US gears up for electoral battle

IN 16 days, Americans will vote in one of the most atypical elections in their history to choose a new US Congress — the entire House of Representatives and about a third of the Senate. Across 50 states, voters will also choose 36 Governors, a large number of local legislatures and cast ballots in referendum-like proposals known as ‘ballot initiatives’. Because this exercise, which covers the entire US, occurs at the half-way mark of a President’s four-year term, it is called ‘mid-term’ elections

This year’s mid-term polls are anomalous because their outcome will determine whether Joe Biden, who will be 80 next month, will take the plunge in 2024 and create history as the oldest President to serve two terms, if he wins again. He is extremely unpopular among Americans: a clear majority of 54% of likely voters disapprove of the way he is handling his job in the White House, according to an average of recent polls. Most unusually for an incumbent President, elected officials in his own Democratic Party have begun to say publicly that Biden should not seek re-election. Worse, in a recent poll among those who traditionally vote for Democratic presidential nominees, only 21% said they wanted to see Biden once again as the party’s nominee.

The President added to the confusion last month when he told an interviewer that he intends to seek re-election, adding in the same breath that it did not mean he would seek re-election. Americans have got used to such puzzling outpourings in Biden’s public persona. Famous for his gaffes, he is sometimes at a loss for words mid-sentence in a speech or at a media interaction. It is not that White House incumbency has never been a factor in mid-term choices: Presidents do influence voter preferences. But seldom before has a sitting President loomed so large over the electoral horizon — and that too, negatively — as to determine who people will vote for. For that reason, if the Republican Party wrests control of the House of Representatives or the Senate — or both — pressure will grow on Biden to retire when he finishes his first term. So, it is safe to infer that unusually, in this poll cycle, the mid-term results will be the preponderant determinant of who will assume the most powerful office in the world in 2025.

The same scenario is being played out among Republicans. Nearly two years after his controversial defeat, Donald Trump has been a critical factor in influencing the choice of the party’s candidates for the mid-term and, indeed, for electing Congressmen, Governors, state legislators and other officials. Since 1789, only 10 Presidents — including Trump — have lost the fight for a second term. Such departees from office have usually chosen anonymity in public life, like George HW Bush, or gradually become America’s statesmanlike grey eminence like Jimmy Carter. However, despite his ignominious departure from the White House, Trump has retained his prominence on the political scene. He has retained his grip on his party, especially in the so-called red states, the Republican strongholds.

Even in states where Republicans are divided over Trump’s future role, he has injected himself into the centre of the party’s functioning and made himself relevant. Moreover, a succession of scandals involving his business activities, allegations of wrong-doing and possible criminality in office have ensured that he is never off television and newspaper headlines even for a single day. Besides, a large number of his followers believe he was done out of office by fraud and that Biden’s election was spurious.

Rarely has intra-party loyalties mattered so much in mid-term polls as in the ongoing political season. In traditionally red states like Arizona and Georgia — which broke with the past and voted for Biden two years ago — loyalty to Trump has become the touchstone for Republicans to earn support of the party’s base. A classic case is that of Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who took on Trump over his allegations of electoral fraud in 2020 and has since lost her Republican primary for re-election. Ironically, she is the daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, who was the beacon of conservative policies in the George W Bush administration. She announced after her loss that she would campaign for Democrats in Wyoming instead of her successful party rival, the new congressional candidate. Democrats hope to pick up many seats on November 8 because anti-Trump Republicans would rather vote for Democrats instead of pro-Trump candidates who have won the primaries defeating incumbents like Liz.

All of which brings up the question of ‘who, if not Biden?’ as the Democratic nominee for the next presidential election. The answer to this important question will depend overall on how people vote next month. If Democrats retain the House of Representatives and do not concede the Senate to Republicans, Biden’s candidacy will receive a shot in the arm, his low performance ratings notwithstanding. Of course, his health and fitness to serve until he is 86 could be an unpredictable consideration.

Under normal circumstances, the incumbent Vice-President ought to be the front-runner for nomination. But Kamala Harris’ performance as Vice-President has been lacklustre by general consensus, including opinion polls, over a period of time. Her chances of being the first woman US President has been slipping, but not precipitously. If Biden steps aside, a long slate of candidates could emerge in the Democratic primaries. This also applies to Republican primaries if Trump opts out or is unable to run because of his legal troubles. The mid-term results will be a turning point in US politics by providing the clue for both parties.

Meanwhile, inflation and economic hardship are big concerns for most Americans when they vote, but even for those who abstain. A creeping weariness about Ukraine is evident in polling. Republican sentiment on this issue may harden if the party makes gains on Capitol Hill next month.

K. P. Nayar