New York, October 21, 2020
[ANALYSIS Bulletin No 6] Vlad Lupan | The US election enters homestretch. On November 3rd, not only the US President is going to be elected, but also a third of the Senate, as well as all the delegates from the House of Representatives – the ‘lower’ chamber of the American parliamentary system. The Republicans are considering electoral and post-election options, including holding repeated elections. The Democrats currently follow the traditional campaign formula, although, in our opinion, they show interest in the influence that protests in US can have on voters.
Online voting in federal elections is prohibited. In-person voting will take place on 3 November. One subject of disagreement in these elections is mail-in voting. This type of voting begins on 24 October and has already been declared ‘a rigged election’ by President Trump, as early as this spring, long before the election. In addition, and in line with the traditional Republican ‘justification’, the President
‘just asked’ whether the election day could not be postponed due to the pandemic — the justification used implies that he could only ask because he has no legal authority to change that date. So, according to Republican supporters, we must conclude that any speculations about a possible wish for such an undemocratic transfer are just speculations. The pandemic is indeed dangerous and could justify such a transfer. But taking into account that President Trump ‘just asked’ if doctors can give chlorine to COVID-19 patients, it is clear that he is not aware of all ins and outs, either medical or legal, of such “questions”, yet he would have wanted such a development. We could assume that, through such ‘questions’, the President could undermine his credibility and, therefore, the actual chances for such a voting date transfer.
There are two other obstacles – firstly the possibility of electoral losses due to an ‘anti-democracy’ image among undecided voters and, secondly, due to legal matters, a factor we will explain in the conclusions. In our opinion, this ‘just asking’ was, in fact, putting out fillers and it is absolutely obvious that it is a part of the electoral tactics of the Republican leader. Let us also note, from a chronological perspective, that the ‘question’ regarding changing the election date was posted on Twitter immediately the day after George Floyd's death, i.e. before the widespread media coverage of the case and the mass protests and violence during these protests.
Although the leader of the Republican Party declared in advance the elections as rigged, this party actually controls the US Postal Service – not the electoral commissions though and, most importantly, the votes of electors and voters. As mentioned earlier, the electors “chosen” by vote ultimately decide who will be the President of the United States. As to the “rigged elections”, it is obvious that there could be no evidence of a presupposed future fraud. Anyway, even if such an ‘electoral-preventive’ statement is characteristic of the current Republican leader, it is based on a problem in part related to some difficulties in identification of voters by mail, and even those voting in person – only 2/3 of the US states require an ID at the voting polls.
However, there are other legal nuances that diminish such concerns – such as a number of rules in place in various States that minimize fraudulent voting. Still, even if we put aside the mail-in voting issue, president's voters blindly believe what he says – we witnessed a dialogue in a mall, where a young Orthodox religious voter, supporter of the Republican party, could not explain to a pro-Biden Hispanic voter why there was a possibility of fraud, but he still believed in it. For this reason, the Democrats have tried to portray the Republican party cohesion as a ‘cult’. Of course, the Democrats have somewhat similar cases, as well as discipline, but they are supported by most of the media in the United States, which limits the negative impact on the party they support. Nonetheless, the conspiracy theories propagated by Republicans can easily create a much worse impression than democratic ‘interpretations’, some of which are often reasonable and correct as things stand now.
However, there is a new and real concern, rightly mentioned by Republicans, about mail-in voting – the complications of verifying and counting all the mail votes, since their number is going to be bigger than usual. Let us return, however, to the fraud that does not yet exist – such a statement is nothing more than a ‘preventive’ communication, part of the electoral strategy of Donald Trump's team. This shows that he discussed several electoral and post-election options, even ‘bypassing’ the election results, and prepared the ground for such options. On the other hand, Joe Biden's campaign is run in quite a usual way, including the condemnation of Antifa and the violence during the protests that began with the death of George Floyd, whose family Biden visited. This act was immediately reported in the media, in the middle of the election campaign. However, in our view, what really is really happening behind the showdown, is that a morally correct movement of peaceful protesters opened the door to street violence and banditry, sometimes among far-left Democrat voters, no matter how ‘out-of-ordinary’ they may be.
