‘Why Labour is right to hedge its bets on the US elections’

Ed Owen
© Stratos Brilakis / Shutterstock.com

It’s now just six months before Americans go to the polls to choose their next President. But predicting the election outcome feels like trying to make sense of Alice’s crazy adventures in Wonderland.

Just as one set of polling data points in one direction, so another comes along telling you directly the opposite – and the constant swirl of anecdotes, commentary and opinion throws up a multitude of conflicting versions of how the next six months will pan out.

Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy is right to hedge his bets, going beyond Democrat relationships by holding recent meetings with Republicans – and stating he would look for “common cause” with a Donald Trump presidency.

Biden should be a shoo-in for another four years

On any rational view of politics, President Biden would be a shoo-in for another four years in the White House. Despite a divided Congress, he’s been able to push through important legislation on infrastructure and investment, extended access to affordable healthcare and reduced the burden of student debt.

The economy is doing very well too with 15 million jobs created over the first three years of his term – more than under any President in US history over the same period – and unemployment has held below 4% for the longest stretch since the 1960s.

Historically, Americans have tended to give incumbents a second term. Three of the last four Presidents have, in the words of one commentator here, “renewed their vow with the voters”, and – Trump apart – it’s more than three-and-a-half decades since America last chose a one-term Commander-in-Chief.

The fact that his Republican challenger is currently spending more time in US courtrooms than at campaign rallies – facing dozens of criminal charges, any one of which could produce a prison sentence – would, in any normal election, mean this game would already be over. Yet this is not a normal election – or, as Lewis Carroll might have put it, “nothing is because everything isn’t”.

But the President’s poll ratings remain poor to dire

The President’s poll ratings remain poor to dire. According to a rolling average of opinion polls, Biden trails Trump nationally and is behind by anything from one to seven points in the swing battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

More importantly at this stage of the electoral cycle, fewer than four in ten Americans approve of the way he’s handling the job – the worst score of any first-term president six months out from an election since Dwight Eisenhower, and well below the numbers even Trump himself secured in the middle of the pandemic in 2020.

Biden appears to be winning little public credit for his handling of the economy – Trump retains a clear lead over his Democratic rival on this issue – and concerns about his age (he turns 82 in November) and immigration (about 2.5 million people crossed the southern border in 2023 alone) continue to act as a significant drag on the President’s reelection campaign.

Throw in concern about the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the latter of which appears to be testing support among younger and left-leaning voters, and Biden’s position looks precarious.

Yet senior Democrats are quietly confident

Yet, far from being panicked by the polls, senior Democrats exude a quiet confidence that the essential elements are in place for Biden to win.

“The President helped steer our country out of the pandemic, has delivered increases in the living standards of most Americans and is the only candidate who will defend democracy and freedom at home and abroad,” said one long-time Biden aide. “For all the chatter and noise, these are the issues that will determine the election.”

For Simon Rosenberg, a Democrat strategist and author of the Hopium Chronicles, the party’s electoral gains in the mid-term elections in 2022 and 2023 show that when voters are faced with a real choice they reject extreme MAGA Republicans in key seats. “For years now, Democrats have been winning election after election, and we know that large parts of the population who might have once voted for a Republican candidate will never support Trump. That’s unlikely to change soon given how much more extreme he is now.”

For Rosenberg, as the election draws closer and the campaign properly begins, so voters will tune in more to the issues and turn to Biden. He adds that the Democrats are currently better organised, more unified and are raising a lot more cash than their opponents.

Reproductive rights is a key issue that may swing the race

But perhaps the biggest single issue that all Democrats agree has changed the political calculus in their favour is reproductive rights. One described the Supreme Court’s ruling in the spring of 2022 overturning a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion as a political “earthquake”.

“The Republican Party is a very different party from the one that lost in 2020 and they have done two things that will keep them out of power for a long time,” the insider said. “They tried to end democracy on January 6th and then they helped strip the rights and freedoms of more than half the population.”

State referendums on abortion have already been confirmed in three states to coincide with the November Presidential election, and another eight look set to follow. Expect this issue – and the future of American democracy – to be front and centre of the Democrats’ election campaign.

A lot could change in the remaining six months of the campaign

President Biden’s State of the Union speech two months ago was a rehearsal of the big themes of the coming campaign – jobs, freedom, democracy – and his strong performance silenced the doubters on his own side about his fitness to lead a campaign for his return to the White House.

The numbers haven’t changed yet. But six months is enough time for them to do so. It’s also enough time for Trump to face more drama in the courthouse and for Biden to slip up, for more deaths and destruction in Gaza and for a slowdown in the US economy.

Democrats will be hoping to see signs that the polls are turning by their summer convention in Chicago in August. But, with so many variables, it’s anyone’s guess how all this will play out. As Alice said: “It would be nice if something made sense for a change.”

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