November 3rd: The most relevant US election in a generation

The Center for Contemporary Studies (CETC), together with the Delegation of the Government of Catalonia to the United States and Canada and the Association of Political Scientists and Sociologists of Catalonia (COLPIS), hosted an online debate to discuss the upcoming US election―to be held on the 3rd of November. The panel included leading scholars and journalists: Mark Jones, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy Fellow in Political Science; Janet Steele, director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and professor at George Washington University; and Sabrina Siddiqui, national politics reporter at The Wall Street Journal and David Smith, Washington bureau chief of The Guardian.

Moderated by former US Correspondent of the Catalan TV·3 Raquel Sans, the panelists focused on what would it mean for the US and the world for Trump to be reelected or ousted of the White House. Participants also dug into the extraordinary circumstances of this election, discussing to what extent it might bring a new paradigm and change the US leading role worldwide.

Pere Almeda, director of the Center for Contemporary Studies (CETC) and IDEES magazine, in his opening remarks, explained the role of CETC as an in-house think tank of the Government of Catalonia. Jordi Pacheco, Dean of the Association of Political Scientists and Sociologists of Catalonia, argued that the upcoming US election is relevant for two reasons: the outcome is crucial to political marketing and will have geopolitical consequences all around the world.

Trump’s victory, a tall order

Mark Jones first intervention offered an overview of the complex US electoral system, based on the concept of Electoral College. Jones focused on the key issues of the 2020 Presidential election campaign, such as the economy, COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s actions and behavior and survey accuracy. Despite admitting that economy is a core issue in all the elections, he also added that “COVID-19 undercut Trump’s presidency reelection in two ways: the pandemic has had a negative impact on economic growth and his handling of the pandemic is viewed substandard by the majority of population”.

In addition, Jones analyzed what polls are predicting and interpreted each candidate’s chances to win the elections. “Joe Biden is in a pretty good situation. Trump has to win in the red states –great chance of winning–, the pink states –considerable chance of winning–, all the ‘toss-ups’ states and 2 or 3 light blue states –where Biden has a considerable chance of winning–. That’s a pretty tall order”, he argued.

The decline of local newspapers is key to explain the polarization

On the other hand, Janet Steele professor at George Washington University addressed the current situation of the media polarization and the distant political preferences. She expressed concerns about the great division in the American media and pointed out one of the reasons: “one explanation has to do with the decline of the local newspaper. Within the last 15 years, more than one in five newspapers has gone out of business”.

Furthermore, she underlined the excessive coverage of all the president actions. “Trump dominates completely the airwaves and has managed to violate all the journalist rules. One of the biggest problems in this campaign has been Trump’s lies”. Steele argued that the only way journalists can fight lies from politicians is by making the so-called ‘truth sandwich’: start by making a factual presentation of the subject, pointing out the misleading or false statement and then reinforce the truth by restating the factual presentation.

Finally, national politics reporter Sabrina Siddiqui, who covers the Biden campaign for The Wall Street Journal, offered some insights on how different is the current campaign compared to previous elections, and stressed the enormous differences about how each candidate faces the pandemic. “There has been a clear contrast between how both candidates have approached this election. Trump is still holding these large-scale rallies where there has not been social distancing or masks, while Biden has been keeping a much lighter campaign travel, without big events”.

Siddiqui also added that the main issue on 2016 elections was the economy and migration, while now it is the pandemic and the great unemployment rate the American electorate is facing. “Americans have seen their lives paralyzed. The economy is not as strong as it was in 2016, and now the American electorate is facing large numbers of unemployment”, she said.

The UK-US relations, “in serious jeopardy” due to Brexit

As an additional comment, David Smith from The Guardian reflected on the British-American relations and the consequences of US election outcome for the UK and Europe. “A few years ago, there was a very close relationship between both governments; the UK was the interpreter of what was going on Brussels. That is now in serious jeopardy with Brexit, which is going to be a real struggle to the UK”. According to Smith, “right now, a lot of political debates in the US are more focused on Asia than Europe. China has probably been the biggest foreign policy issue in this campaign, so Europe has taken more of a back seat”.

Smith also said that in the two presidential debates between Biden and Trump, there was no single mention to the United Kingdom or Brexit, a proof of the “lower and lower geopolitical importance of Britain”.

Questions and comments

At the end of the debate, the panelists took questions and comments from the audience regarding several issues, such as the verification process of Trump’s statements on media coverage or the future consequences of Trump’s and Biden’s policies.

Professor Janet Steele said that American media and the people are accessories to the spread of Trump’s untrue tweets by not reporting them. “It is a big problem, because he is increasing his coverage and ratings and people don’t do fact-checking”. However, the reporter Sabrina Siddiqui expressed that there is now a greater control in newsrooms of the airtime dedicated to Trump, and “journalists are more aware of the source of information now than in 2016”.

The audience also asked for Bernie Sanders hypothetical campaign, and Siddiqui predicted that “with the arrival of the next generation of voters, Sanders will have a very strong chance of winning the elections. He inspires the youth”. David Smith agreed with Siddiqui’s statement. “Biden, a bit like Sanders, is not vulnerable to the charge of New York metropolitan elitism. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, was seen as looking down on blue-collar workers. Biden seems authentic to a lot of people, he is a man of the workers”.

Asked whether Trump can refuse to wait the mail-in ballot and proclaim victory, the professor Mark Jones considered that “the only worry would be if there is a very tight election where one or two states make the difference, with a narrow margin. If we hit that scenario, I would be concerned about the potential conflict”. Siddiqui’s opinion was in the same vein: “Trump made the same threats in 2016, but he ended up winning. The situation depends on the margins, and it shouldn’t be that way”.

The panel discussion concluded with the intervention of the Head of the Delegation of the Government of Catalonia in the United States and Canada, Isidre Sala, thanking all the speakers for their interventions and closed the debate with final remarks.

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