Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a panelist on Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s recent “Changing Regional and International Landscapes of the Gulf” webinar, speaks about the US election
The US presidential election has entered its final stages with the opinion polls predicting a victory for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, which – if that happens – would make Trump the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush, who served from 1989-1993. Although Hillary Clinton in 2016 also entered the final week of the campaign with a sizeable lead over Trump, and ended up winning the popular vote by 2.9 points, Biden’s poll lead is larger than Clinton’s and looks likely to result in electoral college victory. As of October 27, the FiveThirtyEight polling website put Biden 9.1 points ahead of Trump in its national average of opinion polls and gave Biden an 88 percent chance of victory in the election. Biden’s lead is the largest this close to an election since Barack Obama led John McCain by 8.2 points in 2008, and is greater than Hillary Clinton’s 6.7-point advantage in 2016.
Americans go to the polls on November 3 (some have already cast early ballots and sent in votes by mail in record numbers) under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people in the US. When the impact of COVID-19 hit the US in March, the Biden campaign was less than four points ahead of Trump in the opinion polls. However, two events over the summer caused a significant bounce in Biden’s lead. The first was the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May and the weeks of protests that followed, with Biden’s lead surging from 5.8 points on May 25 to over 9 points by mid-June before leveling off in July and falling slightly in August and September.
The second development was President Trump’s hospitalization at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center from October 2-5. Opinion polls prior to Trump’s announcement that he had contracted COVID-19 had shown the Biden campaign 7.5 points ahead, but this figure rose to 9 points by the time Trump left the hospital and subsequently surpassed 10 points as public criticism of the president’s cavalier approach to the disease translated into falling support in the polls. But whereas the Trump campaign was able to counter the May/June Biden bounce by slowly reducing the deficit over the summer, it now faces the reality that time to turn the polls around is running out.
While Biden’s victory in the popular vote seems relatively assured, it is the size of that victory and its spread among swing states that will be the key to determining whether he can avoid the fate of Clinton in 2016 and Al Gore in 2000 and win in the electoral college as well. The Republicans currently enjoy an ‘advantage’ in the allocation of electoral college votes, which secured Trump his victory in 2016 despite polling nearly three million fewer votes than Clinton. FiveThirtyEight has predicted that Biden only has a 50 percent chance of winning the electoral college if his margin of victory in the popular vote is three points, and that he can only be in a comfortable position if he wins by four or more points.
Presidential elections in recent US history have seen the winner become clear as election night progresses with the sole exception of 2000 when the Florida recount was not settled until the Supreme Court ruling in Bush v Gore on December 12, 35 days after the election. Whereas in 2000, Florida proved decisive, as the outcome of the election came to hinge on which candidate won Florida and its 25 electoral votes, in 2020 it will be a state to watch for a different reason, which is that if Trump does not win in Florida it is virtually impossible to map an alternative path back to the White House – no matter how many other swing states he wins, such as North Carolina, Arizona, Pennsylvania, or Michigan.
Another feature of this election that is likely to differentiate 2020 from past presidential elections is that the outcome may not be decided on the night and may not even become clear for several days afterward. This is because the pandemic has caused a surge in voting-by-mail and several states accept ballot papers so long as they have been postmarked by election day, even if they are not received and counted until days later. In one primary earlier this year, for a House of Representatives seat in New York, it took three weeks for all the votes to be counted and the eventual winner declared. While it is most unlikely to take as long to declare a winner in the presidential election, any delay in, or uncertainty over, the results opens the possibility that one or both of the candidates might try and disrupt or dispute the process, and Trump has claimed repeatedly that voting by mail is susceptible to rigging and fraudulent activity.
There may therefore be days of uncertainty after November 3 – or weeks – if either of the candidates mount court challenges to the vote counting and certification process, which must be completed by December 14, as this is the day that the electoral college delegates in each state meet. If, as seems likely, Joe Biden becomes the 46th President of the United States, his opening months, perhaps years, in office are likely to be consumed by domestic issues, starting with rolling out a vaccine for coronavirus and charting a path for post-pandemic economic and societal recovery. Foreign policy will probably see a reassertion of multilateralism in American approach and an attempt to work more closely with allies and partners around the world. When it comes to the Middle East, a Biden administration will attempt to return the US to compliance in the Iran nuclear deal and bring the Yemen war to an end, and it is also likely to pressure its partners in the Gulf to bring the blockade of Qatar and the rift in the Gulf to an end.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, and an Associate Fellow with the Middle East North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. He is the author of six books - on political economy, security, and international relations of the Gulf, including, most recently, Qatar and the Gulf Crisis, which was published in 2020 by Hurst & Co in the UK and Oxford University Press in North America.