In presidential democracies where consecutive re-election is allowed, the advantages for the incumbent are more than evident. However, I daresay that right now the November U.S. presidential election is Joe Biden’s to lose, provided he knows how to win it, which is certainly not obvious.
Joe Biden is the virtual winner of the Democratic Party nomination process to a great extent because that party’s Establishment concluded that the only way of winning over today’s president Donald Trump would be with a moderate candidate who could commandeer the political center. Biden has never run for office outside his (tiny) home state of Delaware and this is not the first time he has embarked upon the presidential candidacy. In the 1980’s, Biden tried and failed in good measure due to his proclivity for being careless with his words, above all when dealing with the press. In plain language: Biden tends to put his foot in his mouth. During the primaries, the Independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, was ahead of him mostly driven by the younger and the more ideological voters in the party. Biden’s challenge now is to win over the Sanders base without threatening his standing with the political center. Not easy.
Elections have two components: candidates and context. President Trump has three great advantages and one enormous disadvantage. The first advantage is the very fact of his already being in the presidency, with all of the benefits that incumbency grants him, in addition to that he is well funded and nobody is contesting the nomination against a divided Democratic Party. The second advantage -a particularity of Trump- is his virtual control of the process of the primary election of representatives and senators through the hordes of believers he can manipulate. Typically, a very small number of party members, usually the most ideological of them, are the ones participating in U.S. primaries and in the case of the Republican Party they currently see in Trump their star (similar to the case of Sanders on the Democratic side). Finally, Trump’s third advantage is that the Republican Party is adrift at present, without ideas, a political project of no greater clarity than that of staying in power. The great disadvantage, unusual for an incumbent, lies in the moment at which the election falls: midway during the pandemic, the recession, the hugely damaging protests, and an uncommon level of unemployed. The latter being a frequent indicator of the probability of re-election.
Biden also has advantages, but his disadvantages are equally pronounced. The first advantage, is that he is not Trump something particularly superlative for the entire “modern” or blue part of the country. In reality, no one cares about Biden outside of his family: everyone sees him as a means of defeating the President and nothing more. That confers on him massive popularity but turns him into an easy target just as well. The second advantage is that he has an energized party, decided on beating Trump but, at the same time, split between those desiring to accelerate the pace toward the Left, the political base of Sanders and Warren, and those who think the only way to win is moving toward the political Center to gain independent voters. Perhaps the best example of this were the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” individuals who had normally cast their votes for Democrats but who, when that party shifted too much to the Left, voted Republican. Those “Independents” are unhappy with both candidates and might even stay home on Election Day rather than support Biden if he moves to the Left. This leaves Biden in a bind: consolidate his Left flank (seeking those voters who stayed home and did not vote for Hillary in 2016) or move to the center of the spectrum above all in the key battleground states that gave Trump the victory in 2016 such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while at the same time tending to key groups of voters in those states, including Hispanics and African-Americans. The positions that Biden adopts during these months as well as whom he nominates for vice president will define his strategy and, with that, his probability of winning.
Biden’s great disadvantage is Biden himself. His age, frequently politically incorrect reactions, and his apparent loss of focus in many of his responses render him overly vulnerable. He clearly counts on the protection of many in the media that, within such an ideologically polarized context, have often ignored his blunders, but it is not obvious whether that is sustainable. Thus, whoever is nominated for the vice presidency will be key because it is not inconceivable that he or she could end up ascending to the presidency. The powers within the party have already sketched a composite of who should occupy that position, essentially an African-American woman. There is no lack of potentially good candidates, but what is politically correct is not always electorally useful. Therefore, that nomination will be a defining element in the upcoming November election.
As far as Mexico is concerned, what is important is the relationship with the United States and not who wins the election. On both sides of the border people change, but the relationship and the condition of neighbors are permanent. History demonstrates that what matters is not the who, but the fact of not losing clarity of what is important. Every time this truism is left aside problems start.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof