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From masks to polls, here's what's happening in the US presidential contest right now

The election is happening even if coronavirus has grabbed all the headlines.

The two candidates in separate events on Memorial Day in May.
The two candidates in separate events on Memorial Day in May.
Image: Brian Cahn/PA Images

IT’S JUST 115 days until the US presidential election but there remains a feeling that interest on this side of the Atlantic is nowhere near where it has been in previous years.

To put that countdown in context, rewind four years to July 2016 and we get to the seismic conventions of that summer.

That was when Melania Trump appeared to plagiarise a speech by her predecessor Michelle Obama, and when the parents of a dead US soldier attacked Donald Trump while holding a copy of the US constitution.  

Both those events were huge stories and the entire race was probably the biggest news event of 2016. 

Fast forward to now and Covid-19 has knocked everything else off the agenda. Four years of Trump have also seemingly caused people to simply switch off from US politics, with the result that many aren’t switched on to the current race for the White House. 

Add in an opponent who’s already unsuccessfully run for the presidency on two occasions and you’re unlikely to get much new interest there either. 

But despite Covid-19 still causing huge human suffering in the US, November’s election is coming and is highly unlikely to be cancelled

So what is the state of play right now? 

While Covid-19 may not lead to a cancellation of the election, the virus and the Trump administration’s response to it has unquestionably changed the nature of the race. 

It has changed the game for several reasons, none of which are very good news for the incumbent. Back in 2016 Trump promised the American people they would ‘win so much they would become sick of winning’

Today, the most glaring ‘victory’ the US has is the number of deaths and infections from Covid-19 across the globe, with over 130,000 deaths and counting. Almost double the fatalities from the second-highest country.

This is from a disease that Trump has said on numerous occasions would simply ‘go away’

Source: Washington Post/YouTube

Covid-19 has also brought turmoil to global economies, with the US new unemployment claims approaching record levels. The situation has improved somewhat since the peak of layoffs in April but the problems have robbed Trump of his plan to make the economy the centrepiece of this re-election campaign

Like most leaders and governments around the world, Trump gained a brief approval bounce when Covid-19 took hold, but the often chaotic daily coronavirus briefings turned support into criticism.

The briefings, including the one in which Trump mused about injecting disinfectant, prompted calls that they be pulled from news networks before the the White House took the decision itself to stop them.  

From the launch of his 2020 bid, Biden has placed opposition to Trump as a cornerstone of his campaign. In his announcement video, Biden described Trump as the “greatest threat” to the United States in his lifetime.

This hasn’t changed in recent weeks, with Biden repeatedly saying that Trump is unfit for the office he holds.

Biden’s campaign has been far from conventional and, owing to coronavirus restrictions, there were two months in which he made no public appearances, relying instead on TV appearances from his own home and a beefed-up digital strategy. 

And while this approach was attacked by Republican supporters and Trump himself, the decision appears to have matched the wider mood and has benefitted Biden in polls. 

Recent poll numbers have shown that Biden has a greater lead over Trump nationally than Hillary Clinton ever established, increasing from 3 percentage points in March to 12 last week. 

The picture is also good for Biden on a statewide level, with polling averages in battleground states giving him smaller but significant leads. Florida and Pennsylvania for example, which both crucially went for Trump in 2016, show Biden has leads of 6 points and 8 points respectively.

Where Trump is losing support also appears to be significant, with the same national poll quoted above showing that his support among educated white voters is falling rapidly. 

Trump lost the vote among college educated white voters by 9 percentage points in 2016 but now appears to be some 22 points behind Biden among that same cohort. A potentially huge and important lost chunk of suburban votes in November.

And if the numbers suggest the coalition of voters Trump built to win in 2016 may be disappearing, Biden’s coalition appears to be strengthening.

While the Democratic battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders took a toll on the former come the general election, there is little evidence to suggest Biden is similarly damaged. 

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The New York Times reported this week that former Sanders voters are now backing Biden by 87 % to 4% in a matchup against Trump, with former Elizabeth Warren voters supporting him by 96% to 0%.

The huge numbers suggest that Biden has managed to get more left-leaning Democrats onside, scuttling a repeat of the ‘Bernie or Bust’ campaign from 2016, when up to half of Sanders supporters expressed a reluctance to back Clinton.

pres elec Source: PA Graphics

Veep

Biden’s apparent party unity may also give him a freer hand in choosing his running mate, given he is less in need of placating a certain wing of the party. 

Biden has pledged to select his vice presidential candidate ahead of next month’s mostly virtual convention and he has already promised the candidate would be female.

The favourite to be selected is former rival Kamala Harris.

While Biden may not be under pressure to choose a more progressive candidate like Warren, the racial reckoning happening in the US is certainly increasing the pressure that he select a politician of colour as his running mate.  

upi-20190731 Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in a Democratic debate last year. Source: PA Images

Harris not only comes from an Indian-Jamaican background but she also memorably clashed with Biden on racial issues during a previous Democratic debate.

Selecting Harris could be seen as a statement by Biden that he is open to listening to others about race issues, an important acknowledgement by a 77-year-old white man in the Black Lives Matter era.

Other African-American women have been similarly suggested as potential running mates, among them Obama-era UN ambassador Susan Rice and Florida congresswoman Val Demmings.

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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