Guest Notes

US notes

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

Can Joe Biden prove more popular than Hillary?

In the current climate of massive disruption in all countries, political predictions about forthcoming elections are especially hazardous.  But, with less than six months until the US presidential election, the most likely scenario is still for a close result.

Prior to the onset of Covid-19 there seemed to be a view amongst many Australian commentators that President Trump would be easily re-elected. This, however, was always unlikely if a mainstream Democrat candidate emerged with the nomination from the primaries, as has happened in the form of Joe Biden. And this is why Bernie Sanders could never be the Democrat candidate, as he would have almost certainly guaranteed Trump’s re-election. Even if Sanders had reached the nominating convention with a sizeable total of delegates, it is unthinkable that the powerbrokers of the Democrat party would have allowed him to be the candidate in November.

What the 2016 election demonstrated was that most states of the Union had solidified into reliable Democrat or Republican bastions. There were only a handful of states that were really in doubt prior to the election and three of these effectively decided its outcome – Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. There is no reason to assume that this pattern will not remain the case in 2020.

It is true that Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million more votes than Trump over the country as a whole in 2016 but this was less than her winning margin in the single state of California.  This result would not have alarmed the founding fathers who established the electoral college system to achieve some balance between the larger and more populous states and their smaller counterparts. There are 538 members of the electoral college so that 270 votes are needed to claim the presidency. There is an inbuilt bias in favour of smaller states because each state’s number of electors is made up of two members, representing each state’s entitlement to two senators, plus the particular state’s entitlement – on the basis of population – to a proportion of the House of Representatives. What this means is that Wyoming, for example, has three votes in the electoral college because it has two senators and one member of the House of Representatives, even though its whole population is less than the average across the country as a whole for one member of the lower house. California, on the other hand, only has the two senators to which each state is entitled but 53 members of the House of Representatives and so 55 votes in the college.  On this basis, each of California’s electoral votes represents nearly four times as many people as Wyoming’s votes. But, as already noted, those who drafted the US Constitution did not want a system under which a presidential election could be decided by a small number of large and populous states.


One problem for Trump’s re-election that emerges from the 2016 result is that he won very narrowly against one of the few Democrats who could be beaten by him. Hillary Clinton, for better or for worse, was a polarising personality and an intrinsically unattractive candidate to many uncommitted voters. Arguably, a different Democrat candidate would have won in 2016. But Clinton had forced all the other contenders, except for Sanders, out of the race before it started. She was determined to be the candidate, despite the problems that that caused for the Democrats, and the party proved powerless to deflect her from this course. What this suggests, however, is that a Democrat candidate in 2020 running without Clinton’s disadvantages should start with at least an even-money prospect of success.

But is Joe Biden such a candidate?  He is hardly a fresh face at 77 years of age and having been first elected as one of the senators for Delaware almost 50 years ago in 1972. After 35 years in the Senate, Biden then spent another eight years in Washington as vice president to Barack Obama.

Although seemingly in good health, his campaign during the primaries was hardly a study in erudition or vitality. But there is no reason to suppose that the traditional Democrat voting base will not turn out for him – unless he were to somehow self-destruct on the campaign trail – and this more or less guarantees that it will be a tough election for the Republicans. There seems little reason to doubt that those who voted for Trump in 2016 will vote for him again, despite the various controversies that have surrounded his presidency. This group was just enough to secure his election on the last occasion but much will depend in November on the number of Democrats who decide to vote and the role of voters committed to neither party, if there be any of those left in the current political climate of the US!

It is interesting that neither the Mueller inquiry into supposed collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government nor the impeachment proceedings against Trump based on alleged interference with the Ukrainian government seem destined to play a significant role in the November election.

The Mueller inquiry, despite the vast amount of time and resources devoted to it, found no evidence of collusion, whatever that nebulous term could possibly mean in the context of an election campaign where all foreign governments would want to maintain good relations with both sides. As for the impeachment proceedings, they could never succeed because the Democrats did not have anything like the two-thirds majority in the Senate that is necessary to convict a president at a trial conducted before that chamber. Both these exercises represented attempts by the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives to either deliver a knock-out blow or to at least do lasting electoral damage to Trump. The first of these objectives failed and the second appears to have resulted in limited success.

There is no doubt, however, that Trump, like Hillary Clinton whom he vanquished, is a polarising character and this is still another uncertain factor in the forthcoming election. It is always a risk to bet too much on a two-horse race.

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