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US elections: The great battle over decisive suburbs
Published in Ahram Online on 20 - 10 - 2020

American voters have been lining up to vote early in long queues in most states, and the spotlight is now on the swing states that will have a decisive role to play in deciding whether it will be Joe Biden or Donald Trump who will be US president over the next four years, while the liberal media continues to bang the drums of war.
News media close to Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden have reached the point of talking about a “Blue Tsunami” sweeping him to victory in the presidential elections on 3 November, but it would be premature to downplay the power of a “Red Comeback” in the swing states.
According to a recent survey, the percentage of people who are certain to vote is 88 per cent in the 2020 elections compared to 83 per cent in 2016. Most national polls put Biden in the lead with a margin of 10 per cent, but all eyes are on the battleground states, which are the keys to winning the Electoral College that then goes on to vote for the next president regardless of the tally of the popular vote.
What do the candidates need to do in this last mile before the elections? According to experts, the incumbent Republican Party candidate Donald Trump's campaign is focusing on enhancing his position with rural voters in the hope of curbing the erosion of his popularity in the suburbs, and most importantly it is aiming to push white working-class voters who did not vote in 2016 to the ballot boxes this year.
Trump has been losing ground among seniors and women in major swing states such as Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, as the coronavirus pandemic and racial issues have brought down his chances among these crucial segments. The Republican Party candidate needs to speak more on the economy and to contain losses suffered as a result of the spread of Covid-19.
On the other hand, Biden needs a tangible turnout in the big cities, particularly among African-American voters, and he needs to increase his vote among Latino voters and, of course, to sweep the states and constituencies that flipped to Trump in 2016 after twice voting for former president Barack Obama. The latest polls show that Biden is doing better than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 among seniors and the working classes, which may add more votes in the present contentious atmosphere.
The surge in cases of the coronavirus all over the US has complicated the electoral scene in the last 20 days before the elections, and Trump's behaviour since leaving the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington where he was being treated for the virus has been perplexing even his own base. Independent voters, mainly women in the suburbs, have been turning against a “reluctant” president who has been ignoring fatalities owing to the spread of the virus to prove that his earlier ideas about Covid-19 are still valid.
The early turnout in this year's elections has been historic, meaning that despite the Covid-19 second wave internal political and ideological divisions in the US have deepened to the point of provoking voters from all directions, shaking off the usual negativity when voters feel disappointed with the policies of whoever is ruling and with the unworthiness of a competitor to the point of deciding not to vote. This was a common occurrence in previous elections – the loss of the enthusiasm to vote – and it was evident whether it was a Democratic or a Republican candidate who was finally elected to the White House.
Plans to push voters out to cast their ballots, whether by early voting or by voting on election day on 3 November, depend for both parties on certain factors. First, there is the ability of either of the candidates to win over new segments that did not vote for them in previous elections, which is a greater burden on Biden and the Democratic Party. The most important of these segments is the “white” working class that voted heavily for Trump in 2016 and caused Hillary Clinton to lose.
Second, there is the intensification of campaigns to motivate voters to cast their ballots, whether by early voting at polling stations or by voting by regular mail. There are those who are betting on the Democrats achieving significant gains in this early voting, but the fear of the Democrats' dominance here, raised by Trump, does not have enough evidence regarding its harmful impact on either party or the ability of one party to gain more votes at the expense of the other to be a certain factor.
Trump's real gain from the uproar he created about the supposed “corruption” of mail-in ballots has been to mobilise his electoral base to come out in large numbers in the states that firmly support him and in swing states where his popularity has been weakening over the past four years. He needs to harness independent voters, who chose to cast their votes according to the candidates' perceived performance on economic issues. Ironically, the major financial and economic centres in the US, California and New York, have been the most neglected in the heated campaigning because both are solid Democratic states and all attention has been going to “battleground states” that are critical to clinching an Electoral College victory.
The same thing can be applied to the solid Republican states in the Midwest. According to the US magazine Politico, the critical battlegrounds are Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These states have been picked for intense campaigning owing to a variety of factors, including polling, demography, past and recent election history, voter registration, and interviews with state and local party officials, strategists and pollsters.
A state of extreme caution has been noticeable in the ranks of the Democrats whenever it is reported that Biden has been outperforming Trump by up to 10 points in the opinion polls. In the polls leading up to the 2016 election, those in mid-October showed Clinton to be ahead by double digits on average and by comfortable margins in most of the swing states, but she nevertheless ended up losing the White House. Nowadays, the Republicans are accusing the polls of making the same mistakes in terms of ignoring the suburbs of the swing states, where their candidate is used to being the more popular.
In their new book “Blue Metros, Red States,” commentators David F Damore, Robert E Lang and Karen A Danielsen analyse Democratic-leaning urban areas in states that otherwise lean towards the Republicans as an increasingly important phenomenon in American politics. They conclude that these urban areas, 27 major metropolitan areas in 13 swing states, will help shape elections and policy for decades to come. Most of the cultural confrontations that have been polarising US politics have occurred within these urban pockets in the swing states, including the clash between conservative and liberal ideas and policies.
To understand the dynamics of these areas, susceptible to flipping, that could eventually decide the winner of the presidential elections, the three authors explain that “in 2016, Republican Donald Trump was elected president despite losing 88 of the 100 most populated counties in America. Collectively, these counties accounted for the bulk of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's popular vote advantage. Two years later, the Democrats took majority control of the US House of Representatives, mostly by flipping seats in suburban districts that ring the nation's largest metros. These gains came not just in blue states such as California and New Jersey or in swing states such as Colorado, Michigan and Virginia, but even in red states such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah.” In total, the 13 swing states contain over 40 per cent of the country's total population and include seven of the ten most populous states.
Escalating numbers of cases of the Covid-19 virus in most US states have had a great impact on the mood of Americans in their intentions to vote for either Trump or Biden and more than their thinking about whether or not to go to the polls. The fact that voters on both sides have overcome the debate on the issue of participation or abstention after the first days of early voting show that there will be an unprecedented turnout. Although statistics show that Democrats are more likely to vote early, Republicans are saving their heavy voting until election day on 3 November after the Party succeeded in casting doubts on the integrity of early voting and mail voting and pushed a considerable segment of their base to wait until election day.
The early voting indicators confirm that the democratic process in the US has been burdened with unprecedented divisions and not only political ones. The political and cultural polarisation in the US has deepened, drawing lines of permanent tension that will have negative consequences for societal cohesion in the United States in the long run. The coming clashes might also be different from past ones, being more tense, wide-ranging and damaging for an already deeply polarised society.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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