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A week is a long time in politics – and there are six weeks left until the US election


Jordan Griffiths is the acting chief of staff in the mayor’s office in Tshwane; he writes in his personal capacity.

The clock is ticking for the US as it braces to elect its next president. The Democratic candidate Joe Biden is strongly ahead of Republican Donald Trump in the polls. But… but… but, there are always the imponderables, the unknowns and the known unknowns.

Former British prime minister Harold Wilson famously declared that “a week is a long time in politics”. It is an idiomatic phrase used to describe how in the political sphere things can change in a very short period. These changes can subsequently create new political dynamics, leading to the rise – or fall – of politicians.

With just six weeks left before the US national elections on 3 November, plenty can still happen that can upend or change the race. This past weekend, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died – she was a judicial powerhouse who helped set numerous legal precedents during her tenure at the country’s highest court. Her death has now ignited a fierce political debate that pertains to the filling of her seat. The process requires that the president submit his favoured nominee to the Senate, which must then affirm this appointment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is, of course, a key power player in this process.

In the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, he blocked the filling of a Supreme Court vacancy until after the election, when Donald Trump was elected. With the 2020 election weeks away, The New York Times has speculated on how Trump may attempt to push through a nominee before the election. This is most certainly not going to happen. With the focus on electioneering and the impact of Covid-19, it is unlikely that such a move is practically possible. McConnell himself is up for re-election and will likely want to focus on ensuring he returns to his post. However, no doubt the vacancy on the Supreme Court will become a political football in the weeks to come.

The first presidential debate is scheduled to take place on 29 September, with two more set to occur on October 15 and 22. The first debate is expected to be moderated by Chris Wallace, who hosts Fox News Sunday. Wallace is a registered Democrat, which will make for an interesting setting. This first debate will presumably be dominated by two core themes, namely the impact of Covid-19 and the current state of the US economy. No doubt other issues will be discussed as well, such as foreign policy matters, particularly those in relation to China, Russia, the European Union and the Arab world, along with the Black Lives Matter protests and challenges pertaining to the climate crisis.

If you are following the election, you will notice there are many polls being conducted on the possible result. It can, to a certain extent, become overwhelming. Every major media outlet and top research institution is continuously pushing its predicted forecast on the election. If you are looking for consistency in tracking the polls, a good resource is that offered by FiveThirtyEight, which provides a national tracker on the major polls taking place across the country. It has developed an aggregator which essentially summarises the different polls, both at a state and national level. Currently, it places Joe Biden with a 6.7-point lead over Trump.

However, some polls place Biden with a far higher lead. The CBSNews/YouGov and New York Times/Siena College poll both have Biden up by nine points. Even if you were to account for the margin of errors that are contained in the polls, they still put Biden in a dominant position. There is even speculation among some CNN commentators that Biden could “blow out” Trump, indicating that Biden could possibly dominate the election by winning well above 330 electoral votes, turning various swing states blue.

This is, of course, what the US election is all about – the “swing states”. Like Biden, Hillary Clinton also had a dominant lead in the polls for the entire 2016 campaign. She won the popular vote, meaning that out of the total votes cast in the country, she had the most. Unfortunately, this did not make her president as she ended up losing the electoral college. The US presidential voting system assigns each state a number of electoral college votes. These votes are all assigned to the victor in a state, regardless of how dominantly they may have won the election in that particular state.

Electoral votes are allocated to each state based on population size. California, for instance, has the highest number at 55, Texas the second largest with 38 electoral votes, while states such as Alaska and Wyoming only have three votes. Understanding the distribution of electoral votes is critical because it will ultimately determine where presidential candidates will devote much of their campaigning and attention. For example, despite California holding the most electoral votes, it is a dominant Democrat stronghold and thus will not be on Trump’s targeted radar. This is also true, although somewhat differently, for Biden. He knows that California is fully behind him, which means he can divert his attention to states that are marginal.

Despite this, in 2016, Trump reset much of the political map of the US. Before he was elected president, voting patterns had been relatively predictable from 1996, with approximately 37 out of the 50 states being set as either steadfastly Republican or Democrat. This usually left the remaining states, which often became the focus of political campaigning. However, in 2016 Trump lost a majority of these marginal states but yet still succeeded in winning Florida and Ohio, the two biggest in terms of electoral votes. He then also managed to flip Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which had previously been blue states. This was unheard of; these states had not voted Republican since the 1980s.

Now as the election enters its final weeks, the focus will once again turn to analysing what can be expected from these swing states. Both candidates will spend an overwhelming amount of their time targeting these voters. This group of states has been relatively consistent, made up of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia. However, with Trump having flipped Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, those are also in the mix. There is also speculation that Arizona will be a competitive fight because of changing demographics.

Nevertheless, there are still six weeks left to go and… a week is a long time in politics. DM





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