PLUS: Middle class Joe
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Tuesday September 22 2020
US election
Hello and welcome to this week's US election newsletter from The Times and The Sunday Times.

By any measure, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's was an important and consequential life. You can read our obituary of the champion of gender equality who in later life became a pop culture icon here.

But with predictable haste, the question is now whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden stands best to benefit from the political fallout of the new Supreme Court vacancy. We analyse the case for both sides below.

Plus: how Biden is repositioning himself as the voice of America's middle class.

Please let us know any thoughts, feedback or questions you have about this newsletter by emailing
Henry Zeffman and Josh Glancy
Washington Bureau – The Times and The Sunday Times
The meaning of RBG
Josh Glancy

So, who benefits from the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg? If that seems like a ghoulish question, well, it is. But it’s also 40 days until the election, so pollsters are already polling on this, strategists are strategising and politicians are adjusting their campaigns following the death of the great liberal Supreme Court justice.

Both presidential campaigns are pushing arguments that they can and will benefit from the altered political landscape. Meanwhile money is pouring into Senate races across the country, as small donors and grassroots organisations work themselves up into a lather over the future of the court, and indeed American democracy.

Here’s what the presidential campaigns are saying:

This helps Biden and the Democrats because ...
- The Biden camp are planning to make this fight about healthcare. If Trump nominates a new justice and entrenches a 6-3 conservative majority on the court, then the chances of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) being repealed or dismantled increase considerably. Indeed a case seeking to do just that is up before the Supreme Court a week after the election. (One does sometimes wonder if American politics is unfolding according to the whims of some master scriptwriter.) As they proved in 2018, healthcare is an issue on which Democrats prosper.

- It gives something for young progressives to go out and vote for. Biden wasn’t exactly electrifying the youth, but a fight over the legacy of the revered RBG, a vicious struggle over the court and a potential threat to abortion rights - that ought to get those lazy millennials out to the polls. "If you want something to fire up young people who weren’t all that interested this year, this is it,” said John Anzalone, a Biden pollster.

- Talking of abortion, Biden will hope that a key demographic in this election, perhaps the key demographic, suburban women, will respond favourably to a court fight. This worked for Democrats in 2018, when a fight over the Kavanaugh nomination was followed by a ‘blue wave’ midterm election which delivered them the House of Representatives.

- Democrats are raising silly amounts of money, particularly in Senate races. ActBlue, a Democratic website for making digital donations, processed some $160m in contributions within 48 hours of the news about RBG, surpassing all previous records. Clearly this has stirred emotions.

- It’s early days, but initial polling suggests that Biden is benefiting more than Trump. A Reuters poll on Sunday showed 62% of Americans think the Supreme Court vacancy should be filled by whoever wins November’s election. Some 30 per cent of those surveyed said RBG’s passing made them more likely to vote for Biden, with 25 per cent saying Trump.

Trump and the Republicans benefit because ...
- Trump was losing. By some distance. Ask any sports coach what they want for the last quarter of a game in which they are ahead and they’ll say the same thing: no surprises. This is a wildcard event that could disrupt what was a fairly stable race in all manner of unpredictable ways.

- The Trump campaign is hoping that by winning the court nomination fight, they will thrill their own base and boost turnout, while also depressing and demotivating the opposition. That’s the theory anyway. "This is going to super charge both bases,” one source close to the Trump campaign told me. “Whoever wins this fight goes into November 3rd with momentum and whoever loses goes into November 3rd with a demoralised base."

- A red surge. In 2018, the fight over the Kavanaugh nomination helped both sides. Republicans saw big turnout in red states that helped them retain control of the Senate. They believe a repeat performance is possible, meaning that holding vulnerable Senate seats in states like North Carolina and Iowa ought to be easier. It may also diminish Democrats’ hopes of flipping southern states such as Georgia and Texas.

- The election becomes a culture war. Biden was winning because on the key issues of the pandemic (unending) and the economy (collapsing) voters are currently unhappy with President Trump. But the Supreme Court fight could bring culture war issues to the fore. It may push Biden into supporting radical proposals such as packing the Supreme Court with more liberal justices. It brings abortion into play. Trump relishes fighting on this territory, so it will be an uncertain business for the Democrats.

So, cui bono? Perhaps the outstanding feature of this presidential race so far though has been its stability: Biden ahead, Trump trailing just out of reach.

Perhaps even these seismic events won’t shift the dial. Perhaps they will be a turning point. Time will tell.
Middle class Joe
Henry Zeffman
It is a curious irony of the present era in American politics that a billionaire New York property developer who leveraged inherited wealth into becoming a television personality has cast himself, with some justification, as the tribune of the working and middle classes.

