Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

US elections, last round

The US presidential election process is entering the final stretch, and while predictions on the outcome are still shaky, polls say Americans by and large trust neither candidate, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

Most countries celebrate Labour Day on 1 May. Not the US where it is celebrated on 1 September every year. It is an official holiday there, but it also marks the end between summer holidays and the resumption of work in government institutions. Public officials return to their offices, Congress resumes law-making and Washington, the capital, becomes alive again. It helps that, along with the return of officials and their staffs to work, the summer’s heat and sticky humidity begin to ebb. Not that the latter applied to the heat of the US presidential campaigns, the temperatures of which peaked with the start of September as the rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump intensified. Probably never before in US history has the contrast between the Republican and Democratic candidates been as stark as it is in these elections.

In democratic countries, in general, there is a large area of concordance over the basics of what constitutes national interests, the general outlook of the major governmental institutions and established foreign policy tenets. But the current electoral campaigns have departed from all known conventions. Public confidence in both contenders is lower than it has ever been for any previous presidential candidates. According to recent opinion polls, 59 per cent of the American people do not trust Clinton because of the stains on her integrity as a public servant, whether due to her preference for using her own personal electronic server for her emails when she was secretary of state, or the extensive material benefits she and her husband have accrued by virtue of having served in public office for extensive periods of time, or the occasionally exorbitant donations that have fed the Clinton Foundation.

Some 60 per cent of the American people do not trust Trump. Those polled also believe he is unqualified to lead the nation and, especially, to serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces with a possible finger on the buttons of America’s nuclear weapons.

If Hillary has a problem with shiftiness and pecuniary opportunism, Trump has stirred grave doubts concerning his mental capacities and his ability to stay cool in times of crisis.

Confidence ratings aside, a good part of their popularity ratings was the product of their rhetorical stunt work. In this regard, Trump initially held a lead in public opinion polls after the Republican Convention. Then, the balance suddenly shifted after the Democratic Convention when Clinton moved out in front, sometimes by a 10-point lead, especially in the swing states. However, as Labour Day approached, Trump changed his campaign team and resolved to put himself in their hands. He agreed to deliver pre-prepared speeches and to revisit Mexico and meet with the Mexican president so as to appear “presidential” and capable of undertaking diplomatic tasks and speaking with heads of state. The strategy worked to narrow the gap between him and Clinton to within the range of the margin of error cited in the opinion polls.

Labour Day marks the beginning of the last round in the presidential campaigns before the Americans head to the polls and end up, regardless of the winner, with a president they do not trust. Trump has entered this round with the great impetus he gained at the end of summer. Naturally, he will try to sustain this impetus and focus on his strong points while attempting to deliver punches at rival’s weak points. Trump’s “immigrants” rhetoric was an example of how this candidate has capitalised on a specific domestic policy issue in a manner that caters to a certain class of voters, in this case white Christians of whom he needs 64 per cent of their votes to win. Trump is probably the least of any presidential nominee in contemporary US history to have had to rely on a powerful political party machinery in order to become a party’s candidate. Instead, he depended on his considerable skills at using television as well as modern communications technologies, such as Twitter, in order to convey his ideas and to attack his rivals. Most analysts, however, believe that he will not be able to reach his goal, because he lacks the support of female voters as well as African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, Asians and other minorities who generally vote Democrat.

Clinton, for her part, has quite a few strong cards. Above all, her campaign is better organised and financed in all states. In a neck-to-neck race, the organisational skills needed to bring out the vote are critical. Secondly, she possesses the asset of a long political career, from First Lady to senator to secretary of state to Democratic Party candidate. Thirdly, she has the support of two presidents — Obama and Bill Clinton — both of whom enjoy considerable popularity and both of whom will play crucial roles during the last round in the campaigns. Fourthly, she has the support of Obama’s minority-based alliance in addition to much of the middle class, especially the more educated segments of the population and the millions of female voters who are repelled by the “vulgarity” in much of Trump’s rhetoric.

In the balance, Clinton appears better poised to win. However, it is too risky to predict this with certainty as such a prediction at this stage would ignore important factors that could lead to the surprise that many rule out. Trump has on his side the perpetual American desire for change. Also, the Republican candidate is running an electoral campaign that is truly unconventional both in method and in approach to both foreign and domestic policy issues. He is certainly not a candidate that appeals to the US’s allies (NATO and the countries with which the US has joint defence treaties) while he probably is the candidate preferred by the US’s rivals (Russia). On the other hand, his recent trip to Mexico was a risk but it ultimately proved very fruitful for publicity purposes while altering nothing in his stance on illegal migrants and those from Mexico above all. More surprisingly in this regard, no one in the US media questioned how an American presidential candidate, whose political platform the American people had not even voted on yet, could go to a foreign country to negotiate (or even speak) with senior officials on matters pertaining purely to US domestic policy.

While Trump has addressed a range of other issues in his own idiosyncratic way, he has made the immigrant question the central issue in the electoral campaign. So too have all ultra-right politicians in Europe, but Trump appears more successful than the lot of them.

In all events, the results of the presidential race will hang on a thread until the finishing line. In fact, perhaps the Supreme Court will need to step in once again as was the case in the 2000 elections between George W Bush and Al Gore. Real democracy is not an easy process!

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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