PLUS: Inside the battle for the Senate
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Tuesday October 13 2020
US election
Hello and welcome to this week's US election newsletter from The Times and The Sunday Times.

Joe Biden's ballooning advantage in the polls is because Donald Trump is messing this election up, right?

Not necessarily. This week we present the counter-argument: that Biden, after two disastrous presidential runs, is now the perfect man for this moment: likeable, moderate and middle-class, with long Washington experience and a history of bipartisanship.

Plus: We take you inside the battle for the Senate, which will determine whether a Biden presidency would be able to get anything done.

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Henry Zeffman and Josh Glancy
Washington Bureau – The Times and The Sunday Times
Not so jammy Joe
Henry Zeffman

What if Joe Biden is actually pretty good at this?

If his poll lead — an average of 10.6 percentage points, according to FiveThirtyEight — appears huge, that's because it really is.

In fact, Biden is in the best position of any challenger to an incumbent president since modern opinion polling began in 1936. He has been running for president for 537 days and has been ahead of Trump in the polls for 537 days. No challenger has ever led an incumbent for that long.

Only five challengers in the 21 presidential elections since 1936 have led at this point, and of them only Bill Clinton, in 1992, was ahead by more than 5 points, according to CNN.

And yet to many Biden is jammy Joe: merely the doddery, fortunate beneficiary of President Trump’s political and administrative failings.

For sure, Trump has helped to move the polls in Biden's direction. His shaky handling of the pandemic and erratic behaviour have repelled some potential supporters. And his 2016 path to the White House, which relied on extremely narrow margins of victory in battleground states, was always going to be tough to replicate.

But the same polls which hand Biden large leads also show that the Democrat is not merely the receptacle for voters who deem him the less bad of two bad options. A solid chunk of Americans are keen on the prospect of a Biden presidency.

Under the bonnet
Poll after poll records not just lavish leads for Biden in voting intention, but signs that Americans see in him presidential characteristics that Trump does not exhibit.

In a recent survey by Redfield & Wilton, 44 per cent said he is the candidate who best embodies the characteristics of a strong leader, compared to 42 per cent for Donald Trump; 51 per cent said he was the candidate who cares about “people like me”, compared to 34 per cent for Trump; 43 per cent said he was more likely to do the most to end the coronavirus pandemic, compared to 32 per cent for Trump.

And there are signs that he has made gains in the economy, the main area where Trump's pre-pandemic strength has tended to endure, with 42 per cent saying Biden is more likely to lead a strong economic recovery compared to 37 per cent for Trump.

Most strikingly, Biden’s general favourability is rising too. In January, his average net favourability (the difference between those who like him and those who don’t) was negative five. By March, the month in which he effectively claimed his party’s presidential nomination, his net favourability was above water: plus one. In August, it had levelled off to zero. But since then, as he emerged onto the campaign trail more actively, his ratings have surged: +4 in in September and +7 so far this month. Put another way, the more Americans see of Biden, the more they seem to like him.

From my reporting trips around the country, what has been especially fascinating is that while the most committed Democratic activists tend to hold no particular candle for Biden, people entertaining voting for a Democrat for the first time, either having backed Trump or sat 2016 out, find him deeply reassuring. In the suburbs of Philadelphia Yolanda and Gail, two septuagenarian lifelong Republicans, raved about Biden’s experience of Washington and how it would help him get things done. In the mining towns of Minnesota even hard-bitten Democrats who had been won over to Trump talked of Biden’s personal decency and tragedy-blighted life.

Electoral savant
If you go back and watch the video with which Biden launched his campaign in April last year, it is notable how consistent his message has been ever since then. For much of the primary season until his dramatic turnaround in South Carolina his emphasis on decency, bipartisanship and unity was seen by a newer generation of Democrats as a naive throwback.

The success of Biden's approach, in fact, might be almost as much of a rebuke of America's political establishment's conventional wisdom as Trump's 2016 victory was. After the Democratic wave in the 2018 midterms, pundits focused on "The Squad", led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as representative of the new direction of the Democratic Party. Bruised by failing to anticipate the strength of Bernie Sanders's primary campaign in 2016, newspapers hired more leftwing columnists at the vanguard of where the Democratic Party seemed inexorably headed.