Thus, the election campaign was running its course against the backdrop of ongoing protests and violence in a number of American cities. As it was easily predictable, Floyd's death and racial discrimination indeed became one of the main electoral topics in the 2020 US elections. But the goal of the contending parties remains the same – victory in elections. They need to strengthen their electoral base and win the votes of swing states and they cannot achieve this only by addressing the issue of racial equity. Respectively, in August the candidates launched or relaunched their electoral programs, with the help of broadcast conventions, without the presence of public, four days each. To avoid describing the whole four days of electioneering, we will report just some important elements, as a message or as a contrasting view. The programs contain elements related to minorities, topics derived from protests, as well as economic or even electoral matters. Democrats’ supporters said the GOP (Republican Party) did not have a new party program at its pre-election convention and focused on supporting the leader, not the principles, compared to the Democrats.
We can see that in this way, without a program, the Republicans may call to mind the image of a personality cult. It is, still, somewhat expected from a ruling party not to come up with an absolutely new program, however the examination of the main topics of the Republican convention shows that the GOP has actually adjusted its previous program, at least in a way.
One of the interesting elements of both conventions was the presentation of voters, who moved from one electoral camp to another or even defecting politicians, implying possible moral and political shortcomings of the opponent party. We will only briefly mention that both the quantity and the ‘quality’ of the opponents were relatively equal on both sides in terms of the produced effect – although they addressed topics important only for their traditional voters, not the parties they defected from.
As predicted, the Republican election campaign stressed the President Trump's ability to ensure the economic recovery of the United States, especially before the pandemic. At the same time, the GOP capitalized on the population’s fear of the violent protests. Here is an example of a strong message, by creating an ‘image’ of armed violence – the wife of a former police officer killed by criminals in St. Louis saying among other things that her husband was retired and that the looters streamed her husband's execution. Strong emotions were thus elicited. The verification of this shocking statement showed that the former policeman was helping someone to ensure the security of a store, when it was being robbed by bandits.
The criminals were black men, the ex-officer too – such an image targets several audience groups, including the black people community, police and any voter unsure about these protests, confused about the differences between protesters and criminals. However, the so-called execution video shows the ex-officer already shot, lying on the sidewalk, although still alive – it is filmed post-factum, apparently spontaneously and the recording person is from the Afro-American community, shouting emotionally at the criminals that the policeman is someone's father. Not exactly a streamed execution – but the diffusion at the Republican convention of an aggregated image of ‘executions’ on the street induces strong emotions and a level of insecurity for any voter who would rather prefer the security offered by the police, which the President's administration supports. The death of the black ex-officer is a tragedy, but, from the point of view of political strategy we find that it was also used in electoral purposes.
Undoubtedly, the family of the deceased police officer considers such a warning, using an image of an ‘execution’, being true and correct. No one should go through what they did. At the same time, few Republican voters would have verified this information, and even if they did, there is no certainty that they would have taken these nuances into account when making a decision. They might think along the lines that a decent man was intentionally killed by criminals during the protests, not that there wasn’t a streamed execution, and would certainly rally around President Trump. As it is often said, ‘fear is a powerful motivator’ and the Republican party has used it effectively in this context.
As we mentioned earlier, the democrats chose a more traditional platform, the central topics being related also to the economy, i.e. progressive taxation depending on income, thought also focused on access to the health system, justice in the racial context (of course), education and the return to the system of partnerships in international relations.
However, it were not the positive aspects of the electoral programs that determined the political dynamics lately, rather negative elements of the campaign did. The so-called political dirt, including the self-inflicted one, seems to have quite strong effects in the 2020 campaign. This development partly repeats the style of the 2016 campaign, when President Trump ran against the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton. But, this time, there is an additional element – the self-inflicted ‘dirt’. In 2016, the Republican candidate claimed that the Democrat violated laws, starting with keeping confidential emails on a private server to transferring US shares from a Canadian uranium mining company to the Russian nuclear energy corporation Rosatom, for example. Then and now Trump resorts to political name-calling, accepted by a part of his electorate as easy-to-use election slogans, difficult to counter if repeated without the right of reply, in the style of the GOP candidate. This hyper-competitive attitude, labelled by the left and long before the elections by former Republican experts as man-child like, did not produce the same results in 2020. At least not as expected.
