Published:  12:11 AM, 17 September 2020

Only seven weeks away US elections still unclear

Only seven weeks away US elections still unclear
If you want to understand what's happening with the US Presidential election, you need to know three things before setting out on that journey. The first is that anyone that says they're certain who will win, President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden, is either delusional or dishonest. The second thing is that almost every statement coming out of the US about who might win and why is colored by a prism of partisanship; so take care before accepting what you are told as fact.

You will notice I said "almost every statement," and this article is designed to fall in that small "almost all" group. The third insight is that even pundits and pollsters, whose job it is to predict elections, have acknowledged that traditional methods for predicting election outcomes have limited value in 2020. As one of those experts put it, "All models are wrong, some are useful, many will be misinterpreted."

Mr. Shoeb Chowdhury's recent article did a good job of giving readers specifics about how US elections work; for instance, that the overall popular vote does not determine the winner but electoral votes, based on the popular vote in each state, does; and that determines each candidate's strategy. Of the five states with the most electoral votes, three of them (California, New York, Illinois) are reliably Democrat. So much so, for instance, that in the last election, voting in Illinois ended at 7pm, and the state was called for Hillary Clinton before 7:01; and because of US demographics, Democrats tend to carry them by large numbers.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the fourth person to win the popular vote but lose the election because her opponent, Donald Trump, won the majority of electoral votes. But if you remove California from the equation, the largest state in the US, Trump wins the popular vote as well. In other words, it doesn't matter if you win a state by one vote or ten million; the winning candidate's electoral vote total is the same.

The Electoral College (EC) was a compromise reached after the American Revolution (1775-1783) between those who wanted to maintain something akin to England's Parliamentary System, whereby Congress would select the President, and those who wanted a more comprehensive break from the English system and called for direct, popular election. The EC was an acknowledgement that citizens' interests and values are affected by where they live and that the people in different parts of the country have different values and priorities.

That was when the United States was comprised of only 13 states, all running along the eastern seaboard from New Hampshire in the north to Georgia in the south. If the founders recognized that much variation then, imagine the diversity in today's United States of a 1/3 billion people in a land mass larger than all but two nations (Russia and Canada). I like the Electoral College because it is a check against the tyranny of the majority. As one US Senator from a rural Midwest state told me, "We don't want a bunch of people in New York and Los Angeles telling us what to do." His sentiment reflected a streak of independence and self-reliance that is a core American value, and their fear of more intrusive government favored by many citizens in large coastal cities.

Given that, thereality is that most states have little chance of being competitive. Before the election even starts, we can be almost 100 percent certain that 21 states with 163 electoral votes will go to the Republicans, and 14 states plus Washington, DC, will give their 187 electoral votes to the Democrats. That means that 15 states with 188 electoral votes are where the election will be decided: Arizona (11); Colorado (9); Florida (29); Georgia (16); Iowa (6); Michigan (16); Minnesota (10); Nevada (6); New Hampshire (4); New Mexico (5); North Carolina (15); Ohio (18); Pennsylvania (20); Virginia (13); Wisconsin (10). A President needs 270 to be elected, which means Biden needs to 83 votes from that group, Trump 107.

Some of those states, such as Georgia and New Mexico, are less competitive than the others. We should recall, however, that Donald Trump won in 2016 in part because he was able to surprise Democrats in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin and capture their 46 electoral votes. Prior to 2016, the last time Pennsylvania or Michigan went Republican was in 1988, carried by President George H. W. Bush; and Wisconsin had not gone Republican since President Ronald Reagan carried it in 1984. But 2020 is a different year, and Democrats will not be surprised in those three states again.

They are putting a huge effort into capturing votes there, which they did not do in 2016. Biden has maintained small to moderate polling leads in those states, however, momentum has been moving clearly in Trump's direction.Pollsters also are admitting that Trump voters are difficult to poll. As a top Republican finance chairs told me, when asked, Democratic voters tell pollsters for whom they plan to vote, but Trump voters refuse. So pollsters move on to someone else, which skews the numbers.

My original home state is Pennsylvania where I got my political "baptism of fire." Joe Biden was born and raised in the Pennsylvania town of Scranton, and he always has had strong support in the Keystone State. If that support helps return Pennsylvania to the Democrats, Biden will need only 63 of the remaining 168 electoral votes in those so-called swing states. With about seven weeks until the election, it's still a tough call, but I would advise readers to watch Florida and Ohio (47 votes).

If Trump starts pulling ahead in both of those states, he will have a clear path to re-election; with Georgia and Iowa (22) shaping up to be less competitive than originally thought, he'll need to find only 38 more electoral votes out of 119 remaining, and could lose one of the three states that put him over the top in 2016.But that's if he pulls ahead in Ohio and Florida. No Republican has ever been elected President without carrying Ohio and Trump will need both states to win again. Biden could lose both;and with New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Virginia (22) looking more likely to go for him, he'll need 61 of 119 remaining electoral votes. But again, this race is really undecided at this point.

COVID-19 threw the election into disarray. Before the pandemic, Trump appeared headed to an easy win with the economy hitting all-time highs and the country virtually free of unemployment. But the pandemic changed all that, and many people have criticized the way that the Trump Administration handled it. Then came the police murder of George Floyd and general agreement that we had to fix the way our justice system treated people of color.

At that point, things started looking better for the challenger. The US, however, has experienced many periods when citizens identify problems with our democracy, the most notable in recent times being the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. With the exception of our Civil War (1861-1865), we have addressed the problems and made our country better with the tools in our Constitution and democratic traditions.

Thus, many protests turned violent, and Democratic run cities did not crack down on the lawlessness; there was a reaction. Trump emphasized his commitment to law and order, and opinion started moving in his direction again. More recently, people have become aware of the Trump Administration's major foreign policy victories-from peace in the Middle East to putting the brakes on Chinese expansion. While foreign policy generally has less impact on US elections, it remains to be seen if it makes a difference to enough voters in critical EC states.

Make no mistake.This election is about Donald Trump, with Joe Biden being a secondary character in the drama. A recent poll asked voters whether they were voting for their candidate or against his opponent. Eighty-three percent of Trump voters said they were voting for their candidate, as opposed to only 59 percent who said they were voting for Biden. And that's the best way to understand this election. As one Democratic strategist said, dismissing the importance of those numbers, "Democrats hate Trump more than cancer." I expect that was hyperbole, but it made the point that Democrats' anti-Trump vote is as strong as Republicans' pro-Trump vote.

SOMETHING TO CONSIDER, 2004. Going into the 2004 election, President George W. Bush was unpopular with a lot of Americans, in large part, because of the Iraq War. But it seemed to most people that the campaign against him by Democratic nominee John Kerry was, 'I'm not Bush.' It wasn't enough and Bush was re-elected to a second term. Are we seeing something similar in 2020?

So while the election remains too close to call, we can go into its final weeks with more than how we feel about Donald Trump. Will the momentum in the next several weeks work for him or his opponent?  Let's look again in October.

The writer is an American scholar and a geopolitical analyst.

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