PLUS: Yes we Kanye?
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Tuesday July 14 2020
US election
Hello and welcome to this week's US election newsletter from The Times and The Sunday Times.

The coronavirus outbreak remains so serious in the US that even President Trump finally wore a mask in public at the weekend.

California became the latest state to reverse its reopening, while Florida set a daily infections record on Sunday which beat even New York's at its peak.

Little wonder, then, that even with 112 days to go until the presidential election no semblance of normality has returned to the campaign.

This week we ask what the rest of the campaign might look like.

Plus: If Kanye West really does run for president, how might he do?
Henry Zeffman and Josh Glancy
Washington Bureau – The Times and The Sunday Times
The lost campaign
Josh Glancy

This morning was supposed to be the official start of the biggest regular event in world news: an American election. I was supposed to be on a plane to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the Democratic National Convention.

Of course in some ways it’s always an election in America: candidates are always running, fundraising and fighting one another. But today was the starting gun.

The entire political-media complex was due to descend on the smallish midwestern city. Hotel rooms were at a premium: there were barely any left when I booked mine a full year in advance, and I’m still fairly suspicious that it was in a sex motel.

But of course the convention was cancelled. The venerated American political calendar has been one more victim of the coronavirus pandemic. The hacks, the flacks and the straight up wackos will all be conspicuous in their absence from Milwaukee this week. Joe Biden’s coronation as the Democratic nominee will have to wait until mid-August, when the rescheduled convention takes place in the same city, but with a fraction of the attendees.

Trump has characteristically attempted to defy the pandemic, holding rallies and planning a big convention shindig in Jacksonville, Florida, in late August. But the virus is stubbornly refusing to bend itself to the president’s will and those plans are rapidly being slimmed down. Trump’s first attempt at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma was a farce, the sparse attendance an embarrassment for the crowd-obsessed president. Last weekend, Trump canceled a rally in New Hampshire, fearing a repeat.

Great expectations
From a personal perspective, this is all rather disappointing. Of course in the grand scheme of pandemic losses, a week of kibitzing and hobnobbing in Milwaukee is hardly a major casualty. But for a political reporter and foreign correspondent, this is the big show. I arrived in America just in time for the last election, but I wasn’t in DC at the time. It wasn’t my beat.

I’ve been looking ahead to this for four years, yet here we are four months out and it’s not even the biggest story in the news. It’s all very strange. In a way the campaign — when it really happens — will probably resemble a British election campaign: a short, sharp six weeks of thinly-attended events, culminating in a poll.

That's if we're lucky. The course of America’s pandemic is proving long and painful. We don’t know whether the autumn will see another deadly resurgence of the virus. If the pandemic is still with us in a major way, then an already fraught election is likely to become a total, well, clusterf***. Instead of tramping round 50 states attending Trump rallies and watching Biden work the rope line, I’ll likely be reporting on fierce rows over postal voting and the integrity of the election process.

A whole new world
The pandemic is what Donald Rumsfeld might describe as a known unknown. It is changing everything, but in ways that are fluid and unpredictable.

So far it has undoubtedly helped Joe Biden’s campaign. A once buoyant economy, Trump’s pride and joy, is now in dire straits. Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic and they disapprove of his handling of the racial justice protests that came in its wake. Biden meanwhile has been quite happy to run a low key campaign from his basement in Delaware, allowing Trump to get on with making an unholy mess. Biden is not a blockbuster performer on the campaign trail, so the absence of a meaningful campaign trail rather suits him.

But what comes next? No one really knows. We are all of us — from the most grizzled White House hacks to the freshest-faced foreign correspondent — in uncharted territory here. The only thing we know for certain is that this will be an election campaign unlike any other, with everything at stake.
Yes we Kanye?
Henry Zeffman
It is ten days since Kanye West used the evening of America's Independence Day celebrations to declare his presidential ambitions.

"We must now realise the promise of America by trusting God, unifying our vision and building our future," he wrote on Twitter. "I am running for president of the United States! #2020VISION".

It was not clear then whether West, 43, who is married to the socialite Kim Kardashian, was being serious, and it still isn't.

Sure, the 21-time Grammy winner has professed political ambitions before, even predicting at an awards ceremony in 2015 that he would run for president in 2020.

And he showed an appetite for inserting himself into America's current political divides with his enthusiastic support of Donald Trump, showing up to a meeting in the Oval Office in 2018 wearing a red Make America Great Again hat which he proclaimed "made me feel like Superman".

So yes, there is evidence of a longstanding interest in politics. But that is a world away from the nitty gritty of assembling a campaign, particularly this late into the process. By the time of his announcement on July 4, West had already missed the deadlines to get onto the ballot in New York and Texas. By the end of this week deadlines in Florida, South Carolina and Michigan will have passed too.

But suppose that West does file papers in those states and the remaining ones, and mounts a genuine campaign. How would he do?

After his announcement, one school of thought went roughly along the following lines: Donald Trump ran for president as a celebrity. By the usual laws of politics he shouldn't have won. But he did win, and therefore so could Kanye West.

Is there much evidence for this? Not at present.

A poll by Redfield & Wilton for The Times of registered voters found that a majority of Americans — 55 per cent — disapproved of his plan to run for president, compared to 18 per cent who approved.

56 per cent of people said they do not think he is serious about running, compared to only 20 per cent who thought he was serious.

Just 14 per cent said they would consider voting for him if he did indeed run.

When he was included on a putative ballot with Trump, Biden, the green and libertarian candidates, 2 per cent of people said they would vote for him.

Put simply, there is scant evidence that January's inauguration ceremony will see President Trump handing power over to President West. Two per cent of votes might be enough to function as a spoiler in certain states, but not unless the contest between Trump and Biden narrows significantly before November, and even then it is not entirely clear where West would draw support away from.

It is worth considering why the assumption that West could triumph as a celebrity candidate simply because Trump did looks off.

First, in some cases it seemed based on a patronising assumption that because West is black, black people would vote for him disproportionately. African-American voters are generally loyal to the Democratic Party and, as his stunning primary turnaround showed, to Joe Biden.

But it also does Trump's 2016 campaign a disservice. He did not jump into Republican politics by trying to bend its grassroots to the eccentric mix of policies he had espoused on talk shows over the years. Instead, he harnessed a series of passions and resentments nurtured among the party's primary voters for years, if not decades.

Trump's rise was prefigured by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. It is not clear what seam of support West, whose only policy so far seems to be opposition to late-term abortion, would be tapping into.

Whether West does end up on some states' ballots or not, at the moment he seems likeliest to serve as a reminder that American politics still conforms to some set of rules.
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