Even before the election debates some Republican senators, as well as journalists from the pro-Republican channel Fox were extremely critical of Trump – after the debates, the situation became even worse. Before the debates, a number of Republican representatives expressed their opinion that the party would have lost the elections in all three electoral institutions if the elections were to take place in August. Then two self-inflicted disasters followed – the media critical towards Trump reported that the US President, who apparently rejected the idea to visit an American cemetery in Europe because of the rain, supposedly called the American soldiers killed in wars ‘losers‘, thus partially alienating an important part of his traditional electorate – the military and their families, through a disastrous message revealed before the elections.
The second disaster, the one of the first televised discussion between Trump and Biden followed – that is if Trump's frequent and caustic interjections, including shutting up the moderator from the Fox channel, can be considered discussion.
What is more, during the debates, the US President also poured gas on fire that already has shaken the country, fleeing the explicit condemnation of white racist groups, fact heavily criticized by the Fox correspondent at the White House. In his turn, Biden is hit by his son's emails scandal, as Biden jr was previously employed by a Ukrainian energy company under investigation. We mentioned earlier that the Ukrainian authorities would most likely prefer to avoid falling between the hammer and the anvil in the political struggle between the GOP and Democrats. Kyiv would not want to lose both parties’ support for US military assistance, while Ukraine is fighting a war. Yet, the scandal erupted after an email disclosure, according to which Joe Biden's son arranged meetings for an employee of that company already under investigation, to meet his father, US Vice President at that time, i.e. an attempt of influence peddling. Interestingly, the emails regarding the involvement of Biden's son with the Ukrainian company ‘Burisma’ were recovered from a laptop, dropped off at a repair shop, somewhere in New Jersey. The owner of this laptop, says the pro-Republican newspaper New York Post, never came back for his laptop and did not respond to requests for its retrieval. We do not know how true these statements of the NY Post are, but the laptop’s hard drive was sent to Rudi Giuliani, Donald Trump's lawyer. The former Mayor of New York City, as well as the former head of the pro-Russian Yanukovych’s election campaign, both had direct contact with the Russians. Moro than that he was encouraged by presumed FSB agents, regarding the disclosure of these emails. Furthermore, Twitter and Facebook blocked the emails’ publication by the pro-Republican newspaper New York Post on their platforms, to avoid the publication of material that the social media platforms deemed as obtained through cyber-attacks. NY Post obviously countered that by saying that it was obtained as a result of a laptop abandonment. In the end of all this “X said vs Z said”, we conclude that after the publication of this electoral ‘dirt’ some people in Moscow are pleased, and, at the same time, the original article in the New York Post, disclosing the emails, was viewed five million times.
The above developments demonstrate the turns, mistakes and political tactics of the campaign. Since an election campaign is a living process, here are some conclusions we could draw on this last hundred meters.
