A guide to US Presidential elections: What swings US Presidential polls 

The fact that donors have flocked to Biden indicates which way the wind is blowing. It requires a seismic, last-minute development to stop him now

  Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Mike Pence  
Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Mike Pence

Ashis Ray

The United States presidential election represents the largest constituency for a contestant anywhere in the world. It's an electorate of 230 million voters. Around 150 million of them are expected to exercise their franchise by election-day on 3 November. 50% have already voted or posted their ballot in a special dispensation extended because of the Coronavirus epidemic.

In the American electoral system, cumulative countrywide popular votes do not decide an election. Winning states by securing majorities in them constitute a decisive factor. Such victories translate to electoral college votes from the country’s 50 states and in the modern era a nationwide total of 538.

Therefore, the pass mark stands at 270. A candidate can lose a greater number of states and yet win, if he or she bags an adequate number of college votes. These vary from 55 from California on the west coast to states throwing up merely three votes each.

In 1789, George Washington was elected unopposed to become the first American president. He was re-elected, again without opposition. Consequently, the first true battle occurred between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in 1796. The former won; but the latter, who came second in a multi-cornered fight, was appointed vice-president. In 1800, Jefferson turned the tables on Adams.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who stood for abolition of slavery, triumphed. He won a second term – in the midst of the American Civil War - by a landslide. But his tenure was cut short by him being assassinated in 1865.

Democrat challenger Franklin Roosevelt captured 472 college votes in 1932, when a deep depression gripped the US and unemployment was at a record level. The economic circumstances of the period bear comparison to the current state of affairs in America, with COVID-19 stalling the economy and generating massive joblessness.

Fulfilling his “New Deal” (an economic recovery package), Roosevelt was returned to office in 1936, receiving 523 college votes. AfricanAmerican voters, hitherto with the Republicans, switched in his favour. Uniquely, he is the only president to serve more than two terms, indeed he won four times in succession. He achieved this despite being paralysed from waist downwards and being restricted to a wheelchair. He died a year after his final election in 1944.

In 1947 federal lawmakers passed an amendment to the American constitution to stipulate a person could only be elected as president twice and for a total of eight years. This was ratified by the states in 1951. General Dwight Eisenhower, a Second World War hero in the European theatre, won two consecutive terms in 1952 and 1956 on a Republican ticket. He was succeeded by a dashing John Kennedy, a Democrat and the first Catholic to be elected. His predecessors were all Protestants. But he tragically became the fourth US president to be assassinated while in office.

Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 witnessed the first woman on a ticket, when his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. Thereafter, command over social media and technology ushered in for the first time a nonwhite Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, to the White House.

The overall voting history in many of the states has remained consistent. Therefore, it’s the swing states that amount to key battlegrounds, although, if, as predicted by The New York Times, there’s a landslide for the current Democratic contender Joe Biden, 77, the results could render these into only a bonus.

CNN’s poll of polls averages a 10% lead for Biden over the sitting president. This is based on surveys carried out by, among others, The New York Times, public broadcaster PBS, NBC/Wall Street Journal and ABC/Washington Post.

Financial Times’ tracker gave Joe Biden, who was for eight years vice-president to the charismatic Barack Obama, 207 electoral college votes, with another 72 leaning towards him. It granted 74-year-old Donald Trump 83 such votes, with 42 tilting in his direction.

In effect, 134 votes could be a toss-up (where the estimated lead of a candidate was 5% or less and therefore in the zone of error), reflecting at least eight states – Texas (38 votes), Florida (29 votes), Ohio (18 votes), Georgia (16 votes), North Carolina (15 votes), Arizona (11 votes), Iowa (6 votes) and one of Maine’s two votes, since this state is divided into more than one district. These all went to Trump four years ago; and he was still leading in Texas and Ohio. If he retains the lot, then this would boost his tally to 259, thereby considerably narrowing the race. His unsuitability for governance notwithstanding, he continues to attract an approval rating of approximately 40%.

Over the decades, southern states which used to favour Democrats have shifted their loyalty to Republicans. Yet, Georgia, which hasn’t voted for Democrats since 1992, was this time marginally veering towards Biden.

According to Bloomberg, most disillusioned progressives, previous Trump supporters weary of his antics, Blacks (especially after the Black Lives Matter movement) and Hispanics and voters agitated by Trump’s mishandling of Coronavirus are likely to opt for Biden. Trump scored among senior citizens last time; but this could change significantly. Those shy to admit they voted for Trump in 2016, though, may again plump for him. This category went undetected in 2016; this time pollsters claim this has been rectified. Indian-Americans are overwhelmingly with Democrats.

The articulate Kamala Harris, 56, whose father was from the Caribbean and mother from Chennai, is too liberal for Middle America. But her presence as Biden’s prospective vice-president is likely to consolidate leftwing and minority support for the ticket. Besides, in the past two months the Democratic aspirant has enjoyed an advertising budget double the size of the office-holder – an indication of donors abandoning Trump. The billionaire former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg has in fact bankrolled Biden’s media blitz in Texas, Florida and Ohio. Moreover, the magnetism of Obama has boosted the Biden campaign in the closing stages.

Four years ago, 11 days before polling, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wrote to Congress (US parliament) to say they had re-opened an inquiry into Hillary Clinton, the first woman presidential candidate, who had used her personal email address to receive and send messages when she was secretary of state in 2008-2012 under Obama. News of this became headlines the following day; and although 48 hours before voting it was reported the FBI had cleared her of any wrongdoing, the initial announcement sufficiently fed into Trump’s narrative of “crooked Hillary” to irreparably liquidate her ambitions.

This time, Trump has repeated the tactic by accusing Biden and his son of corruption. He has typically failed to substantiate his allegations, although he is likely to persevere till the end to goad his justice department and attorney general to fabricate a charge against his opponent.

It would indeed need a seismic last-minute event to derail the Joe Biden juggernaut.

(The author is former Editor At Large, CNN)

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