On November 3, Americans will decide whether to give another four years to Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, or to give the Oval Office to former vice-president Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate. Their collective decision will impact the world, and India in particular.
The US election is being held in an atmosphere of deep polarisation, arguably not seen since the Civil War more than a century and a half ago. Opinion polls reveal that the majority of Americans have made up their minds on who they want as their next commander-in-chief.
For those who are not familiar with the American electoral system, it is not the popular votes that decide the winner, but an electoral college representing all states. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency because of his superior electoral college tally, despite losing to Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly three million popular votes.
As with nearly all presidential elections of the past 20 years, this one will be determined by fewer than 10 key “swing” states. That is because most states are either strongly Democratic, such as California, New York and Massachusetts, or solidly Republican, such as South Dakota, Alabama and Mississippi. The swing states, this year, include Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These are the states where both the Trump and Biden campaigns will be spending the bulk of their resources and time over the next eight weeks.
The most recent polls show Trump trailing Biden by a sizeable margin of 7-8 points nationally and by a slightly lower margin in most of the swing states. In large part, these poll results showing Biden ahead are attributable to Trump’s stewardship of the country during his tenure in office. And most especially his flawed performance during this election year on the so called bread and butter issues of health care and the economy. The president’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic raised serious questions within the electorate about his competence.
In order to protect the stock market, Trump went into campaign mode and told Americans that the virus was not a threat. Even after the virus began to escalate in terms of cases and deaths in March and April, Trump constantly underplayed its magnitude, fearing that it might jeopardise the economy—the primary issue he was planning to run his re-election campaign on. Trump was absolutely wrong about the impact of the coronavirus but correct about its impact upon the economy. The US economy tanked after the outbreak of the coronavirus intensified and 22 million people lost their jobs in March and April alone. Despite Congress’s pumping in over $2 trillion to address the coronavirus’ effect, more than half of those jobs have not come back and the economic recovery remains painfully slow.
Biden has vowed to shepherd America through the health crisis and guide the economy out of the current recession. He has some credibility in this regard as former president Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act was passed while Biden was Obama’s vice-president. And, Biden played a leadership role in guiding America’s recovery from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.
Another factor that contributes to Trump’s low poll numbers is that he has governed almost exclusively in the interests of his supporters. Since January 20, 2017, when he was sworn in as the president, Trump has seldom reached out to Americans who didn’t vote for him. Importantly, he never made any meaningful attempt to unify the country after a bitterly fought and acrimonious 2016 election.
This failure to bring the country’s citizens together became more pivotal this year after the killings of Black Americans by police and subsequent protests across the country which turned into riots in cities, such as Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin. This gave Trump the opportunity to play the “law and order” card and appeal to his base which is overwhelmingly White and to try to stoke “fear” in segments of American society. As the racial situation has become more volatile, Trump has made no effort to bridge the racial divide or reach out to Black Americans. Biden, by contrast, has put forward an inclusive agenda but has taken an assertive position against those who engage in violence and law-breaking.
As the presidential contest enters the home stretch, following the September 7 Labour Day holiday, the question becomes which candidate’s past performance, positions and messages will play best in the swing states. Trump’s base, which is mainly white males without college degrees, is well represented in many of the battleground states. That is why the president has a better chance in those areas than he does nationally.
The Biden campaign understands that and is making every effort to avoid the fate of the last Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton who didn’t do well and to emulate Barack Obama who ran very well in those states. The campaign strategy includes heavily targeting traditionally Democratic-leaning minorities and immigrant groups such as the Indian American community in those battleground states where they have a substantial presence.
The Trump campaign will be making a play for Indian American voters as well. The president has touted his close relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with whom he has appeared in two large public events in the past year, the last one being in Ahmedabad last February. Trump may have a slight impact.
But, in my estimation, most Indian Americans are likely to reject his overtures because they want America to remain inclusive and welcoming for immigrants like them. Indian Americans have an added incentive to vote for the Democratic ticket in November because Biden’s vice-president nominee Kamala Harris is half Caribbean American and half Indian American. From an Indian American perspective, a Biden victory would give the community a seat at the highest table of power in the United States for the first time.
Moving from the US to India, would Biden or Trump be better for the future of relations between these two largest democracies in the world? Some Indian analysts, especially those on the right, have concluded that Trump would be better for India than Biden. There is little evidence to support that conclusion. Relations with India have continuously advanced under every president since Bill Clinton. Each of his successors has taken ties to the next level. The landmark India-US civil nuclear deal was made possible by the administration of President George W Bush. President Obama, who visited the country during both his terms, re-branded the ties as one of the most defining relationships of the 21st century.
Contrary to the policies of his past three predecessors, little of substance has been accomplished during Trump’s time in office. On the other hand, bilateral trade has regressed because of Trump’s protectionist policies and personal style. Biden has been a friend of India throughout his Senate career and tenure as vice-president. As chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was a supporter of the India-US civil nuclear deal. He is also in favour of more trade with India, with less protectionism. His position on H-1B and immigration is more aligned with India than Trump’s.
If the past is a prologue, India-US relations would fare much better under Biden than Trump. The same would hold true for the future of Indian Americans and the United States. Trump would bring four more years of chaos and carelessness. Biden would bring four years of calm and compassion. Given the consequences of 2020 in the United States, in India, and around the world, it is time for calm and compassion.