The final countdown
Ihave yet to recall another Presidential Election that was so much the talk of the town. People are genuinely interested in the outcome of this election and 48 hours before this unravels, a sense of foreboding fills the air that has already been electrified by months of intensive campaigning. Claiming that the significance of this election is unprecedented would, in my opinion, be an erroneous historical judgement.
The election of 1860 led to the Republican Party (led by Lincoln) taking an anti-slavery platform that eventually led to the secession of 11 states and the Civil War (1861-1865) that caused 750,000 deaths. The election of 1912 saw the split of the Republican Party after former President Theodore Roosevelt ran on a third party ticket (the Progressive Party or as it was nicknamed the Bull Moose party). Roosevelt had lost the nomination to William Howard Taft, weakened the party he led for eight years, and paved the way for Harold Wilson to be elected. Wilson oversaw World War I and fought to establish the League of Nations, but failed. In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to power putting an end to the national nightmare caused by the Great Depression. Roosevelt formed the New Deal coalition that realigned interest groups and political parties for the next 30 years.
Each election has its historical significance and I discount the idea that this is the most important ever. Every election is unique in different ways. In the 19th century, Presidents bought territory and expanded the American mainland. The 20th century propelled the USA to unrivalled industrial and military power that eventually led to Pax Americana. The 21st century sees this power challenged by state and non-state actors and the super-power arena shared with China and Russia. But against such a backdrop, who will be leading the country?
Would a Trump win be a surprise? No. To understand the Trump phenomenon one needs to look beyond America’s borders. As Fareed Zakaria points out in the October issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine, “Trump is part of a broad populist upsurge running through the Western world.” This populist wave has reignited ideological flames at both ends of the political spectrum. Leaders have picked on people’s resentment of ‘the establishment’, crying foul at the lack of transparency and accountability of people in authority. Both Alexis Tsipras (Greek Prime Minister, on the left) and Viktor Orban (Hungarian Prime Minister, on the right) were elected on a platform that challenges the legitimacy of policies enacted in Brussels. Austria, Italy, Norway, Spain and Sweden have all experienced a surge in populist movements and parties. Not to mention the Brexit referendum, dealing an unexpected blow to the European project. These developments ought to be read carefully. Popular resentment feeds on dissatisfaction, a card that Trump played very well (though very clumsily).
Hillary Clinton provides the counter perspective of what the Trump phenomenon is. She runs for office after more than 30 years in public life, bringing in both experience and personal baggage. Hillary represents the establishment Trump is protesting against. When she was the wife of an Attorney General, Governor and President of the United States, she never accepted the role of a bystander. A lawyer by profession, she has offered advice to her husband, and took active policy-making roles as First Lady. This earned her the respect of admirers, and the disdain of her detractors. As Senator of New York, she acquired more prominence as a law-maker, paving the way for her Presidential campaign in 2008, where she was beaten by another anti-establishment candidate who ran for change, Barack Obama. She picked up the most important Cabinet post as Secretary of State and led several important negotiations such as the Copenhagen Accord (on Climate Change), revived the peace process in the IsraeliPalestinian conflict (2010), and claimed that ‘free people govern themselves best’ during the Arab Spring. She visited 79 countries while in office, oversaw the elimination of Osama bin Laden but had to take the flak when Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans were killed on 11 September 2012.
Are polls reliable?
What was previously a foregone outcome, has now become a very uncertain race where pundits and pollsters cannot provide an accurate picture of how the election will turn out. There are a number of polls in the USA, most of which claim that they are using the right methodology. The Washington Post-ABC News Tracking Poll gives Trump an edge while Moody (with an accurate prediction record since 1980) claims that Clinton will have a comfortable win, possibly a landslide. As the picture unfolds, a landslide seems unlikely. The candidates seem to be running neck and neck and public opinion is squarely divided. Many a time, polls have been misleading.
In 1948 Harry Truman pulled an ‘upset victory’ with conventional wisdom expecting otherwise. Then Republican candidate Thomas Dewey was certain to win with political experts invariably agreeing that the farmer from Missouri would be thrown out of office with relative ease. So was the perception of this idea that the press went to print in the evening assured that the morning after would only be a confirmation. The iconic picture of the Chicago Daily Tribune of 3 November 1948 will remain etched in collective memory. The newspaper’s blunder (early printing was necessary to ensure distribution) served as a warning for later elections.
What if it is a tie?
The prospects of a tie are very remote. This scenario is a daunting one as it lands the decision in the hands of Congress. A tie can only happen if both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump win 269 electoral votes (there are 538 Electors in the College). That is one short of the 270 that is required to secure the Presidency. One poll that is consistent all throughout is that the next Congress will be a Republican one. The prospect of a Divided Government is normal in American politics, whereby the Executive (led by the President) is represented by one party, while Congress and/or Senate are represented by another party. When this happens, American government can get stalled causing it to shut down (for example 1995-1996 and 2013).
In the eventuality of a tie in the Electoral College, the 12th Amendment of the Constitution is triggered and the House of Representatives will choose the President, while the Senate will choose the Vice President. This happened in 1824 where Congress voted for John Quincy Adams rather than the winner of the popular vote, Andrew Jackson. Though in different circumstances, Congress decided again the 1876 election, awarding the Presidency to Rutherford Hayes at the expense of Samuel Tilden who had won the popular vote.
The Obama legacy
There are many considerations at the end of each Presidency. How will history judge it? Some will claim that it will take decades, if not centuries, to make an assessment. There is one thing that is undisputed about the Obama administration – he preserved the dignity of the Office and gave an example of how temperament is a very important attribute of leadership. As from Wednesday, Obama will have a new President-elect with whom he will be sharing economic and military intelligence. While the handholding is customary, President Obama will be free to carry out his executive orders until noon of Friday 20 January 2017.