Ben Roback: Whoever won yesterday’s travesty of a presidential debate in America, it certainly wasn’t the voters

30 Sep

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Did you stay up to watch last night’s presidential debate? It’s impossible: you can’t have done, because no presidential debate took place last night. Shouting took place. Arguing happened. Insults were thrown. Accusations were levelled.

Chris Wallace, the moderator, was hardly a rose between two thorns. He did very little moderating. In many ways, he was given an impossible task – it looked at times like he was trying to nail jelly to the wall. Short of a remote control fitted with a mute button, there was no silencin either Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

The president likes to describe CNN as a poster child of the “fake news media” when its pejorative coverage shines a bad light on him. But neither Republicans nor Democrats will be pleased to see the verdict of Jake Tapper, that channel’s Chief Washington Correspondent: “That was a hot mess. Inside a dumpster fire. Inside a train wreck. That was the worst debate I have ever seen. It wasn’t even a debate. It was a disgrace.” Revere, fear or abhor CNN, it was hard to disagree with Tapper’s conclusion.

The President entered the stage in Ohio on the back foot. Were voters heading to the polls tomorrow, the outlook points to something of a blue wave. Joe Biden leads in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, with at least five more – Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and North Carolina – toss-ups.

In June, this column pondered whether the terms of the debate for the election might change drastically by November. At the time, we were deeply entrenched in police relations and race riots. We are now focussed on race again, but amidst the unexpected curveballs of the President’s leaked tax returns, a vacant Supreme Court seat, and with it the future of Roe vs. Wade.

This most unpredictable of elections is not going to become any more stable any time soon. The 2020 election dynamic could be upended at any moment. and the only guarantee is uncertainty.

And so to the debate.

Anyone expecting a serious discussion about the future of America will have gone to bed both tired and disappointed. That seems, at best, curious and, at worst, deeply disappointing, given the tipping point at which the country finds itself. The President who is inaugurated on Wednesday 20 January 2021 (we expect) faces a long and growing list of domestic and international challenges.

First, a country at increasing odds with itself over race relations. The heart of America beats faster as tensions deepen between communities.

It seemed genuinely staggering that in a presidential debate, one candidate – the incumbent no less – had to be asked “are you willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups?” Consider that for a moment.

The President’s answer rightly caused consternation and concern for anyone who thinks that the fallout from the election outcome could spill over onto the streets of an increasingly armed America. “Proud boys, stand back and stand by.”  The Fighting Anti-Semitism and Hate organisation describes the Proud Boys as representing “an unconventional strain of right-wing extremism. The Biden campaign’s response was swift.

Second, healing the wounds of Covid-19 and averting further health and economic crises. The President surprised many by declaring himself pro-mask, and even pulling one from his blazer pocket. It was a shrewd move that kneecapped Biden, who’d accused him of doubting the science.

But, in true Trump fashion, it was swiftly followed by doubts over the recommendations of Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Diseases Control. The Trump tactic? Shock and awe. Chaos and confusion.

Third, accepting the outcome of the election. America is not a country of coups. The peaceful transfer of power is enis enshrined in the core of American society.

For now. Because the President has made a habit of casting doubt over the veracity of the election process and outcome, should it produce anything other than a handsome Trump victory. During last night’s debate, he again floated the notion that the result might need to be decided by the Supreme Court. Hence the GOP drive to jam Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination through with haste. The 2020 election seems destined for the courts – so we could be looking well into 2021 before we get a definitive result.

Can anyone have really ‘won’ a debate that took place in this way ?  It feels wrong to decipher a ‘winner’ from last night’s events. It  was certainly not the watching voters. More than three-quarters of those who saw it felt the tone was negative (83 per cent) with over two-thirds (69 per cebt) annoyed by it (CBS/YouGov).

The President sought to bully and dominate like he did – rightly or wrongly, but ultimately so successfully in 2016. The Biden campaign, scarred by the affect it had on Hillary Clinton, pursued a different approach.

Trump spent most of the debate looking at Biden and cutting him off wherever possible. At times, Biden fought fire with fire, but his goal was clearly to try to appear the adult in the room.

At times, this approach seemed overly passive. So Biden rarely looked at the President and mostly addressed the moderator or spoke down the camera, seeking to engage the American people directly.

After over an hour of cross-talk that bordered on two angry relatives shouting at each other across the dining room table, it is a wonder any of the American public were still watching. It makes for an unedifying prospect as one looks ahead to the two remaining debates on 15 and 22 October.

Ben Roback: Trump may not win the election, but this sudden Supreme Court vacancy gives him a chance to make a long-term mark on America.

23 Sep

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

RIP RBG. You will have seen those six letters plastered across news websites and social media since the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice, was announced last Saturday morning.

Entirely irrespective of your politics – red or blue, either side of the Atlantic – Ginsburg commanded respect. During a long and distinguished career, she was a titan in American politics and law. Posthumously, she continues to push barriers and chip away at the glass ceiling, as she becomes the first woman to ever receive the honour of lying in state in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall on Friday.

She will be remembered for her brilliant legal mind and unprecedented leadership on women’s rights. Ginsburg became a multigenerational vanguard for women across America. Her story, told with wit and precision in the 2019 documentary ‘RBG’, is a lesson both for our sons, as well as our daughters.

A vacancy on the nation’s most important bench

The death of the longest-serving liberal Justice on the Supreme Court creates a vacancy that Donald Trump and the Republican Party are in a hurry to fill. Ginsburg’s death, 46 days before the election, is the second-shortest amount of time between an opening on the court and an election.

The President announced he will unveil his Supreme Court nominee in an event at the White House on Saturday. Democrats are crying foul. They have good reason.

In 2016, Barack Obama sought to nominate Merrick Garland to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat.  Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s Majority Leader, and the most candid political operator on Capitol Hill, blocked a hearing on Mr Garland on the grounds that only eight months remained before the presidential election.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection their next Supreme Court Justice”, Senator McConnell said four years ago. How times have changed. Hypocrisy has become the watchword in one half of Washington.

One cannot understate the importance of Ginsburg’s successor on the highest court in the land. Supreme Court Justices are lifetime appointments meaning that Amy Coney Barrett, at age of 48, could feasibly serve on the bench for four decades.

Ginsburg’s replacement will therefore shape the court for a generation to come, putting in serious doubt seismic legal rulings on cases like Roe v. Wade (1973) which gave women the right to an abortion and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) which paved the way for same sex marriage across the whole country. These are not just judicial precedents. They are decisions which have immediate and serious impacts on the fabric of American society.

Trump has already appointed two Justices – Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. Both replaced Justices appointed by Republican presidents, meaning their appointments merely maintained the existing balance of the Court. A conservative constitutional scholar ennobled by Trump would fundamentally shift the balance of the Court, ensuring a clear conservative majority of 6-3.

A shortlist of two

Speculation on Ginsburg’s replacement has centred thus far on two federal appeals court judges – Barrett, and Barbara Lagoa. The former is the favourite having met with the president at the White House on Monday, but the latter would represent a safer bet. The Senate confirmed Lagoa 80-15 last year, so she has previous support amongst many Senate Democrats.

The President wants a vote on his proposed nominee before the election, but that requires procedural support in the Senate. Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski oppose a vote before the election, which means that two more Republican defections would force the vote to be delayed until the lame-duck session of Congress.

Should Donald Trump lose the election, huge pressure would then build on Senate Republicans to defer to the incoming president.

Mitt Romney, who has made a habit of being an outspoken critic of the president in the Senate, has come out in favour of pushing a vote on the vacancy. His support had not been guaranteed, and has therefore given the President and McConnell a boost. That all but ensures a nominee put forward by the president will be confirmed – bar any major missteps from the nominee.

For Trump and his 2020 re-election team, the Supreme Court vacancy comes as an unexpected gift amid a fledgling campaign. For all the president’s warm words about Ginsburg, there is no hiding the naked political benefit of shifting the conversation away from Coronavirus – America has now passed the grim milestone of 200,000 deaths – and the subsequently ravaged US jobs market.

Instead, the political dynamic focuses on appointing a conservative judge to the Supreme Court. The President has tried to make judicial appointments a major plank of his election campaign. Pushing through a third Supreme Court Justice would imprint a major Trump stamp on the future of American society, long beyond a first or second term in the White House.

Ben Roback: What the Republican and Democratic conventions tell us about the state of the race

26 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

The Democratic convention concluded last week without the traditional ticker tape parade and fireworks. There were no screaming hordes or huddled delegates. It was the BBC Proms without Rule Britannia, if you will.

