As of this writing, Democratic challenger Joe Biden is leading Donald Trump in the national polls with 10-point poll average. The latest NBC News tracker also showed Biden leading with 212 electoral votes while Trump has 125 electoral votes. For a candidate to win the US election, he/she must only receive 270 electoral votes. With the national polls consistently showing a clear Biden victory, what could possibly account for an upset win of Trump over Biden? Here are the possible reasons why Trump may still win the election.
REASON #1: Joe Biden lacks strong and consistent positive messaging that does not revolve around anti-Trump sentiment
If there is something to heavily criticize about how Joe Biden and the Democratic Party run their campaign that is its lack of positive messaging that veers away from anti-Trump sentiment. In short, Biden and the Democratic party choose to run on a predominantly negative campaign that centers around Trump.
What is negative campaigning? Geer (2016) defines negative campaigning as “attacking an opponent” which includes any forms of criticism leveled by one candidate against another during campaign; in contrast, positive campaigning emphasizes policy positions or party’s record on government (Benoit, 1999 cited in Halsemayer, 2009).
Although negative campaigning dates back as early as Cicero who insisted on ‘including negative campaigning in the campaign to remind the people of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought in themselves’ (ibid), recent empirical studies have revealed that negative campaigning is not particularly effective campaign strategy (Haselmayer, 2019; Lau et. al. 1999,2007; Kahn and Kenny, 2004 cited in ibid) as it promotes “demobilization” of voters and provokes voter disaffection and lowers turnout and/or reduce feelings of political efficacy, trust in government and satisfaction with government itself (Lau et. al., 2007 cited on ibid).
In the case of Joe Biden, his campaign terribly lacks positive messaging that is at par with Barrack Obama’s “Yes we can”, “Change we can believe in” or his key messages of “Hope””Forward” and “Progress.” When I close my eyes, I can still imagine these phrases that are associated with Barrack Obama.
However, Joe Biden’s “Our Best Days still Lie Ahead” or “Build Back Better” campaign message hardly resonates and creates instant recall, at least from my perspective as an overseas observer of US politics.
In fact, the Democratic Party as a whole suffers inconsistent messaging from defunding the police, support to riots that coincided with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, banning of fracking to how exactly the question of race and class will figure on the campaign especially in view of the BLM and the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, the Democratic Party’s core voters are liberal-minded, progressive and multi-racial voters. However, race is a delicate double-edged sword. Too much emphasis on race will alienate the Others, specifically the white working class voters. And the biggest irony of all is that Joe Biden himself is a quintessential white man who is running for President against another white man, Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, ever since the defeat of Hillary Clinton last 2016, the Democratic Party has been at its all-time low due to weak party leadership. Although, pure luck or not, its biggest nemesis, Donald Trump has also become the source of its strength and political messaging. In fact, if we are going to be honest, the core of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party’s campaign message is “Defeat Donald Trump At All Cost.” However, as stated earlier, this is in the nature of a negative campaigning that is ontologically entangled with Donald Trump that may in fact strengthen him by demobilizing voters and promote voter’s disaffection. Although, this hypothesis can be challenged by the fact that there is a surge in early voting this election that may indicate greater voters’ interest. But this begs the question: whether or not US citizens are voting early as a sign of protest against Donald Trump? The Democrats and their supporters think so. But such optimism should be received with caution given that the approval rating of Donald Trump remains relatively high and stable at an average of 42% despite of the huge impact of the pandemic to US economy and unemployment.
Are the blunders of Donald Trump greater than the institutional weakness of the Democratic Party? The election on November 03 will answer that question.
REASON #2: Donald Trump has positive and consistent campaign messaging that is most likely to prompt his supporters to cast their votes
In contrast to Joe Biden, Donald Trump’s Keep America Great and Promises Made, Promises Kept campaign messages have been properly laid out to appeal on his support base. His pro-life, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and anti-immigration policy positions, no matter how controversial and divisive they are, directly appeal to his intended core voters- the white Catholic and evangelical votes.
Between Joe Biden’s diverse anti-Trump voters, and Donald Trump’s conservative white supporters, the latter’s core voters, no matter how small or alienated they are, have more positive motivations to actually send their mail-in ballots or go to the precincts to vote. These motivations may include plain white racial supremacy, the desire to overturn Roe vs Wade and Obergefell vs Hodges, the feeling of alienation and distrust against the perceived liberal bias of the mainstream media establishment in the US, or just pure egotism as bolstered by Trump’s right-wing rhetorics, among others.
The challenge for Joe Biden and the Democratic Party is to ensure that the on-going anti-Trump sentiment in the United States will convert to actual voting behavior or send US voters to the voting precincts on November 03 to cast their votes against Trump.
REASON #3: Joe Biden has limited grassroots and person to person campaign than Donald Trump
The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly changed the terrain of this year’s US election. Both candidates have to contend with the limitations imposed by the pandemic which include lesser physical interaction due to quarantine and social distancing measures. However, Trump and Biden adopt different ways of adjusting under the new normal. While Biden shifted to digital campaign which resulted to his record-breaking fundraising haul which pulled $493.8-million over the past two months, Donald Trump, on the other hand, stick with the traditional on-the-ground campaign. Data also reveal that although Biden’s campaign was able to raise a historic amount of money contribution, it only spent $4.8-million on travel this year which is significantly lower than Hillary Clinton’s 12.5-million travel spending last 2016 election. In fact, Donald Trump’s on-the-ground campaigns on swing states like North Carolina have more attendees than Biden’s rally due to strict social distancing measure imposed by the Biden’s team.
