According to preliminary estimates the two presidential campaigns in the United States have cost a record $14 billion. Yet there is still no conclusive outcome even as President Donald Trump seeks to declare himself as the victor.
At the moment of writing this the results from a series of keenly contested states, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are still in play. The vote counts are incomplete because of differing counting rules as well as the preponderance of mail-in ballots in this election.
It is important to underscore that Biden is leading Trump by at least two percentage points in terms of the popular vote. In the end, of course, it’s the total number of electoral votes that will determine the final outcome.
The two campaigns could not have been more different both in terms of style and substance. Biden, acutely conscious of the pandemic, for the most part chose to conduct a virtual campaign. Only in the closing days of the campaign did he physically venture out and, even then, held rallies with an abundance of caution. His supporters were physically distanced and mostly confined to their cars.
Trump, on the other hand, held in-person rallies with his supporters frequently jammed together in large, outdoor settings. He continued this practice well after his near-miraculous recovery from Covid-19 following extensive treatment at the government owned facility, the Walter J Reed Memorial Hospital. Even though his in-person rallies came under much criticism he refused to abandon them.
Substantively, the two campaigns spelled out two competing visions for America’s future. For Trump it was about promoting further tax cuts, continuing to build a deeply conservative judiciary at all levels (having already succeeded in that endeavour at the level of the Supreme Court with the successful nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett), drastically curbing illegal (and even legal) immigration and boosting economic deregulation.
And, of course, there was an emphasis on law and order designed to stoke fear about various calls for racial justice most notably by the Black Lives Matter movement. The last, racially coded appeal, was clearly directed at working class, poorly educated whites who, in recent years, have dreaded an erosion of their ethnic privileges. Finally, amidst the raging pandemic Trump displayed an extraordinary disregard for medical scientific evidence in making crucial decisions to tackle its horrific consequences.
Biden’s campaign could not have been more different. It sought to build as wide a coalition as possible and eschewed any racial appeals. It underscored the need to address issues of growing economic inequality, to promote racial harmony and justice, to forthrightly tackle the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic which has cost over 2,30,000 lives, and has cratered the American economy.
Unlike Trump who has frequently disdained scientific expertise in areas ranging from medical science to climate change, Biden repeatedly insisted during the campaign that he would pay heed to professional knowledge when making crucial public policy choices. Above all, Biden in a stark contrast to Trump, also promised to restore much needed civility to American social and political life.
The style and substance of the two campaigns highlighted the acute polarisation of the American electorate. Not since World War II have the two political parties and their supporters been at such fundamental odds.
As a consequence, and largely because of Trump’s flagrant disregard for any norms of civility in political discourse, his campaign took on a particularly unpleasant edge. On occasion, he even nodded and winked towards some of his supporters who were inclined to resort to violence in attempts to harass, intimidate and ultimately deter voters from the other side.
Not surprisingly, fears of civil strife in a number of American cities are rife. In fact, on the eve of the elections, businesses in a number of urban areas had boarded up their premises out of growing concerns of post-election violence.
Regardless of the outcome of the election the strong emotions that have been unleashed are most unlikely to subside in its wake. If Trump ekes out a victory, no matter how narrow, he is inclined to revel in it and insist that the mandate, though fractured, gives him complete leeway to govern as he pleases.
Such a prospect is even more likely if the Republican Party maintains its grip on the Senate. Over the past four years the party has shown an almost supine fealty to Trump. In the event of his second win they are likely to be even more subject to his whims.
If, on the other hand, Biden wins the election, the tasks that he will confront in bringing together a deeply divided electorate will be nothing short of formidable. For all his talk of healing the country and reaching across the aisle he will discover that he has inherited a most trying legacy.
Working to restore comity will prove to be a most daunting task. The days and weeks ahead are fraught with uncertainty and dread.
The writer holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.