That could not have been helped, of course, given the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. Nevertheless, both parties have done their level best to inject energy and enthusiasm into proceedings.

The most notable example was an often overzealous (and at times borderline fanatical) speech made by Kimberly Guilfoyle, National Chair of the Trump Victory Finance Committee 2020. “The best is yet to come!” she yelled, into an empty convention hall. The speech desperately needed the reaction of an excitable crowd. Instead it felt overly aggressive.

Instead, at the Republican Convention so far, the standout moment was Nikki Haley’s more orthodox convention speech. The former South Carolina Governor and United States Ambassador to the United Nations’ serious tone and vision will be viewed for years to come as her launch pad for a presidential run in 2024. Unlike most of her Republican colleagues, Haley attempted to deliver a serious answer to the current question of racism in America. Instead of describing the election as “shaping up to be church, work and schools versus rioting, looting and vandalism” (Donald Trump Jr.), Haley addressed the issue through a personal prism, describing her background growing up with Indian immigrant parents and becoming the first female Governor of South Carolina.

Although previously a supporter of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign, Haley is a rare example of someone who served in the Trump administration and left on her own terms whilst retaining good relations with the President. If Trump loses in November, attention will quickly turn to her own aspirations.

The Republicans and Democrats appear to have pursued very different strategies

At the start of the year, President Trump would have expected and wanted his convention to be almost entirely about the economy – huge economic growth, low unemployment and record stock market rises. The Democrats might have turned their attention to his record and remarks on immigration, women, race and culture in America. How times have changed.

It is quite clear from that convention so far that the Republican game plan is now centred on cultural issues – namely crime, patriotism and American identity. Joe Biden seems to have caught the zeitgeist a little better, recognising that America is jointly experiencing cultural shifts as well as health and economic crises brought about by COVID-19. The Trump campaign and Republican convention has ignored coronavirus entirely.

The second abundantly clear difference has been in personnel.

The Republican convention has been popular viewing for those who like people whose surname is Trump: Eric, Donald Jr., Tiffany and Melania have all spoken so far. Eric Trump, who has tended to be marginally less visible and antagonistic towards the left that his brother Donald Jr., used a portion of his speech to speak directly to his father and lavish praise on the President’s first term.

But the substance of much of his speech was directed at the Republican base and once again reminded us of the tone the campaign will pursue in the next 70 or so days. “Cancel culture”, accusing Democrats of “lacking patriotism” and “disrespecting our national anthem by taking a knee” both featured heavily. Those hoping for an insight into four more years of Trumpism were left underwhelmed.

Several speakers on the Republican stage painted a picture of a nation on the precipice of Communist chaos. Voters must choose between either liberty or looting. Prosperity or protest. Advancement or anarchy. The Democratic candidate, they have argued, is in the pocket of the radical left and does not have the strength to stop towns and cities across America being blighted by the scenes of civil disorder we have seen time and again this year.

The killing of a black man by armed police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has framed the Republican convention. Street battles have raged between protesters and the police following the shooting of Jacob Blake. Republicans have pointed to the disorder as proof of their warning that law and order might come to an end the moment Donald Trump leaves the White House. Democrats counter that it is further evidence of the urgent need to reform police behaviour. Expect the debate to repeat itself long into the election cycle.

Speakers at the virtual Democratic convention have tried to take a more optimistic tone, painting Biden as a man who can unify a country whose social fabric appears to be cracking at the seams. But it is impossible to escape the fact that a question of credibility might underline that message. Barack Obama sailed into the White House – twice – on an upbeat message of hope and change. A young Senator from Chicago with youthful looks to match his optimistic tone, to many Obama embodied his message. Biden might well be a unifier, but as a career creature of Washington, is he best placed to carry a message of change? So far, the underlying message appear to simply be ‘let’s get the other guy out of the White House’.

Viewing figures are helpful but cannot determine a convention’s success or failure

This is a White House and President obsessed with viewing figures. Trump might therefore be concerned with the first night of the Republican convention’s figures. A total of 15.8 million Americans tuned in, nearly 3 million fewer than the 18.7 million viewers who watched the first night of the Democratic National Convention across the same number of networks. Biden’s keynote speech was watched by 21.8 million Americans – a number the President will be desperate to beat when he takes the stage. For historic context, Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention four years ago drew 34.9 million viewers.