I. No business as usual. To begin with, apparently the Republican victory in 2016 came after two democratic governments, on the wave of traditional ‘fatigues’ of the electorate after any two consecutive governments. However, the Republican election campaign was different, more populist. The fact is that obviously a pro-populist voting, observable around the world, denotes a more serious problem – the voters are tired of formal ‘politics as usual’, a good part of which often eludes the uninvolved voter. However, this does not mean that politics should be populist. To make this conclusion more understandable, we’ll remember the the Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar , whoused to go to election meetings, where he spoke about Russia's macroeconomic growth and provoked a remark of a simple voter to a correspondent of the Russian newspaper Kommersant, if we recall correctly, according to which Gaidar ‘speaks nicely, it's a pity I don't understand anything’…
II. The danger of keeping to the letter of the law, but not to its spirit. Secondly, one of the messages at the Republican pre-election convention was: let no one tell us, from outside or inside, how to elect and be elected – the current system has provided us with free elections for a very long time. In the current context, the history of segregation was not mentioned. This message of preserving the electoral system and respectively the laws governing it, launched at the August convention, provoked our curiosity. Later we found out about the option to ‘bypass’ the election results, since the law allows such an option and the convention statement “clicked” into place
Those who have worked in election campaigns know that any political force discusses electoral options, as diverse as possible, in order to find possible, even unusual, ways to win. However, in President’s Trump campaign context, we will also mention the aspect of the law in the construction business in New York – where the US President comes from. In the past, while we were still holding an official position in New York, we have witnessed the demolition of a building next to a diplomatic mission, without the consent of the representation or in line with the ecological permits of the municipality. Following discussions with a group of dedicated lawyers, who decided to help the mission pro-bono, we learned that the construction business representatives generally do not mind to violate regulations and legislation, then paying fines, only to make sure that the lot or construction is handed over quicker and the profit is earned faster. Therefore, such secondary legislation for these businesses is not the supremacy of the rule of law preached by American diplomats, albeit in a different context. At this point I would suggest an important observation - thus, some of these businessmen do not seem to see an important distinction between the secondary, construction related, and the national or international legislation and its violation, having the classic New York answer at the ready: ‘and what can they do to me?’
So, the Republican idea of the appointment of electors by the US states, instead of them being elected, may be convenient, if there were suspicions that the number of pro-democrat voters in the ‘red’ Republican states would be too big. According to the US constitution, this would be legal, but if something like this were to happen in any other country, the American observers regardless of party affiliation, together with their partners from other democratic states, in the International Election Observation Missions, would most likely find that such an approach corresponds to the letter of the law, but not to its spirit. Such a development would open the door for undemocratic states to conduct elections or intervene in the elections of others, if there are loopholes in the law, without departing from the letter of the law.
III. ‘Risks’ exist in both political camps. Here are some:
1) Republicans could continue the policy of partial self-isolation, a modified Monroe doctrine, in the name of the reasonable spending of US resources. Their country, they would suggest, cannot afford and is not able to defend everyone, nor should it, at least not without profit. The idea of US self-isolation is also popular in certain academic circles, which most seriously discuss it on both side of the political spectrum, without offering ideas on how, for example, democracies can grow, including economically, without partnerships. From our observations, as well as from empirical data, we see that such a growth or return to democracy and well-being of Post-World War II Germany would have been impossible. The same goesfor the current EU member and NATO –Estonia – after the fall of the USSR. In the same way, the loss of US’ European partners led Japan and Germany to the doorsteps of the US in World War II. But this risk is of an external nature, less important for the Republican electorate, which in 2018 launched the slogan ‘better Russian than Democrat’, ignoring the clearly visible and serious external dangers, for the sake of the internal logic of the party.
2) The risk associated with Democrats acceding to power is of a different, somewhat more internal nature. They are internationalists, with their peculiarities in that, yet Russia has attacked their candidate in 2016. So, they no longer actively support an almost unconditional resumption of relations with Moscow, as they did before. There are nuances in how they see their relations with, for example China or Iran, but at the same time there were also questions about their determination to help Syrians or Eastern Europeans with more than statements or sanctions in the past. However, the partial “risk” for the American voter is that domestically Democrats stick to the traditional policy of over-taxation and income redistribution, which we would exaggeratedly call “robinhoodian”. Obviously, they have a strong argument about progressive taxation, depending on income, but the alternations of power in the world have often shown that when Social Democrats or Social Liberals departed from power, including in the US, the budget was left overstretched, and the business sector, including the small and medium enterprises, shrunken. There were exceptions, but the rule is generally valid, thanks to such a robinhoodian taxation program – in the end you can't take the same money more than once. To build hospitals you need to tax the businesses, which cannot be done if this sector is shrinking…
IV. Surveys are approximate in the US as well. The phenomenon of the margin of error higher than stated in public opinion polls is well known in Eastern Europe. Since 2016 it is a topic also discussed in the United States and in 2020 the media reported in all seriousness about a survey that showed that 52% of respondents did not believe polls were accurate. Ironic isn’t it? The leading polling company, Pew Research, showed that there are cases where the margin of error in some polls can be twice higher than declared. For instance, in the 2016 election Hillary Clinton was winning in polls, but lost the electors’ vote. For this reason, in our previous analysis we indicated that the American system would depend on the electors. We saw that the Republicans focused on such a scenario. We do not know if Democrats have prepared countermeasures.
