The US Presidential Elections:
The ‘Unfavourability’ Predicament

Sanjay Pulipaka and M. Shuheb Khan

On September 26, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet for their first presidential debate. The previous presidential elections were about hope around the transformative candidature of Barack Obama. This time around US electorate seems to be anxious and angry. According to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, Trump and Clinton are the most unfavoured candidates in the past 30 years. The Poll noted that Trump is viewed unfavourably by 63% voters whereas Clinton is viewed unfavourably by 56%. It appears that the least unfavourable candidate will win this election. The growing disquiet in the US politics is a consequence of failure to co-opt increasing diversity of political views and mistakes of party leadership.

There was a perception that Democratic Party leadership favoured Hillary Clinton as she was perceived to be the most winnable candidate. Some reports indicate that Democratic Party leaders may not have encouraged candidates like Vice President Joe Biden from throwing their hat in the ring. Given the limited number of presidential candidates and lightweight political contenders, it seemed Hillary would have an easy victory in the Democratic Party primaries. Surprisingly, Bernie Sanders performed well against Hillary Clinton in the party primaries and attracted youngsters leaning towards Democratic Party with his call for a “revolution.” His agenda of free education, complete revamp of health care, and restructuring of the banks found strong pockets of support in the rank-and-file of the Democratic Party. This new agenda was criticised as ‘Socialist’ by some and President Obama referred to Bernie Sanders as “Comrade” in a lighter vein. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton’s election machine proved to be formidable for Bernie Sanders. Wikileaks reports hinted that the Democratic Party’s National Committee may have unfairly favoured Hillary over Bernie. Having won the nomination, Hillary Clinton is struggling to energise the Democratic Party’s core support base.

The Republican Party was weak at the top and failed to modulate the anxiety in its rank-and-file caused by the economic distress. As a consequence, more than dozen candidates, some with little experience and articulating extreme right-wing ideology, contested to be the party’s presidential nominee. Most of the candidates, instead of frontally assaulting Donald Trump’s politics pandered to it. But, Trump proved to be the master of vitriolic political rhetoric. Trump defeated more than dozen political opponents to secure the nomination of the Republican Party with his right-wing rhetoric on immigration and vicious language.

Donald Trump has challenges ahead. To win the Republican Party’s nomination, he has indulged in anti-immigrant and anti-minority rhetoric that ensured that vast majority of Hispanics and African-Americans would not vote for him in the Presidential Election. Simultaneously, large segments of the white Republican voters are feeling uncomfortable with Donald Trump’s virulent language. To win the election Donald Trump has to expand his voter base, which requires moderating his message. However, the vote-base that propelled Trump’s candidature will not tolerate dilution in the agenda. On the other hand, many Republican Party leaders are often distancing themselves from Trump’s statements. When Donald Trump criticised Mr. Khizr Khan, the father of American soldier who died in Iraq, Senior Republican leaders disapproved the disrespect shown towards war hero’s family. It is evident that Republican Party leaders confront a tough choice. They are not able to accept the positions that are being adopted by their presidential candidate, but they are not in a position to reject the candidate who got a majority in the internal elections. The Republican Party is facing a challenge that is common to many democracies: how to respond to a democratically elected candidate whose politics may undermine genuine deliberative practices?

The recent polls suggest that Clinton’s formidable lead is slowly eroding because of controversies related to her tenure as Secretary of State. There are allegations that Hillary Clinton used private email services even for official confidential conversations. With Wikileaks founder Julian Assange threatening to release such email communication, there will be growing criticism that Hillary Clinton recklessly handled sensitive government information. There are also charges that big donors of Clinton Foundation had privileged access to Hillary Clinton when she was the Secretary of State. Besides, the constituencies mobilised by Bernie Sanders may not work passionately for Hillary Clinton’s victory. Astonishingly, the younger women (18–29 years), according to CNN poll, appear to hold negative views of Hillary Clinton’s candidature. There is a distinct possibility that the health of Hillary Clinton may also become an electoral issue.

The two Presidential candidates are involved in different sets of political controversies. Trump controversies are to do with his aggressive speeches rooted in an agenda that is often perceived to be divisive. On the other hand, the controversies surrounding Clinton are more to do with her tenure as a Secretary of State. Sadly, American Presidential campaigns, which often witnessed intense debates on social and economic issues, today are revolving around negative traits of the candidates. It is not surprising that the recent USA Today/ Suffolk University Poll noted that, in this election, the voters are more motivated by fear than excitement generated by presidential candidates’ agenda.

All this demonstrate the limits of the two-party system. With the emergence of social media, diverse views (eg: social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, social democrats and so on) are getting articulated with greater intensity and there is greater opportunity to network with fellow ideologues. And the two-party framework has not been able to effectively accommodate these multiple views. As a consequence, various political constituencies have become suspicious about the party structures and leadership of both the major parties. Probably, time has come for the oldest democracy to explore newer options for ensuring that the emerging diversity in political ideas gets represented in party structures, presidential debates and also on the ballot.

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The authors work at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). The views expressed here are personal. Sanjay Pulipaka can be reached at sanjay.pulipaka@yahoo.com and Shuheb Khan can be reached at shuhebkhan01@gmail.com