Those numbers might have quite understandably reflected the contrasting strategies taken by the parties. The stage and big screens at the Democratic convention were graced by the great and the good of Hollywood and high society. Chaired by Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria and with comedic interludes from Veep and Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Democratic convention felt at times more like a political take on an all-star awards gala.

In stark contrast, the high watermark of the Republican convention’s first night was a piece to camera by the St Louis couple who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters as they marched past their home. The American public could be forgiven for opting for a night of Netflix instead.

Trump might be lagging in the opinion polls, but he certainly makes for entertaining viewing. For some, politics is a more serious business than that – especially when a country is in the grip of simultaneous health, economic and social crises. When he stands behind the microphone in the White House to deliver his keynote speech, the President does so as the Republican candidate for president but also the sitting Commander in Chief. As such, his keynote speech will command the attention of more than just the nation. You can bet with certainty that his convention speech will be far from conventional.

What would President Biden and Vice President Harris mean for the Special Relationship?

12 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Contrary to some of the analysis of late, Joe Biden is by no means a shoo-in for the presidency in November. Nationally, polls are tightening and at the same point with 84 days to go in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead in the Five Thirty Eight polling average was 6.6 per cent. The Biden campaign will begin to face accusations of losing momentum if Donald Trump continues to chip away at his lead. On that basis, it makes sense that Biden has sought to wrestle back the narrative by announcing Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. If the Biden-Harris ticket is victorious in November, the White House will look like a very different place to the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Biden on Britain and Brexit

Biden is no Brexiteer like Trump. Biden and his old boss, President Obama, fell into line with David Cameron when they effectively backed the Remain campaign by declaring an independent UK would be at the “back of the queue” when it came to negotiating a US trade deal. The day after the EU referendum in 2016, Biden was in Dublin and remarked “We’d have preferred a different outcome”.

Nevertheless, the political imperative of the Special Relationship means there is no chance that Biden would abandon the UK on day one of his presidency. On the contrary, one would expect a presidential visit to London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin within the first six months of President Biden’s tenure. It is the final two stops of that likely trip that provide the most interesting topics for discussion.

Both presidential candidates have direct links to the UK. Donald Trump is an Anglophile and reveres his Scottish heritage. Biden’s proximity lies in Ireland. His great grandfather, James Finnegan, emigrated from County Louth as a child, in 1850. In advance of his 2016 visit to Ireland, Biden said: “James Joyce wrote, ‘When I die, Dublin will be written on my heart. Well, Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart. But Ireland will be written on my soul.’” On a purely personal basis therefore, we have grounds for optimism that the Special Relationship is in safe hands no matter the election outcome.

Negotiating a US-UK FTA in a Biden presidency

Biden would almost certainly cool some of the Trump White House’s more aggressive trade policies such as obstructing the work of the World Trade Organization. But Biden’s 40 years of political experience means he knows which way the wind is blowing on trade. He will want to ensure any deal is seen to protect US jobs and domestic production, while maximising export potential.

What is more, Harris, Biden’s newly announced running mate, has said she would oppose any trade deals that don’t include high labour and environmental standards. She opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2016 citing insufficient protection for US workers.

That rings alarm bells for those hoping the UK could ascend to the CPTPP – assuming the United States would do the same – therefore subverting the need for a bilateral US-UK FTA. Furthermore, Harris has little experience of the Special Relationship to speak of. On the foreign policy section of her website, she lists as “key partners” Japan, India, Mexico, and Korea. The UK is conspicuous in its absence for a potential future Vice President of the US

Where Washington and Westminster could align

In four clear instances we see Washington and Westminster aligning under the prospective leadership of Biden and Johnson respectively.

First, the Trump campaign and Republican Party are trying to paint Biden as a puppet of China. Consequently, he is being pushed into a more hawkish corner. That will mean alignment with an increasingly Sino-scepetic Downing Street and Parliament. Trump initially courted Chinese President Xi Jinping but since then has made an aggressively anti-China stance a key plank of his presidency. Having banned Huawei from our 5G infrastructure, Downing Street looks set to be largely in lockstep with Washington regardless of the outcome in November.

