My last piece explored five narratives that could determine the US election. We must now add a sixth, that might well supercede them. The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota has changed everything.
Police brutality and racism are not new topics in US politics. Nor are protests and riots.
There were several incidents during the 2016 election, during which the Black Lives Matter campaign played a prominent role.
However protest has not been seen on this scale since the sixties. Police gassing peaceful protesters and attacking journalists is not in keeping with a functioning democracy. Saturday’s nationwide (and global) protests felt like a definitive moment.
How will this affect the election? The immediate impact appears terrible for Donald Trump. Rather than seeking to unify the country, he stands accused of fanning the flames with provocative tweets and politicising the crisis. The images of peaceful protesters being gassed in order to clear a path for a photo-op with a bible outside a church may prove definitive.
Whilst ongoing looting or violence against the police may ultimately help Trump, for now polls suggest voters are taking a more rounded view. That they are likelier to understand that the issues around racially biased policing and justice go much deeper than this singular case. That overwhelmingly peaceful protests are defined by a desire for change - as opposed to the Trumpian narrative that they are driven by ‘radical leftists’ such as the ill-defined ‘Antifa’.
Moreover, they are deeply unimpressed by Trump’s leadership and management of the twin crises sweeping America. According to ABC/Ipsos, 66% disapprove of how he is handling the Floyd protests and 60% of coronavirus.
His overall approval ratings are falling, even below 40% in some polls, and strong disapprovals rising to record levels. Marist (rated A+ by Fivethirtyeight) have his net rating at -13 while Monmouth (A+) are -11%.
Biden’s lead widening across the board
Morning Consult (B/C) found that 45% are more likely to vote for Joe Biden since the crisis began, compared to 31% for Trump. The Democrat was also trusted more by 17, 12 and 10% margins to handle racial equality, police reform and Covid-19 respectively.
So far as the race for the White House is concerned, Biden’s lead according to the RealClearPolitics average is 7%. Critically, given that both polls include a large number of undecideds, Biden is already at 50 and 52% in the latest surveys with those aforementioned A+ rated pollsters. Before the protests escalated, ABC/Wapo (also A+) had him +10.
Even the betting markets - which have been much more Trump-friendly - are turning against the incumbent. Biden is now favourite at just below even money.
Could things change in the five months until polling day? Trump is evidently pursuing a ‘law and order’ strategy - transparently based Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign, which also took place against the backdrop of massive social unrest.
Fox News and other surrogates are hammering home the fake narrative that Democrats will defund the police and associating their Antifa bogeyman with Biden. Race did work as a wedge issue for Nixon and more recently for right-wing politicians across the world.
Wider election context is nothing like 1968
Such parallels with Nixon fall down instantly on the fact he was the challenger. The Democrats had been in government but their President Johnson wasn’t on the ticket, having lost the nomination during a divisive process. The Left was deeply split over the Vietnam war and in the very early stages of a geographic realignment that saw them lose voters in the South over their support for civil rights.
None of that applies this time. Trump is the incumbent, upon whose watch two major crises have escalated. Most Americans disapprove strongly of his leadership on those issues, which have further entrenched deep opposition to him.
Race and police reform are not new dividing lines. Nor is there anything new about Trump’s tactics. Doubling down on race has been central to his political career - from trolling President Obama with a racist conspiracy theory, attacking Mexican immigrants and judges, to calling fascists at Charlottesville ‘very fine people’.
Racially charged tactics fared badly in mid-term elections
Trump has gone hard on immigration at every opportunity. Yet one special, local or mid-term election after another went terribly for Republicans, due to a highly-motivated opposition. African Americans turned out in huge numbers to back Democrat Doug Jones for a famous Senate upset in Alabama, for example.
Ahead of the mid-terms, Trump and Fox News constantly ramped up the threat of a ‘caravan’ of illegal migrants en route from South America. It didn’t stop the Democrats winning their best result since Watergate.
Vacating the centre ground helps moderate Biden
These extreme, far-right tactics make Biden’s task easier. No matter what they throw at him, it is hard to see many believing the former VP is a radical leftist. Whereas in another scenario, Biden would be a dull, yesterday’s man, now his brand as the safe, moderate return to normality is gold.
Biden will campaign as the safe choice to re-unite America. To heal the wounds caused by Trump’s white supremacy. I reckon he’ll pick a moderate woman of colour as his VP - former Orlando police chief Val Demings is the subject of a major gamble down to 5/1.
Trump’s toxicity among minorities and young voters is also likely to act as a recruiting sergeant for Democrats - 67% of millennials and Gen Z disapproved in that Marist poll. A big growth in registration among those groups - as reported during these protests - could make a gamechanging difference for Democrats. Biden’s inability to generate excitement might not matter in this febrile atmosphere.
The counter argument is that by ramping up a race war, Trump can mobilise millions of non-voting whites. Turnout in America is low so there must be some potential, but given that his (more exciting and promising) campaign in 2016 didn’t win them over, it isn’t obvious why they would vote for him now.
National crises are generally an opportunity for incumbents to unite the nation. Trump is wholly ill-suited to this role and that has been exposed. His lack of leadership is serving to make Biden look better. On the current trajectory, the challenger is on course for a huge win in November. All he need do is play safe and let his toxic opponent hog the headlines.