Biden had a different theory of the case. What if the party's future was not represented by The Squad — each of whose members succeeded to a safe Democratic seat — but by the new Congressional seats in suburbs which Democrats picked up in 2018 thanks to the votes of affluent former Republicans? What if Sanders's strength in 2016 was in large part due to being the only receptacle of anti-Clinton votes rather than a profound embrace of democratic socialism among the Democratic grassroots?

If Biden's theory of the case was vindicated when he powered through a crowded, high-calibre field, it feels even more so as his polling lead over Trump continues to grow.

Perhaps there is a systematic polling error which means that America is in for another shock Trump victory. But if the polls hold and Trump is defeated comfortably, Biden should be given plenty of credit for a smart campaign.
Battle for the Senate
Josh Glancy
Switch on any American news channel this week or next and you will be instantly reminded of the critical power of the US Senate. As the Senate’s judiciary committee goes through the motions of confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Democrats are furious, determined and utterly helpless. They don’t control the Senate, which means they are powerless on the seminal issue of judicial appointments.

Much focus in American politics is put on the presidency, more so than ever given the current occupant of the White House. From an international perspective, as Brits looking on, the presidency seems all-important too. The president controls foreign policy, they decide which wars to fight and treaties to sign, and they set the tone of national life, at home and abroad.

But in terms of getting anything done, delivering on major legislative promises, reimagining healthcare, or energy policy, raising or cutting taxes, remaking the judiciary, really making any durable or profound changes to America, for that, a party and a president needs control of Congress. This means the Senate.

With the House of Representatives firmly in Democratic hands at the moment, and Joe Biden ahead in the race for the White House, the Senate elections could well decide whether the next four years bring a transformative progressive agenda, or more Washington gridlock.

If Biden wins but Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell still has control of the upper chamber, you can expect the nullification of all Democratic policy, as we saw in the latter part of the Obama era. The Senate’s days as a cosy deliberative body that could deliver bipartisan agreement are long gone. As evinced by the ramming through of the Barrett nomination, it’s all about power now, and who has it.

The race
So who will win the Senate? Right now the Republicans have a fairly slim 53-47 majority, which they expanded slightly during the midterms. Thirty-five seats are up for grabs in November’s poll. And it’s looking mighty close.

As of today, RealClearPolitics is projecting a 51-49 Democratic Senate majority in the next Congress. That would mean victories in Arizona, where Mark Kelly, former astronaut and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the ex-congresswoman who survived an assassination attempt, is well ahead in a special election for John McCain’s old seat. It would also mean a win in Maine, where Sara Gideon looks fairly well set to unseat Susan Collins, last of the moderate New England Republicans. And a victory in North Carolina, where revelations of an extra-marital affair do not appear to have greatly damaged Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham’s electoral chances, proof perhaps that public morality and politics are no longer bedfellows in the Trump era.

Democrats will also need to hold on to Gary Peters’ seat in Michigan and are hoping for a surprise victory by Steve Bullock in conservative Montana.

Wild cards
The ongoing Barrett nomination might have an impact on the race for the Senate. Supreme Court nominations have a tendency to unify and energise conservatives, which could make life difficult for Democrats running in generally red states, such as Cunningham in North Carolina and Bullock in Montana. In the 2018 midterms, the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination helped strengthen the Republican hand in Senate races across the country.

The other big unknown is presidential coattails. Right now, Biden has a big lead in national polls for the presidential race. If he delivers something approaching a landslide, which is possible though far from certain, then there’s a good chance we see a “wave” election which also turns the Senate blue. If it’s close between Biden and Trump, then the Senate might well stay Republican or be decided by a single race. Democrats are very unlikely to pick up the Senate in the event of a Trump victory.

Much is riding on the showdown between Biden and Trump. And the world is watching. But with the Democrats controlling the House, it’s the race for the Senate that will define just how transformative the next presidency truly is.
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