Second, Johnson’s government has shown little interest in entertaining Trump’s more excessive foreign policy ideals. The Trump administration has done its best to erode the World Trade Organization, considering it too kind to China. Conversely, Johnson has nominated Liam Fox to be its next Director-General. Both Fox and his successor at DIT, Liz Truss, extol the virtues of global trade and the rules-based international order that governs it. The British government aspires to be an invisible link in the chain that connects trading nations. In that regard, Biden would be supportive.

Third, environmental policy is one area in which Johnson and Trump do not see eye to eye. The stark divergence in approach has become an awkward rift between the two allies. The UK was a key supporter of the Paris Climate Accord from which Trump removed the US. As the Chair of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Downing Street would undoubtedly favour a US President who considers climate change one of the world’s biggest and most pressing priorities. That only applies to Biden.

Lastly, Iran. As Foreign Secretary, Johnson failed in his attempt to persuade the Trump administration to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. Biden would rejoin it in a heartbeat, having been a part of the Obama administration who orchestrated it in the first place.

In summary, the Special Relationship will endure irrespective of the winner in November. Built on a shared understanding and common values, the relationship transcends presidents and prime ministers. On China, the US and UK look set to form an even closer alliance alongside their Five Eyes allies. That is something both Trump and Biden appear to agree on.

Ben Roback: Trump’s facing an uphill battle to convince voters he’s the man to bring the US out of the pandemic

29 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

There are now fewer than 100 days to go until the November 3rd election. Donald Trump and Joe Biden will invariably describe it as the most important election in a generation, in the same way that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did in 2016. This time around, the candidates might be right. The challenges facing the next leader of the free world are stark.

A global health pandemic that continues to ravage the United States; a rampant China and a resurgent Russia; domestic social and racial unrest that is bubbling over now after decades of suppression; an increasingly angry population split more than ever by political anger and culture wars over age-old issues like abortion and LGBT rights and newer dividing lines like monuments and masks.

In that respect, whilst the job for the next President of the United States is daunting, the opportunities are vast. To try and bring the country together is the immediate task for the victor come November. To rally the nation behind a domestic and international strategy for the four years that follow is the great challenge.

With under 100 days until the election, there are three major trends to look out for:

A ‘new Trump’ or the same old ways?

The President is facing an uphill battle to convince voters that he is the man to bring the United States out of the Coronavirus pandemic – evidenced by the firing of Brad Parscale, the President’s election campaign manager. In simpler terms, you don’t sack Jurgen Klopp if his side are top of the Premier League. It was the first major recognition from the White House that their re-election campaign was stuttering. Instead, Bill Stepien, a field director for the 2016 Trump campaign, is tasked with plotting a path to re-election.

Since Stepien’s tenure began, we have seen hints of a different side to the President on COVID-19. Political commentators have flocked to describe the President’s ‘new tone’. They have evidence. Trump has described wearing masks as “patriotic” having previously refrained from doing so in public resolutely. On the resumption of the daily White House COVID-19 press briefings, the President warned the virus may “get worse before it gets better”. His message discipline at the Presidential podium has seemed tighter, with fewer musings seemingly offered at random.

But will it last?

Only yesterday, the President returned to the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a way to prevent Coronavirus, contradicting the consistent advice of his own public health officials. Social media posts shared by the President and his son advocating the drug were removed by Facebook and Twitter on the grounds of misinformation. After a period of détente, Dr Anthony Fauci, a lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has returned as the subject of the President’s indignation. A presidential retweet criticising Fauci for having “misled the public on many issues” remains visible for his 84 million followers. Trump yesterday raged that his approval rating did not match Fauci’s. That ‘new tone’? It might be short-lived.

This is not a president who likes to be controlled or shaped by dictatorial advisers. Sean Spicer learned that the hard way when he was despatched to lie to the press about the size of the Presidential inauguration crowd. Push back against the President and you will be fired. If the polling picture does not improve for the President – and fast – then Stepien might be the next former Trump 2020 campaign manager.

What appears evident is that, unless the White House can be seen to get a tighter grip of case numbers in the United States, the President’s chances of re-election will falter.

Why the Democratic VP pick matters more than normal

What motivates the choice of a running mate? Age. Diversity. Experience. Geographical balance. Popularity. It differs in each election. Although the lack of journalistic rigour at the time makes it hard to verify, VP John Nance Garner is reported to have once famously said that the office of the vice president “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” This time around it matters more.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, has confirmed that he will announce his running mate in the first week in August before the Democratic convention (August 17-20). Biden has pledged to name a woman as his running mate and his team has been vetting four African American women understood to be Senator Kamala Harris, former national security adviser Susan Rice, and Reps. Val Demings and Karen Bass.

