Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
General elections are won and lost on the political and societal dividing lines of the day. Recall our own 2019 election which was undoubtedly won by the Conservatives because of Brexit.
The 2017 election, famously, was intended to, but didn’t. A campaign intended to re-elect a ‘strong and stable’ leader on a platform to deliver the Brexit vision she had negotiated became derailed by a fateful domestic policy on social care. An intended Brexit election became a ‘dementia tax’ election in a matter of days. Theresa May was returned to office, but was hardly in power. She could struggle on for not much longer.
The 1968 presidential election in the United States became a ‘law and order’ election, steered by Richard Nixon. But the context that cast a long shadow over the campaign beforehand was the Vietnam War, since 1968 was the year in which US troop numbers peaked after Lyndon Johnson increased boots on the ground to over half a million.
Not only that; 1968 became the most expensive and deadliest year in the war for the United States. Societal tensions reached boiling point over the King and Kennedy’s assassinations, whilst the civil rights movement proved powerful.
So listen carefully to part of Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican convention:
“For a few moments, let us look at America. Let us listen to America to find the answer to that question. As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flames. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish ‘did we come all this way for this?’ “
There are easily identifiable parallels between 1968 and 2020, and not just because Donald Trump has declared himself the “law and order” choice for Americans.
In the current climate of political and societal activism in America, it might well be “the quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators” which, Nixon later referred to in that speech, which decide the coming election. Indeed, Trump often refers to the “silent majority” which he considers his natural supporters and allies.
This is not to discount the widespread presence of progressive protests in cities and states across the length and breadth of America – this is not a movement hidden in the safe Democratic enclaves of California and New York. Protests demanding police reform and a fairer, more just society for African Americans and people of colour have gripped such Republican strongholds as Missouri and Mississippi, even though much of the political and media attention has been fixed on the liberal cities of Seattle and Washington DC.
Less than five months before the presidential election, if these protest movements can transition from marches and placards to voter turnout mobilisation, then traditionally red states could suddenly be within Joe Biden’s reach. In theory.
It is incumbent on Biden to be the voice of change, and the man to carry the message of the protesters from the streets to the White House. So far, he has struggled. The former Vice President told a popular radio host that anyone struggling to decide whether to support him or Trump in the general election “ain’t black.” The Trump campaign seized on the remarks, reminding voters of Biden’s support in passing the 1994 crime bill. An apology followed.
In seeking to reinvigorate his campaign, Biden will host a grassroots fundraiser with Barack Obama next week. Getting the old band back together will, the Biden campaign hopes, get his electoral message back on track. The current national spotlight on race relations makes Biden a natural ally for the protestors, but the associated arguments around defunding the police mean he risks being painted as being soft on crime – an argument the President is keenly making on Twitter.
Trump’s strength in 2016 was that he was an outsider. In 2020, as the incumbent, he cannot use American disunity against his opponent quite as easily. In 1968, Nixon was able to tie his opponent to the existing chaos because Hubert Humphrey was the sitting Vice-President. Campaigning alongside Obama will remind Americans that Biden was himself recently vice president – and so is hardly the voice of change, as a career politician.
And so, to Nixon
The 2020 election might well be cast under the familiar shadow that Nixon described in that Miami convention speech. American cities have indeed been enveloped in smoke and flames. Sirens have sounded long into the night. American troops are still dying on distant battlefields abroad, despite the commitment of successive presidents to return them home. Americans continue to hate, fight and kill each other. As in 1968, Americans might wonder again in 2020: ‘Did we come all this way for this?’.
The outcome of the election therefore becomes difficult to forecast, because the terms on which it will be won and lost remain in flux. For successive weeks since George Floyd’s death, the dominant political conversation has been about race relations and police reform.
Trump has shown a rare flash of flexibility in signing a police reform executive order, breaking a hitherto narrow commitment to law enforcement around the country.
With the tap of a Tweet or an unexpected policy announcement, the President has the ability to suddenly shift the spotlight onto an issue of his choosing. Building a wall on the US-Mexico border is an ace card that the President has reached for in times of need previously. An entrenching of the White House’s hawkish approach to China is never far away.
Whereas Trump has the White House podium, 82 million Twitter followers and a 24-hour news cycle that always needs something to discuss to amplify his message, Biden has far fewer tools in his arsenal.
Were the election to be fought tomorrow, we might reasonably expect it to be won and lost on the candidates’ record and responses to race relations, police reform and Covid-19. But that is not to say that the major diving lines come the autumn won’t be foreign election interference, immigration, unemployment and abortion.
Trump is the more skilled communicator in both dictating the terms of the conversation and then delivering a message. The question will be whether or not those terms are favourable to his campaign come November.