riding on the election result, abroad as at home.

If this were a normal year, everyone would be calmly expecting a victory for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, given Biden’s lead in recent opinion polls.

Biden has many issues in his favour. Number one is Trump’s disastrous management of the coronavirus, which has killed around 225,000 and infected more than 8.6 million, the highest of any country in the world. This has greatly reduced Trump’s support among elderly people, one of the worst hit groups. A majority of them voted for him in 2016.

“Anyone responsible for that many deaths should not remain president of the United States of America,” Biden said during the televised debate last Thursday. He promised that, once an effective vaccine had been developed, he would give it free to every American, whether they had health insurance or not.

Number two is the economy. U.S. GDP grew 2.3 per cent in 2019 and this was Trump’s strongest card before the pandemic. The Conference Board forecasts a GDP fall of 3.5 per cent this year. One strategist for Bill Clinton’s successful campaign in 1992 said “it’s the economy, stupid” as the single most important factor for voters.

Number three is money for advertising. In 2020, Biden has spent a record amount for the presidential election campaign and substantially more than Trump.

Number four was Trump’s performance in the first televised debate, when he repeatedly interrupted and shouted down his opponent. His behaviour alienated millions of spectators.

But few people dare to bet on the outcome of the election. In 2016, public opinion polls gave Hillary Clinton a comfortable lead over Trump – but she lost. The polls proved to be inaccurate.

Second, the outcome is not decided by popular vote but an electoral college, according to seats allocated to different states. In 2016, Clinton won 48.2 per cent of the popular vote, against 46.1 per cent for Trump, but only 227 seats from the electoral college, against 304 seats for Trump.

This system benefits the Republicans because of where its voters live. For example, the state of Wyoming has one electoral college vote for every 193,000 people, compared with California’s one electoral vote per 718,000 people. This means that each electoral vote in California represents over three times as many people as one in Wyoming.

During his term, Trump has successes in foreign policy – he has reduced the number of U.S. troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan. ISIS has lost territory and its leader killed in a U.S. commando raid. In these policies, he is supported by a majority of Americans, if not the foreign policy establishment in Washington.

Trump has accused Biden and his son Hunter of making money from business deals in China and Ukraine. Biden has repeatedly denied this, saying that his son did not speak to him about these deals.

The mainstream and social media are full of real and fake news. So polarised is the electorate that supporters of each candidate believe what they want to believe from all this “news”.

One indicator of a Trump victory is the “Yiwu index”, referring to the “world’s supermarket” in Yiwu, Zhejiang province. Based on the volume of campaign goods they sell for both candidates, traders there in 2016 forecast a Trump victory. They are making the same prediction this year.

A further complication is the use of postal votes, expected to be a record this year because of the coronavirus. Nearly 60 million people had cast such votes by last Sunday (October 25).Trump has said that this will lead to widespread fraud. His supporters in some places are making legal challenges to this. In some states, these votes can only be counted after November 3, which will lead to a delay in announcing the result.

Then there is the issue of whether Trump will accept the outcome, especially if it is close. He may request the Supreme Court to make a ruling; six of its nine judges are pro-Republican.

The best way to avoid these obstacles would be a landslide victory for one candidate, which would make such challenges pointless. Biden may achieve such a victory. But no-one dare bet on it.

The eyes of the world will be fixed on the United States next Tuesday.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.