At 77 years old and – 78 by the time he might assume office – Joe Biden is, respectfully, no spring chicken. For the Biden campaign, his choice of running mate matters more because voters could well be choosing an imminent successor to the President at any given moment. When Barack Obama became president at age 47, voters were not concerned that his age could become a hindrance to his tenure. On that basis, he selected Joe Biden, a political veteran with decades of experience.

Further, mental acuity has become a wedge issue this election. The President has bragged in an interview of his stellar performance in a cognitive test, recalling ‘person, woman, man, camera, TV’ in the correct order. Similarly, the Trump campaign has spent advertising money portraying Joe Biden as forgetful and in poor control of the facts. For these reasons, Biden’s choice of running mate is a hugely significant moment in the election campaign.

Keep one eye on the polls and the other on the map

The polling industry has taken a battering ever since it got – for the majority – Brexit and the 2016 presidential election wrong. But just as night follows day, we all return to the polls as the most reliable reference point for how elections might pan out. There is no proven better alternative.

As such, with fewer than 100 days to go, one eye should be kept on the polls. The Real Clear Politics average (Biden +9) paints a useful national picture, but swing state polling is more important in the electoral college system that operates on a state-by-state basis. What becomes crucial is swing states moving from ‘toss up’ to likely Trump/Biden, as was the case with Florida this week when the Cook Political Report moved it to ‘lean Democrat’.

With one eye on the polls, the other should be focussed on planes, trains and automobiles. Look closely where the Trump and Biden campaigns are going to rally and fundraise (within the current limitations of COVID-19). A defensive strategy by the President suggests he will seek to only defend his 2016 map and not expand on it by focussing on the 2016 swing states that went to Hillary Clinton by five points or fewer. An offensive strategy by the Biden campaign will be visible if he focusses on the traditionally red states that are now in play – like Texas (Trump +0.2) and Georgia (Trump +2.7).

Both men will be desperate to avoid the mistake made by the Clinton campaign in 2016. Wisconsin has been such a reliably Democratic state that Hillary Clinton failed to visit it entirely, the fist major-party nominee since 1972 to do so. Polls put Clinton ahead by over 6 points as election day neared. Then Trump won the state and its 10 electoral college votes. The running joke was that instead of calling her post-election book ‘What Happened’, Hillary Clinton might have called it “Should have Gone to Wisconsin”.

The lesson? Don’t take anything, anywhere for granted. Even the most solidly red or blue states will require attention and the promise of a new injection of political and financial capital. It means both candidates will have to balance shoring up their reliable support with the temptation to campaign in purple states that could possibly tip either way.

Florida and the presidential election: darkness looms in the Sunshine State

15 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Florida is a unique and brilliant place – a state of at times total contrasts.

Over 3.5 million retirees aged 65 and older live in it year-round, but during the spring break its beaches are flooded with college students. The southern tip of the country is drenched in sun for the majority of the year, but sits in the eye of the storm of America’s hurricane season.

For visitors, Florida is a source of relaxation, but life is even less taxing for its residents – since the state has no income, estate or inheritance tax.

A crucial state in electoral politics

Florida is a traditional swing state in presidential elections, and the biggest battleground one by population size. It is also an historic indicator of the outcome of any given presidential election.

The candidate who won Florida in 13 out of the past 14 presidential elections went on to win the White House. The ‘Dartford of America’ – you don’t hear political pundits call it often enough but, here, that constituency has voted for the party which went on to win nationwide in UK general elections since 1964.

Donald Trump won Florida by a 1.2-point margin in 2016, and the state is considered pivotal for his re-election prospects. In the context of November, the Cook Political Report lists four swing-states as ‘toss-ups’, including Florida. Of the four, Florida has the most electoral college votes (29) and is therefore a vital step in the path to the White House.

The Coronavirus has put Florida under the spotlight

The rapid chain of events of the last few months has placed an even greater onus on Florida – in particular, the triple-threat of social unrest, Covid-19 and the resulting economic climate.

The Sunshine State was one of the most bullish when it came to reopening its economy. Its Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, rushed to remove the shackles on indoors bars and restaurants, catering to holidaying college students and visitors to Florida’s beautiful beaches.