Why is Biden’s limited grassroots and person to person campaign critical on his chance to win against Trump? Simple, on-the-ground person to person campaigning is crucial in convincing swing states’ voters to vote for him. In fact, the victory of Barrack Obama can be attributed to his heavily organized widespread grassroots campaign which we do not see on Biden’s campaign today.
Although, some argue that Biden’s record-breaking fundraising campaign is an indication of strong grassroots supports, still this must be noted with caution given that Hillary Clinton also outraised Trump significantly last 2016, but she still lose at the end.
REASON #4: Trump enjoys the advantage of 1) rally to flag effect due to Covid-19, 2) Federal government resources and machineries and 3) the statistical odds in favor of the incumbent re-electionist President
In contrary to the expectation of pundits and experts, the Covid-19 pandemic has the effect of favoring the government and its incumbent officials. We see this in the case of President Duterte of the Philippines who, despite the lackluster performance of his government in the fight against Covid-19, still received record-high approval ratings. This is partly due to the “rally to flag” effect, and the simple fact that in times of unprecedented crisis like Covid-19 pandemic, it is the government which the people will ultimately depend on. [READ: The Indestructible Mr. Duterte] This is similar to the case of President Donald Trump who still enjoys a respectable 42% approval rating despite the sheer amount of divisiveness he spews and the backlash he receives from the American public.
Whether this high approval rating will translate to actual vote in favor of President Trump will depend on how he can use the machinery of the US Federal government to his advantage. And this is in fact the next crucial reason why President Trump may still win the election.
The incumbent re-electionist candidate enjoys a unique advantage of using the resources of the Federal government during the campaign. In fact, President Trump has been using federal agencies as re-election tool. He can also fly anywhere in the United states using Air Force One, which could partly explain why he has more on-the-ground interaction with voters than Joe Biden.
Lastly, in terms of pure statistics, the odds of winning the Presidential race are always in favor of the incumbent President running for re-election. There were only ten re-electionist US Presidents who did not win the race. The last was George HW Bush in 1992; the last before him was President Carter during 1980 election. Many factors can explain why a re-electionist US President did not win the election, but according to Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, recent one-term presidents have been the victim more of adverse circumstance than of their own weaknesses. George HW Bush confronted recession and the effects of decreased emphasis on foreign policy in a post Cold-war political climate. For President Trump, the Covid-19 pandemic might have an uncanny effect of bolstering his chances of winning the race due to the rally to flag effect as explained earlier. However, his possible defeat can only be explained not by any extraneous circumstances but only his own weakness. If he loses his re-election it is because he is the victim of his own undoing.
REASON #5: The United States needs Trump to maintain its hegemony and salvage the collapsing Neoliberal Capitalist Order
The last reason why the US electoral public may still elect President Trump in office is slightly more theoretical and speculative. In the book The Global Rise of Authoritarianism in the 21st Century published by Routledge just months ago, Berberoglu (2020) noted that the emergence of Trump coincides with the global rise of fascism and authoritarian leaders like Duterte and Bolsonoro. This signals that the neoliberal order is in deep crisis. In the United States, this finds expression with the rise of right-wing politics which champions xenophobic policies, among others. Spectator (2020) attributed the election of Trump from the critical relationship between the deteriorating neoliberal economic situation during the past several decades and its contradiction on a world scale, including its devastating impact on working people in the United States, and the populist reaction to the decline of an empire.
Sadly, this global trend is not going to stop anytime soon especially in view of the rise of China which poses a great and immediate threat to a unipolar system presently ruled by the United States.
A Joe Biden presidency also cannot stop the United States from falling into the greater depths of violence and decay as the Empire begins to stretch its muscles to secure its hegemonic position in the changing global order. For what is happening in the US domestic sphere- the increasing racial violence and class divide, increasing police brutality and state’s surveillance, or the rise of white supremacists as emboldened by President Trump himself– is but a symptom of the on-going shift in the global order.
It is but a historico-material necessity for the United States to be ruthless and violent in order to maintain its empire more so at the end stage of its imperialism. And Trump remains as the perfect candidate that will secure the position of the United States in the world albeit with a catastrophic cost on the liberal democratic order, basic human rights and decency.
Case in point, a ruthless and undiplomatic Trump Presidency might be needed to counter the rise of China which Barrack Obama and the Democratic Party emboldened during their administration.
Will the Biden presidency be as ruthless against China and others which challenge the US interests in the world? Perhaps yes, but most probably not given how the Democratic Party is still deeply entangled and invested to the norms and institutions of the liberal democratic order which President Trump is very willing to dismantle as long it can serve the interests of the United States.
A 2017 statement of Biden where he echoed the Democratic Party’s benign position towards China proves this point. He was quoted saying “I want China to succeed. They don’t have enough energy, they don’t have enough water.” Earlier this year he said, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man—They can’t figure out how they’re going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. They’re not bad folks, folks… They’re not competition for us.”
To end, if there is one thing that is certain in politics, it is its uncertainty. Thus, while polls suggest a Biden victory, its results may still vary as we approach the November 03 election. This is no time for the Democratic Party and their supporters to be complacent lest they will experience a déja vú of 2016 when Hillary Clinton was expected to win by the polls only to lose at the end. Is Donald Trump going to be a victim of his own excesses, hence, will lose his re-election? We can only really know the answer after the results of November 03 election are revealed. [WATCH our special podcast on Trump vs Biden on Naked Politixxx Podcast]