In recent days Joe Biden has launched his most concerted effort yet to chip away at that narrative.

A town hall event with the Democratic candidate on CNN last week was mostly noticeable for a drive-in set up, where floating Pennsylvanian voters asked questions from besides their cars.

But it was also the scene of some elegant political positioning from Biden. After Donald Trump dismissed the concept of white privilege in one of the 17 interviews he conducted with Bob Woodward, Biden was asked whether he had benefited from white privilege.

“Sure, I’ve benefited just because I don’t have to go through what my black brothers and sisters have had to go through,” he replied.

Then came the graceful pivot, which turned it into an answer about class.

“Grow up here in Scranton. We’re used to guys who look down their nose on us,” he said. “We’re used to people who look to us and think that we’re suckers, look at us and think that we’re not equivalent to them: if you didn’t have a college degree you must be stupid.

“Maybe it’s my Scranton roots, I don’t know, but when you guys started talking on television about ‘Biden, if he wins, will be the first person without an Ivy League degree to be elected president.’

“Who the hell makes you think I need an Ivy League degree to be president?”

Biden attended the University of Delaware and then the law school at Syracuse University. Together with Kamala Harris, who attended Howard University in Washington DC and the University of California, Hastings, he forms the first Democratic ticket without an Ivy League degree since 1984.

New York, New York
This flash of apparent anger did not come out of the blue. Biden has long seen condescension in the way he is treated by fellow Washington lifers.

“I’m referred to for the last 35 years in Washington as middle class Joe,” he said in 2017. “It’s not meant as a compliment. It means I’m not sophisticated.”

Its may have been long in gestation but the resurfacing of this kind of language at last week’s town hall seemed to be part of a broader strategy to paint Trump as a plutocrat. “I really do view this campaign as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue,” he said, contrasting his hometown with the Manhattan boulevard.

He continued in the same vein on a visit to the crucial swing state of Wisconsin on Monday. In half an hour he avoided entirely the Supreme Court drama gripping Washington, keeping his focus on the struggles of the working class — and casting Trump as its exploiter.

“I’ve dealt with guys like Trump my whole life,” he said. “Guys who think they’re better than you. Guys who inherit everything they’ve ever gotten in their life and squander it. Guys who stretch and squeeze and stiff electricians and plumbers and contractors working on their hotels and casinos and golf courses to put more bucks in their pocket.”

Again he spoke about his ordinary educational background. “I say it’s about time that a state school president sat in the Oval Office. Because you know what? If I’m sitting there, you’re going to be sitting there too.”

Will it work?
The problem for Biden is that he is not a plucky outsider who has led a life of manual toil, but a lifelong politician who was first elected to the Senate at 29 and served eight years as vice-president.

This is a point not lost on the Trump campaign. After Biden tweeted that Trump “ran for office saying he would represent the forgotten men and women of this country — and as soon as he got in office, he forgot about us,” Donald Trump Jr, the president’s oldest child, responded: “If by ‘us’ you mean career politicians who’ve spent a half-century in government, then yeah, he didn’t worry too much about you and your kind.”

To convert his polling leads in the pivotal so-called rust belt states into November victories, Biden needs to hope his version of his life story clouds out the Trump campaign’s riposte.
Tracking America
Henry Zeffman
Americans seem to like Joe Biden more than Donald Trump. That’s one conclusion to draw from polling by Redfield & Wilton last week, asking 2,500 registered voters which of the presidential candidates best embodied various characteristics.

Biden came out in the lead on caring about people like me (50-36), telling the truth (47-33), being able to work with foreign leaders (46-40), understanding the problems afflicting America (48-40), being anti-war (43-32), being willing to work with the other party (49-35), keeping promises (44-40), avoiding unnecessary military conflicts (44-35) and - bearing in mind this polling was conducted just before Ginsburg’s death - picking the best Supreme Court justices (45-37).

These are all healthy leads that the Biden campaign would be happy with.

But the few characteristics on which Trump leads will also give heart to his re-election campaign. He is a strong leader (46-44), can get the economy going again (45-42) and tough on China (49-34). The pair were tied (44-44) on knowing how to get things done.

There are also signs that the Trump campaign’s attacks on Biden’s fitness for office, at 77, have had an impact. Asked which of the candidates is in good physical and mental health, 40 per cent said Trump to Biden’s 39 per cent.

To be clear, this polling for Biden is good, especially in the context of his solid national lead. But nor would it be a shock if in the final reckoning some voters, again, decided to hold their nose and back the candidate they believe has the strength to get the economy back on track after a virus they blame on China.

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