Opinion

Debate: US presidential election 2020 – can Biden defeat Trump?

Whatever future Americans awake to on the 4th of November, one thing is certain. It will be a future shaped by Donald Trump alone.

Edmund Kelly

In any other year the announcement that Bernie Sanders had dropped out of the Democratic primary race – thereby sealing the nomination for former Vice President Joe Biden – would have made front page news. That it did not is no surprise, it having been understandably swept aside in the tide of coverage on the global pandemic. But the incessant coverage of the Democratic primary race prior to the pandemic should be of genuine surprise to us all. Coronavirus did not render the outcome of the contest irrelevant; the truth is that it should have been disregarded from the beginning.

Long before Biden’s eventual clinching of the nomination, coverage of his candidacy occurred almost entirely through the lens of a re-run of 2016. Sceptics bemoan the similarities to Clinton’s ill-fated campaign, whilst optimists extol Biden’s ‘electability’ (read: he’s not a woman). Despite the constant attempts to draw comparisons to 2016, the 2020 presidential election is an entirely different affair to its predecessor, and one in which any Democratic nominee faces an uphill struggle.

Incumbents very rarely lose presidential elections. In the last century of American political life, only four incumbents have been ejected from the White House by the ballot box. What’s more, incumbent defeats have almost always been accompanied by moments of exceptional national crisis, most notably Hoover’s botched response to the global financial collapse of 1929. Faced with a plethora of handicaps, least of all the inertial preferences of voters, challengers must act to immediately and decisively take the front foot. This task was always going to prove nightmarish.

President Trump may never have been extraordinarily popular, but crucially he was popular enough to win in 2016 and he has remained as popular since. Faced with historic administrative turnover, impeachment and now a global health crisis, he has continued to enjoy the steadiest approval rating of any president since the Second World War. And already Trump’s campaign has raised well over $300m, double the funds than Obama had at this stage prior to his re-election.

And what of the elephant in the room? Discussion of the impact of the global pandemic upon November’s election has so far focused upon either the effects of economic crisis or of the so-called, ‘rally around the flag’ effect. The former is proposed to damage Trump’s opportunity for re-election, the latter to bolster it. But voting behaviour now revolves around entrenched and deeply polarised tribal identities, with the ability to turn out one’s base decisive for determining electoral success.

Whilst comparisons to Clinton’s 2016 defeat are ill-advised, assumptions that the Democratic Party will unite around its nominee are as misguided as they were four years ago. Sanders may profess his endorsement for his former opponent, as Biden undoubtedly would have done if their fates were reversed, but a startling 15% of his supporters plan to back President Trump come November.

Whatever future Americans awake to on the 4th of November, one thing is certain. It will be a future shaped by Donald Trump alone.

What this boils down to is simple: Biden is a stronger candidate than Sanders because he is more likely to beat Trump.

Madeleine Ross

Joe Biden, in many ways, is very similar to Bernie Sanders; he is an elderly white man with an impressive backlog of political experience to call upon. Unlike Sanders, he has a reputation for bipartisanship and as a centrist. He is polling higher against Trump than Sanders, and has more support amongst independent voters. Sanders, and the democratic-socialist movement that includes the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, have not yet convinced enough of the Democratic base that a shift to the left is both ideologically correct and politically expedient. Biden’s more centrist policies promise to attract more undecided independent voters in key states.

After the chaos caused by Covid-19, it is not unimaginable that voters will want stability and a return to a state of normalcy. Biden, as a traditional centrist and long-time Washington insider, represents as steady a hand as it is possible to imagine. He has a reputation as someone who strives to ruffle as few feathers as possible. He is less ‘drain the swamp’ and more status quo, but he is also a politician that has argued strongly for campaign finance reform, and has promised legislation to overturn Citizens United. Biden promises a return to the traditional Washington political culture, but an improved version.

An encouraging sign for Democrats is that Trump is not currently experiencing a ‘rally around the flag’ effect which is typically caused by crises like Covid-19. The lack of a bump in the polls suggests that Americans aren’t pleased with how the president has dealt with the crisis, and the mass unemployment that the virus has caused is predictably only going to make things worse for Trump in the coming months. Biden, who is popular in the Rust Belt states, and as a centrist has the capability to appeal to workers in swing states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, is in a much better position than Sanders to capitalise on this.

What this boils down to is simple: Biden is a stronger candidate than Sanders because he is more likely to beat Trump. He is, and always was, the more likely candidate. And, if that is not enough of an incentive, then keep in mind that he is old, and has committed to a female running mate. Voting for Biden might be the fastest route to a woman being in charge of America – in all but name.

Oliver Shaw

Oliver (he/him) is the Senior Current Affairs Editor at The Oxford Blue for the summer vacation and Michaelmas 2020. Oliver lives in Warwickshire and is entering his final year studying History at Merton College.