Column | US presidential polls are more about promises alternatives

Column | US presidential polls are more about promises alternatives
US President Donald Trump and Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden. Design: Onmanorama

The US elections in 2020 are not about Democrats and Republicans. They are about leadership, whether the present one has delivered and whether the alternative will be better. The ideological differences between the two parties are thin and there are many who swing between the two parties, depending on their assessment of the incumbent and the expectations about the challenger. In the present case, the elections are a referendum on the style and performance of an unusual President, who defied traditional methods of decision making and implementation. In practice, it is a test as to whether a successful billionaire businessman can run the most powerful country in the world, with mere practical skills and without any political experience. It is a test whether the powers at play in his favour in 2016 still hold good in 2020.

Trump was far behind Hillary Clinton, but the electoral system worked in his favour and the near unanimous predictions of the polls and the press proved wrong. There were mild protests against his victory right from the beginning, but the democratic traditions prevailed and the verdict was accepted. Then came a period of trial and error, some virtues of Trump’s approach were acknowledged and there was a sense of optimism.

A decisive President without the hesitations of history and the strait jacket of a political agenda seemed to be effective even though it was a tough ride throughout his term.

Domestically, his policies were divisive, as they served to consolidate his supporters and made the minorities feel insecure. But the general economic growth, reduction of unemployment and scaling down of immigration created a positive impact. People began to feel that Trump was not a bull in the china shop and that there was a method in his madness. His support base grew in certain sections even as he infuriated other sections.

In international affairs, Trump’s biggest weakness was the charge that it was a conspiracy with Russia’s Putin that brought him to power. This pursued him till his failed impeachment and denied him any leeway to improve relations with Russia. On China, he began with a charm initiative, but it soon turned sour and Trump initiated a trade war against China. The most dramatic initiative was with North Korea, which transformed the American position of total condemnation of the North Korean leader to a “friend” to whom Trump wrote love letters. The President of North Korea made use of the opportunity to strengthen his position, even while appearing to accept the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Trump made a mistake in alienating the NATO allies and even Canada. He also encouraged Brexit and angered the European Union. He walked out of various agreements, treaties and commitments, reversing many of the changes that Barack Obama had brought about. He also brought the US to the brink of war with Iran and Iraq. His greatest diplomatic success was in the Arab world, when the UAE and Bahrain recognized Israel with the support of Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s accomplishments paled into insignificance when COVID-19 struck the world. His approach to the pandemic was unscientific, reckless and irrational. The US could have done better and saved thousands of lives and vital livelihoods if only the President had followed scientific advice and public opinion. The blood of the many COVID-19 victims is on his hands and the situation was further compounded by the economic crisis and racial conflict. His standing, which rose after the defeat of the impeachment proceedings, plummeted and today he is at least 10 points behind Joe Biden in opinion polls.

The disastrous first Presidential debate and his infection worsened the situation. His return to campaign without a mask has made him a super spreader himself. Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate also made some dent in his popularity.

India and the Indian Americans are of marginal significance in this election, but they have come on the centre stage because of the impression that Trump has been good to India and that many Indian Americans have moved from their traditional Democratic moorings to vote for Trump. Trump was no more friendly to India than his predecessors, except when he calculated that he could derive economic or political benefits for the US and himself personally. It was an opportunistic posture, liable to be abandoned in the next tweet. His immigration policy has left thousands of Indians in the lurch.

The Trump administration has come closer to India as its relations with China deteriorated and the Chinese conflict and confrontation in the Ladakh region presented an opportunity for the US to get closer to India. India inevitably walked into a US embrace as negotiations and economic measures did not result in disengagement by China and the face off continues. Days before the elections, the US Secretary of State and the Defence Secretary will be visiting New Delhi to strengthen military cooperation. All these have created a stake for India in the continuity of the Trump administration. But this may not have any practical impact on the elections as the minds of the voters have been made up.

Apart from the inclination to vote for the Democrats, the Indian American community has been influenced by the general sense that the US needs a change of leadership. Kamala Harris has also ignited interest even though she considers herself more a black than an Indian American. She has leveraged considerable funding for the campaign. Her statements in the past on Kashmir have caused suspicions, but it is expected that the Biden administration will be friendly to India when the leadership understands the present global situation, once the official briefings start.

In the United States, opinion polls can be grossly misleading. The electoral system throws up leaders who do not have popular support, unreadable ballot papers may lead to unexpected results and absentee and advanced balloting may open the Pandora's Box.

An intense battle in the Supreme Court may well bring out a result, which goes against the majority public opinion. Like it happened in 2016, psephologists, journalists, strategists, thinkers and astrologers may fail to predict the outcome of the Presidential elections in 2020. No one will stick his neck out to make a prediction at this stage, given the complexities of the election this time. We can only hope that the best man for the US and the world will win.

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