Since then, the state has become one of the epicentres of a Coronavirus crisis that never really went away. The numbers make stark reading. Florida has recently been averaging around 10,000 new cases per day. Having reported more than 15,000 new cases on Sunday, a Reuters analysis showed that, were Florida were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for the most new cases in a day behind the United States, Brazil and India. Over 4,000 Floridians have died of Covid-19.

Florida has responded – commendably – by increasing its testing capacity, and announced 143,000 results on Sunday ,compared to an average of 68,000 for the seven days prior. But as the president often does, Governor DeSantis insisted the surge in cases was due to an increase in testing.

Like Greg Abbott in Texas, DeSantis has become used to high praise from the President, having led the charge on reopening his state for business. A long list of the president’s most revered Fox News hosts have lavished praise on Governors Abbott and DeSantis, citing the “dire predictions” about reopening too soon which “have not come true”. That praise now looks tragically myopic.

First a U-turn on masks, next the Republican National Convention?

Having resisted wearing a mask for the duration of the Coronavirus crisis, the president wore one in public for the first time last week. Could it prompt a sharp change in approach by DeSantis in Florida? The governor has remained in step with the president, and refused to require masks to worn state-wide (although city leaders have imposed their own rules).

Trump’s shift gives De Santis political cover to follow suit and pursue more aggressive measures to contain the spread of the virus. But having become the White House’s poster boys for the Covid-19 economic liberation, Abbott and DeSantis will not want to shut their states down again.

With Florida so aggressively under the spotlight, an awkward dilemma looms for the Republican Party. Having argued with the political leadership in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Republican National Committee (RNC) decided to move its convention to Jacksonville, Florida.

Given the White House has championed the economic resurgence, and urged governors to reopen their states for business, the RNC will not want to be moved into relocating their convention again owing to a pandemic that the White House thinks should not obstruct the economic recovery.

But a growing number of Republicans are adding their names to a list of delegates who won’t be attending next month. More than five GOP Senators and eight Congressmen have stated they will skip the ceremony that coronates Trump as the GOP’s presidential nominee.

Having attempted a rousing speech in front of a half empty arena in Tulsa recently, the president’s campaign team will dread the optics of another poorly attended event in Jacksonville.

In the Rose Garden yesterday, the President dismissed the notion that he is the underdog in Florida. The incumbent’s confidence of winning in 2020 is based on replicating his success against the odds in 2016. But four years ago, few expected Trump to win.

As in his first election, a second victory will be reliant on defying the existing polling trends which are not in his favour. In the Sunshine State, Joe Biden has a six-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average and the President has only led in three of the last 26 polls included in the RCP sample.

Florida is known to so many in this country for its long white beaches, the art deco facades that line South Beach and the welcoming smiles at Disneyland. But a lack of political leadership risks turning the state into an even deeper focal point for a disease that continues to rip through chunks of America at a catastrophic rate.

Whilst the White House has shown flexibility on masks, the battle lines for the next political fight have been drawn over the reopening of schools and colleges for the fall semester. Still in the epicentre of a health crisis, it seems like the worst possible time for vast university and college campuses to welcome back their students with open arms – let alone the Republican National Convention. The start of the fall semester will precede the presidential election. Florida will be under the spotlight once again.

Ben Roback: When masks become memes: The partisan political climate has hurt America’s fight against coronavirus

1 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a Governor to become a reliable source of memes on social media, but Andrew Cuomo is doing things differently. The Democratic Governor of New York has harnessed his social media following to spread the COVID-19 mitigation message to New Yorkers, (primarily) young and (occasionally tech-savvy) old. There aren’t many politicians who become memes for a good reason. With respect, Cuomo has hardly broken the internet in a manner that threatens the dominance of Dwayne Johnson or Kylie Jenner on Instagram. But he has harnessed the platform to communicate a clear message to his 987,000 followers.

Shareable content is even more powerful at a time when politicians are – with one notable exception – campaigning remotely online. Whilst becoming the source of a meme and the butt of all jokes online had once been the bête noire of the political class, Cuomo is getting good at it.

But the focus here is not so much on digital campaigning, as much as the topic is worthy of words on this site. Instead, it shows how something as simple as wearing a mask during a global pandemic has been politicised in the United States.

