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US Elections 2020: A Primer

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Introduction

The United States (US) is holding its 59th quadrennial presidential election in early November. Being an election for arguably the most powerful political seat in the world, the race between Democrat Joe Biden—former vice president to Barack Obama — and Republican Donald Trump had been billed early on as one of the most politically fraught elections the country has seen yet. Indeed, the election comes at a time of heightened racial tensions, misinformation wars, and abounding conspiracy theories, compounded by an unprecedented virus pandemic.

This report is a state-wise exposition on the US elections this year. It aims to make three key contributions towards current analyses on the 2020 US elections. First, this report outlines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic—likely outsized—on US states and their economies. For example, so-called “battleground states” like Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Michigan are among the top 10 states in the US in terms of COVID-19 death tolls, as of 15 October 2020.[1] The report also aims to capture the peculiarities in the political dynamics and contestations around the pandemic in the states, with respect to the mask mandate, for example, and the electoral reforms spurred by the pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 has upended state capacity and election processes to an unprecedented extent and has the potential to alter voter attitudes and turnout significantly. It has compounded the polarisation, too, with the politicisation of health messaging around the pandemic.

At present, only 38 percent of citizens approve of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic, a sharp slide from the March numbers.[2] Analysts are anticipating long queues at polling places and potentially late results, and there has been an unusual amount of litigation with at least 200 cases pending in 43 states across the country regarding changes to voting rules due to the pandemic.[3] The president has not helped by casting doubt on the reliability of mail-in ballots—which experts have identified as the safest way to vote amidst the pandemic. The government response to COVID-19, and the political contestation around it is poised to become a key factor defining election outcomes this year.

Second, the report provides a glimpse into the electoral history and electorate profile of each of the states. It offers a commentary on the main issues that matter to these electorates and a glimpse of how states are likely to vote this November. In this regard, the report divides the states into three categories: (1) the “battleground states”—which, by ORF’s reckoning, could swing the outcome of the election either way; (2) the “Red” states, or those that are most likely voting Republican; and (3) the “Blue” states, those that are predicted to vote Democrat.

Finally, this report seeks to break new ground in pondering the potential influence of the Indian-American community as an electoral constituency in these states. To be sure, the Indian-American population has become a political force to reckon with in many parts of the US, despite the community comprising just about one percent of the electorate. This is mainly due to the growing numbers of Indian-Americans in the battleground states (these states are home to roughly 1.4 million Indian-American voters), and also partly owes to Indian-Americans being a particularly high-skilled and prosperous community that makes large contributions to election campaigns.[4] A survey by Indiaspora and the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) released in September 2020, has found that 66 percent of Indian-Americans across the US favour the Democratic Party nominee Biden, 28 percent are for the incumbent Trump, and six percent are undecided. Democratic Party lawmaker, Raja Krishnamoorthi, once referred to these undecided Indians, especially from the battleground states, as the “tipping factor” in the November polls.[5]

The report also delves into the growing cultural influence of the Indian diaspora in many of these states and spotlights key individuals of Indian descent in the US who could have a probable influence on the Indian-American vote bank. Democrat Kamala Harris’ selection as running mate to Biden, for one, has added flavour to the race as far as Indian-Americans are concerned; some 49 percent of respondents to the Indian American Attitudes Survey said her candidacy has “invigorated” them to vote Democrat this election.[6]

There has recently been rife speculation concerning India-US relations and the impact of foreign policy perceptions on the Indian-American vote. An Indian Express report took the view that nostalgia for the homeland was translating to support for the Republican Party.[7] Commentators like Seema Sirohi[8] have written about the Democratic Party’s disapproval of alleged human rights violations in India, calls for intervention in Kashmir by Kamala Harris in October 2019, and various liberal American City Councils passing resolutions against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, as all equally driving Indian-Americans’ shift away from the Democratic Party.[9] There is, however, little evidence to support such view. Indeed, Trump has made an early mark on the Indian community with his administration’s organising of high-profile events with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston in the US and Ahmedabad in India, as well as by using the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in a Republican election campaign video. Still, this report finds, the issues that matter to the electorate as well as Indian-Americans are immigration, healthcare, and education reform. This, coupled with the fact that younger Indians are largely liberal and lean Democrat, as well as the Kamala Harris nomination, could be enough to tip the balance in favour of the Democrats.

The 2020 US election promises to be a political spectacle unlike anything the world has seen before, with far-reaching implications for the country’s domestic politics and the outlook for Indian and world foreign policy. It is the Observer Research Foundation’s endeavour to continue to provide in-depth analyses of developments in this space as they happen. This report is a contribution towards that end.

Read the full report here.

Endnotes

[1] United States. Worldometer.

[2] Thomas Gift, “Trump’s electoral fortunes may hinge on whether he can distract voters from his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic”, LSE Blogs, August 7, 2020.

[3] Thomas Gift, “Trump’s electoral fortunes may hinge on whether he can distract voters from his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic”, LSE Blogs, August 7, 2020.

[4] Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav, “Indian-Americans are with Democrats”, Hindustan Times, October 15, 2020.

[5] Mehrotra, “Will this matter in November”.

[6] Sumitra Badrinathan, Devesh Kapur and Milan Vaishnav, “Indian-Americans are with Democrats”, Hindustan Times, October 15, 2020.

[7] Mehrotra, “Will this matter in November”

[8] Seema Sirohi, “Democrats have a loyal base in Indian Americans, but Trump is fast pulling them to his side”, The Print, August 12, 2020.

[9] Karishma Mehrotra, “Will this matter in November,The Indian Express, September 27, 2020.

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