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Ahead in polls yet lose the election?

By Shivaji Sengupta

 

According to most polls, two weeks before November 3, the Democrats are comfortably ahead. Not in a very long time has a presidential candidate been ahead by almost ten points this close to election day. (We have to go back to President Eisenhower’s second term in 1956 for that). Republicans are aggressively defensive. They are behind in polls, short of money, their leader’s physical health is in doubt (if the media is to be believed), and the Coronavirus is reigning supreme.

 

Here, I feel a tug at my coat. “Remember 2016?” Democrats are asking this question with fear; the Republicans with hope. Yes, Hillary Clinton had surprised us all, even Donald Trump himself. Apparently, on election night, he had drafted two letters: one accepting victory, another a longer one, conceding defeat. Just to give you an example of the upset: according to USA Today, in the city of Detroit in Michigan in 2016, Hillary Clinton was leading three weeks before the election by ten points. On Election Day, she lost Michigan. In the whole country, Clinton won 3 million more votes but lost the Electoral College by 76. So, beware 2016! As the title of Clinton’s book analyzing her defeat exclaims, “WHAT HAPPENED”?

 

What happened, indeed.

 

2020 is not 2016

 

Hindsight is 20/20. So, in 2020, we know that the public got at least two things wrong in 2016: one is that Trump’s staunchest supporters hardly participated in polls. They simply came out in droves on November 8 to vote Hillary out. As my friend, the distinguished attorney Anand Ahuja, Vice President of Indian-Americans for Trump in 2016, said at the time, “Never mind the polls, the only poll that counts is the one on Election Day.” A second major error was assuming that, despite signals to the contrary, a number of voters who traditionally vote Democrat, like blue-collar workers and a majority of women, broke with them to vote for Trump. The New York Times reported that 53% of white women voted for the Donald despite his countless obscene, sexist comments against them. A swathe of African Americans, 98% of which had voted for Obama, stayed home. We didn’t need hindsight in 2016 to know that Hillary was disliked by a vast number of Americans. Indeed, as to who was disapproved of more – Hillary or Donald – was an open question. The public decided Trump was the lesser of two evils.

 

I voted for Hillary out of admiration for the Clintons’ massive intellectual and political acumen and leadership skills. I also wanted to see a woman finally become the President of the United States. So, when women (including some from my own family) said that just because Hillary is a female does not give her a pass to the White House; I was struck by their pseudo-objectivity. I have since written that Hillary Clinton’s sterling credentials stood out far more than Donald Trump’s shady ones. Hillary is a graduate of Wesleyan College and Yale Law School; a tireless lawyer for children’s rights, a senator, and Secretary of State. These have nothing to do with being a woman and everything to do with solid public service. Yet women didn’t trust her presumably because of the numerous questionable financial deals she had brokered when her husband was president, such as the Whitewater real estate deal. I suppose Trump’s voters didn’t know then what kind of crooked financial deals he has participated in all his life, and still does; the tax evasions, for example. To me, the Hillary-Trump divide was massively about Americans not being ready for a woman president. In this, Trump’s diehards led the way. Come hail or high water; they would not have a woman as their president. That was 2016.

 

Fast forward to 2020. This time, not only Joe Biden is not a woman; he is the quintessential commoner: a Roman Catholic, son of the soil whose father was an industrial worker. Biden has strong ties to union workers. He does not have superstar academic credentials and takes pride in it. Back in January, he was not liked much more than Trump was. But such has been the current President’s tendency to shoot himself in the foot, that by now – three weeks before the election – Biden’s approval rating is noticeably higher. Wall Street Journal claims that even among those who do not particularly like either Trump or Biden have decided to vote Democrat. This was not the case four years ago. Then, those who couldn’t choose between a Democrat or a Republican voted for a third party. Not this year. According to the Washington Post, Republican or Democrat, people are voting for either Trump or Biden. Since registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans, and since the polls point to the Democrats, the expectation is that the Democrats will win.

 

 

Back in January, Joe Biden was not liked much more than Trump was. But such has been the current President’s tendency to shoot himself in the foot that by now – three weeks before the election – Biden’s approval rating is noticeably higher. Wall Street Journal claims that even among those who do not particularly like either Trump or Biden have decided to vote Democrat. (Photo courtesy AP)

The one fear among the electorate was that, because of Coronavirus, and because of the fear of voting chaos drummed up baselessly by Trump and his supporters, people might not vote. But two weeks into early voting, more than nine million people have already cast their ballots, and millions more are sending mail-ins. If these trends hold up, Democrats have a very good chance to win.

 

Can Trump still win?

Let’s discuss now what are the possible pathways to a Trump victory. Definitely, Trump can still win. According to Real Clear Politics, history might repeat itself and could give Trump more Electoral College votes even if Biden garners 5% more of the popular vote. Hillary Clinton got 2% more. To win, Donald Trump must keep his loyal voters and win all the swing states he had won in 2016, admittedly a tall order. Of the states he had won, two – Michigan and Pennsylvania – favor Biden by 4 to 5 points. None of the states Hillary won last time are breaking for Trump this year.

 

Furthermore, States like Arizona and North Carolina are also distinct Democratic possibilities. Florida, too, once safely Trump’s, now has Biden leading. How can this scenario change?

 

Trump and the Republicans are hoping that in late October or even early November, some catastrophic “news” will befall Joe Biden that will upend him and turn the tide. It happened to Hillary when James Comey announced that he had found some more suspicious emails in the Secretary of State’s personal server. This year Trump is calling upon his Attorney General, William Barr, to announce that he has some damaging secret files on President Obama and Vice President Biden regarding an allegedly illegal investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign. So far, the Attorney General hasn’t come up with anything, and, much to the President’s chagrin, announced on October 12 that no such evidence has yet been found. Even if something were to come out, he said, it wouldn’t be before Election Day. Secretary of State Pompeo has announced, at Trump’s behest, that he is making public some more of Hillary Clinton’s emails when she was the Secretary of State. Mr. Trump is so desperate that he is using the powers of his office to get elected.

 

Trump had been going after Joe Biden ever since the beginning of 2020. He was trying to involve the former Vice President in a so-called shady deal with Burisma, a company in Ukraine, that paid Hunter Biden, Joe’s son, over $80,000 a month for serving on Burisma’s Board of Governors. Nothing came out of it, and Biden wasn’t negatively affected.

 

Though I dare say, he should have been. As V.P., Biden should not have allowed Hunter to involve himself in any financial deal because such undertakings smack of conflict of interest. Our politicians, especially those running for high office, need to be beyond reproach. So far, most of them have not been able to, except for Barack Obama. So, Trump is not likely to get much of a lift from his Attorney General.

 

Instead, the lift might come from the current confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Even though public opinion favored the Democrats’ position about not holding the judicial confirmation hearing at a time when the voting has already started; even though more than half the people polled believe it should have been the next elected president to nominate a Supreme Court justice after the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Trump is hoping that a hostile and aggressive questioning of Judge Barrett would turn off voters and they would line up for Trump. Republicans, in fact, point to the extremely quarrelsome questioning of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The public was so turned off, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell claimed that in 2018 the voters returned an even bigger Republican majority in the Senate. (He said nothing about the Republicans losing the House). So according to this point of view, Democrat venom against  Kavanaugh reinforced the Republican Senate.

 

But Amy Coney Barrett is no Bret Kavanaugh. The latter came under particularly aggressive questioning because of the accusation of sexual harassment. Judge Barrett is spotless. I personally applaud her for being a mother of seven children, including adopting two interracial Haitian kids. Therefore, I will bet my bottom dollar that the Democrats will turn the Supreme Court confirmation not into a personal attack on the judge, but into a vociferous appeal to save the Affordable Care Act, and the abortion law, Roe v Wade. The Democratic Senators in the judiciary committee hope that by emphasizing the danger of ACA being declared illegal by a 6-3 conservative-leaning Supreme Court, they will persuade millions of viewers not to vote for Republicans trying to repeal the law since its inception in 2010. I predict that the Court will not invalidate ACA.  The worse that will happen is they will remove the issue of fine or tax altogether, or, which is more likely, return the matter to the lower courts. Bottom line: Trump won’t get what he wants out of it.

 

So then how can Trump win? There aren’t too many ways left, except for a very scary one. If the election is close, he can challenge the results as corrupt, appeal, and leave it hanging in courts. In 2000, a conservative Supreme Court gave a verdict in favor of the Republican George W. Bush over Al Gore when the Republicans challenged the validity of a number of votes cast in Dade County, Florida. CNN and other major TV stations had called Florida for Al Gore. Such a scenario is obviously on Trump’s radar. In an impromptu conversation, taped by CNN, he speculated about a possible Supreme Court intervention, should he challenge the election results. On Tuesday, under questioning from Senator Patrick Leahy (who noted that President Trump has said he needs his nominee confirmed because he thinks Democrats will try to steal the election from him and it will end up in court), Judge Barrett did not answer, instead saying she would faithfully work through the process of deciding what to do.  Perhaps remembering this, Joe Biden has been urging his supporters to help Democrats to an overwhelming victory.

 

Alas, from the President’s perspective, even this ploy might misfire. 2020 is not 2000. Then, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority was not hastily put together like it is being done this year. “In shameful haste,” as Shakespeare would have said, after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. The Court, if confronted with Donald Trump’s insidious challenge, will have to be painfully mindful of its own supposedly apolitical reputation. To blatantly declare Trump the winner may not be in the cards.

 

By the time this column is in print, there will be barely two weeks left to a tumultuous election in a rough year. So much has happened, the political water so sullied by politicians in general but Donald Trump in particular, that Americans are tired and disgusted. We need this to end, normalcy restored, the road to recovery to begin.

 

Amen.

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