Wearing a mask ought not to be controversial, especially when the guidance is now unequivocal. The World Health Organisation acknowledges that ‘Non-medical, fabric masks are being used by many people in public areas, but there has been limited evidence on their effectiveness and WHO does not recommend their widespread use among the public for control of COVID-19.’ However, in instances where social distancing is not possible, ‘WHO advises governments to encourage the general public to use non-medical fabric masks.’

In the United States, the advice from government has changed over time, which has created room for confusion. The anti-maskers are well aware of this. The government’s leading infectious disease authority, Dr Anthony Fauci, initially opposed mask-wearing by the American public for fear of draining supplies needed for health care workers, but later reversed course. Since then, he has criticised those reluctant to wear a mask and urged them to “get past” political objections. Research has since squashed any further wiggle room for doubt. A University of Washington health institute study suggests that if 95 per cent of Americans wore masks now, 33,0000 fewer people would die by October 1.

This ought not to have prompted political debate

The mask has become a symbol of political attitudes to the binary ‘health vs recovery’ debate that now looms large over the United States. The president has gone to great lengths to avoid being seen wearing a mask in public, famously refusing to do so when touring a Ford plant in Michigan – despite official state and local requirements to do so. Surrounded by executives wearing masks, President Trump told reporters: “I had one on before. I wore one in the back area. I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” It is unclear why being seen in a mask by the press would represent a form of defeat for the president, short of an infringement on his civil liberties. Some GOP governors are following the president’s lead. Of 20 states that have implemented broad mask-wearing requirements, just four have Republican governors.

The response to the pandemic has descended into political point-scoring – not a shocking statement to make in an election year after all. In refusing to wear a mask, the president wants to become the physical embodiment of the national recovery he hopes will return him to office for four more years. It has become abundantly clear that, even in the simplest form of responding to COVID-19 like wearing a mask, there would be no unity forged between Democrats and Republicans.

The president could be convinced that there is still time to lead

The Republican leadership and membership appear to be bending on the question of masks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says there should be no stigma associated with covering one’s face and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says doing so is essential to fully reopening the economy. Even Fox News host Sean Hannity, one of the president’s most vocal and influential supporters, has said he will wear one. Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, another media friend of the president, went a step further and said:

“I think that if the president wore one [a mask], it would just set a good example. He’d be a good role model. I don’t see any downside to the president wearing a mask in public.”

There is no sign that a change in course from the president would be frowned upon by voters. A new Fox News poll showed 68 per cent of Republicans have a favourable view of mask-wearers, and 61 per cent of those who strongly approve of President Trump’s job performance. Incidentally, perhaps more alarmingly, by a 36-point margin, voters say presidential candidates holding large political events and rallies is a bad idea.

The evidence therefore suggests that there is still time for the president to show leadership on this issue, but the window of opportunity is narrowing. What is more, a volte-face would be jumped on by the president’s opponents as the sign of a spectacular U-turn. What is, in fact, a victory for common sense would be seized upon by the Biden campaign and the likes of Governor Cuomo as a great victory for the Democrats looking ahead to the November election. Policy changes are so often sensationalised as admissions of defeat, whereas often it is simply a victory for common sense – see Downing Street’s concession on the Marcus Rashford campaign for free school meals, for example.

Those hoping for a change of tack from the president are likely to be disappointed. To wear a mask would be to admit that the United States is still in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, enduring the first wave before worrying about the second, at a time when the president wants to focus on the economic rebound. States that previously opened up to a flood of economic activity at bars, restaurants and salons are now facing a tsunami of new cases. For as long as daily cases rise – and Dr Fauci warned yesterday they could creep up to 100,000 per day in short order – the president will look disjointed and out of touch in focussing on the economic recovery. Can a nation’s economy begin to heal while its citizens are still dying?

Covering one’s face should be a simple way of limiting the spread of the disease, above political debate, discourse, or disagreement. The fact that something as obvious as wearing a mask has become a symbol of the political divide that now surrounds COVID-19 embodies the hyper-partisan climate that continues to threaten America’s chances of getting on top of COVID-19. The crossover of politics into pop culture, coupled with the fact that the president appears to consider wearing a mask the antithesis to the economic recovery, makes it hard to foresee a change in approach. That is going to make it harder, not easier, for the United States to get on top of a health pandemic that once again is spiralling out of control.