Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
From one week to the next, the dominant themes of this campaign swing violently like a dinghy caught in a storm.
At the turn of the year, as we entered the early days of the election cycle, the President had hoped to base his election campaign on three pillars – law and order, the economy, and judicial appointments. The Democratic candidate might have predictably based his campaign on healthcare, social justice and immigration.
Instead, the rapid spread of a global health pandemic and the death of a Supreme Court Justice just weeks before election day put pay to the notion of a predictable campaign narrative.
Now, there question marks surround the health of the President and his inner circle. Covid-19 has torn through the White House like a knife through butter – a tough look for an administration that appears to be above its own restrictions on mask wearing and social distancing.
The President clearly wants to put his positive Coronavirus diagnosis behind him. He has utilised clever videography to portray the image of a strongman who has defeated a virus that has killed over 200,000 of his fellow citizens.
If you’re a Trump fanatic, he is a phoenix rising from the ashes. If you’re not a fan at all, his decision to rush back to the White House, despite remaining deeply infectious, is as reckless as it is downright stupid. You can literally choose your narrative based on two different versions of the same video: pro-Trump or anti-Trump.
It is clear that COVID-19 is now the inescapable focus of the election
Following the President’s personal experience of the virus, it will almost certainly shape the outcome too. IfTrump wins re-election, his ultra-committed supporters will celebrate four more years amidst a presidential resurrection.
If he loses, cries of “China virus” and “foreign interference” are all but guaranteed. DeAnna Lorraine, who won 1.8 per cent of the vote to Nancy Pelosi’s 74 per cent in June’s primary for California’s 12th district in the House of Representatives, and then wrote a book about it, even went so far as to saying that Trump catching Covid-19 could “technically be viewed as an assassination attempt on our President by the Chinese”.
Pages have been consumed by the question of what happens if Trump loses, but refuses to concede. In the event of such a development, whether the cause is the consequences of a bout with Covid-19 or allegations of voter fraud caused by an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots, the President could simply refuse to accept the immediate outcome of the election.
His most loyal followers – increasingly devoted and often armed – will follow his lead. The left and right will almost certainly both take to the streets in protest. According to a June 2018 briefing paper by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, there are 120.5 guns per 100 people in the United States. Disaster could ensue.
The most important VP debate since they began 40 years ago
There is no doubt that the President is taking huge risks to project strength at such a crucial time in the election cycle. For a man obsessed with optics, being bed-bound in hospital less than 30 days before Americans go to the polls, and with postal voting already underway, is clearly not an option.
That puts an even greater spotlight on the vice-presidential candidates. Whilst the president is battling the virus, we cannot forget that questions have been raised over the health of the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden.
Critics claim he is losing his sharpness and has a poor grip of the facts. At 78 years old by the time he might enter the White House, Biden is being described as a one-term president who will hand over to his running mate, Kamala Harris, in 2024.
This combination means that the sole vice presidential debate of the campaign has taken on sudden significance. That is an exception to the rule.
For the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine in 2016 was immediately forgettable. It was obvious then that the two deputies would sink back into the campaign shadows the very next day.
Not so tonight.
Mike Pence is, in many ways, the ‘acceptable’ face and voice of the Trump White House in that he is a traditional Republican carved out of core GOP traditions. Softly spoken, proudly Christian and a family man, Pence plays a straight bat when defending his boss – but is not afraid to play offence, either.
A former prosecutor, Harris will be precise in her approach while pursuing the zingers that make for 30-second soundbites deployabe on social media and in fundraising emails in the days after. Pence will look to land knockout punches without ever raising his voice above his customary gentle tone – very much a la Michael Gove.
Vice-presidential debates are usually very much the undercard to the main event. 37 million Americans watched Pence v Kaine in 2016, 44 per cent fewer than the viewership of the lowest-rated Clinton-Trump presidential debate, which drew 66.5 million viewers. Pence v Harris will lack the explosiveness of Trump v Biden – but, by the same token, the sheer chaos that made it entirely unwatchable.
The viewing figures will almost certainly be much higher than the average for VP debates. Rightly so: Americans might be watching the two deputies battle it out, but with one candidate sick with Covid-19 and another rumoured to be only destined for one term, they could well be watching their future p.