A former Republican adviser mentioned in August 2020 that polls cannot take into account the real level of support for President Trump, which may be higher. However, we recall that in the meantime ‘debates’ were held, as well as that there was a blunder with military called ‘losers’ – things that apparently might scare off some undecided voters, causing a loss of popularity for Donald Trump. So, in short, without going into details about the comparative and quantitative analysis to determine voter preferences, we can suggest that the trends seem to be pointing to a certain winning margin for Joe Biden, at least for now. But the impact of the email scandal – as in the case of Hillary Clinton – is still unknown, as is the tendency of voters to support a President in office. There is a possibility that the scandal of Biden’s son email leaks have been accounted for, yet the emails have only appeared now and didn’t have time or a medium to spread. Hence, it is not clear if the email scandal is going to have a more serious impact on the swing voters.
It is possible that mail-in voting and vote counting errors could present challenges mainly for Biden, and somewhat less for Trump, perhaps even greater than the margins of error in the polls. The situation remains unclear, and some media outlets, which we may be considered Democratic-leaning, expressed their concern that there are other hidden factors that could lead to a new Trump’s victory – last minute voting in person of Republican voters or preventing mail-in voting by local courts.
Such elements as an electorate focused on a current leader figure, already in power, as well as the fact that they tend not to disclose their real position in the polls, are parts of the current US political culture, important to consider.
V. Questions – do we face the rise and fall of a great power or not yet? Or what is the alternative to US? The current American electoral system favors clear and simple messages from both sides of the political spectrum. Yet, the increasing role of political ‘dirt’, though present at any time in any campaign, still raises questions. These questions are related not only to the “quality” of the electorate, but also to American political elites, suspected of poor education, unfounded and dangerous strategic decisions or, on another side favoritism, so criticized by American diplomats in other parts of the world. Obviously, any such suspicion diminishes US's chances of being listened to, and not just ‘because of the GOP’. The questions for those outside the US, but also for those in the US could be:
- Whom then the states in transition will ‘listen to’ and what about non-democracies? Do the regimes get free rein and what would such a future look like for US interests?
- What conclusions will the world draw from of all the ‘dirt’ revelations concerning the American left and right wing?
- With all these concerns, how can the situation be remedied – in the US or outside the US?
- Is there another stakeholder ready to take over the torch of the Statue of Liberty, or ‘there is really no one to call in Europe‘,even if EU says otherwise.
Eventually, there is much more to say about the US elections. In the run-up to any elections the polarization increases dramatically and the extremes are more prominent. These mostly calm down after the elections. Perhaps we should not dramatize the current developments – however, we should certainly draw the necessary lessons from each election, including this one, be these elections in the US or elsewhere. In this context, let us recall the old Romanian proverb: ‘Every bitter experience is a learning opportunity’.
Vlad Lupan is an independent expert and former diplomat of the Republic of Moldova. He has over 20 years of diplomatic experience, acquired at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova, as well as in three OSCE Peace and Development Missions in Georgia, Albania and Croatia. He was a negotiator in the Transnistrian conflict and held positions of Director of the NATO Department, Foreign Policy Adviser to the President of the Republic of Moldova, member of the Parliamentary Commission for National Security, Defense and Public Order of the Republic of Moldova, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova to the UN. He was included in the UN documentary on global population problems. Vlad Lupan gave presentations and lectures at Columbia, Stanford, Yale Universities, Occidental College and City College of New York.
This material was developed by LID Moldova experts under the project The Best Way: Periodic Bulletin funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Opinions and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and the experts and do not necessarily reflect the position of the funder.
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