A breakdown of the contest which is shaping up to be a historic clash in a divided country

Incumbent Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden only seem to agree on one issue: China is a threat

With barely 60 days until US voters elect their next leader, the 2020

campaign is building up to one that will get special mention in the history books.

It coincides with a

that has killed more than 180,000 Americans, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and a national reckoning over the country’s long, troubled history of race relations. To that can be added an escalating conflict with China that may well redraw the map of international relations for the 21st century.

Here is a breakdown of the candidates, the platforms, and the process in the run-up to the vote on November 3, when the nation will decide the fate of its polarising president.

President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence are looking to win a second term on a message that is more about defending their record than offering a new vision for the country – from “Make America Great Again” to “Keep America Great”.

The two Republicans argue the US saw an unprecedented economic expansion under their watch, derailed only by China’s failure to contain the Covid-19 disease. More recently, they have pivoted to warning that a victory by Democratic challenger Joe Biden would usher in an era of creeping socialism, along with violence and lawlessness on America’s streets.

“Joe Biden is not a saviour of America’s soul. He is the destroyer of America’s jobs, and if given the chance he will be the destroyer of America’s greatness,” Trump said in his August 28 acceptance speech of his party’s nomination.

Trump’s Democratic challengers, former vice-president Joe Biden and his running mate California senator Kamala Harris, are focusing their message on what they call Trump’s lack of leadership in tackling Covid-19, and the economic and public health fallout that followed.

They promise to return America to the pre-Trump era, mending social divides and regaining its respect on the international stage, while also pushing forward with reforms for policing and climate change policy.

“The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long – too much anger, too much fear, too much division … united we can overcome this season of darkness,” Biden said in his own acceptance speech.

Harris, 55, would be the country’s first ever woman, and the first ever Asian or Black woman, to be elected to the White House. Biden, 77, would be the oldest person to assume the presidency, beating a record set in 2016 by Trump, who is now 74.

In addition to the presidency, all 435 House of Representative seats are up for election, as are one-third of US Senate seats. Democrats are projected to maintain control of the House, but will need to win four races to gain a majority in the Senate. Six seats, all held by Republicans, are considered toss-ups, according to current polling.

A Democratic sweep of the House and Senate, combined with a Biden-Harris victory, would put the Democrats in control of all three elected branches of government for the first time since Barack Obama’s election in 2009, which he used to pass his signature health care bill.

Painting China as a threat to a rules-based world order has figured heavily in the messages of both campaigns, with each claiming that the other’s election would be a win for Beijing.

Trump frames himself as the only president to stand up to China and what his administration has characterised as Beijing’s predatory trade policies and industrial espionage. He said in his acceptance speech that his administration’s actions on trade were “the toughest, boldest, strongest and hardest-hitting action against China in American history by far.”

He compares this to Biden’s record, such as his senate vote to allow China into the World Trade Organisation, to argue that Biden will buckle when dealing with Beijing. He backs this up by frequently pointing to a US intelligence report alleging that China wants Biden to win the election.

“China would own our country if Joe Biden got elected,” Trump said in his acceptance speech.

Trump’s campaign ads and speeches by top surrogates like Donald Trump Jnr lean into this message, frequently using the disparaging nickname “Beijing Biden”. Critics lump this in with the president’s use of the term “China virus” to argue he is trying to tap into racist sentiment inflamed by the new coronavirus, first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

The Biden campaign says Trump talks tough on China but rarely follows through, unable to place the country’s political interests ahead of his own.

“From his first day in office President Trump’s policies have strengthened China’s hand and weakened America’s by denigrating our alliances, pulling back from the world, abandoning our values and tarnishing our democracy,” the Biden campaign said in an August statement.

Trump and Biden are now campaigning straight through to election day and will face off for the first time on September 29 in a presidential debate, with two others scheduled for mid and late October. Pence and Harris debate once on October 7.

With the US still struggling to bring Covid-19 under control, many Americans will start voting long before November 3, sending their ballots in by post. Critics accuse Trump of trying to steal the election, pointing to his admitted attempt to block funding for the US Postal Service on the grounds that mail-in voting favours Democrats.

Trump has engaged in a months-long campaign to oppose mail-in voting, claiming it is plagued with fraud and will create an election rigged against him. In July, he tweeted that, unless changed by the courts, mail-in voting would lead to the most corrupt election in the country’s history.

In August, the US Postal Service started cutting back services and removing postboxes until a

. And, on August 10, Trump said he opposed additional federal funding for the postal service because it would facilitate voting by mail.

Multiple studies have found little evidence to back up Trump’s claims that the practice leads to systematic voter fraud, and a handful of states have adopted it as their primary voting method in the past few decades.

Unlike past elections where the winner is declared late into election night, this year is likely to require days of tallying mail-in votes before the final result is known.

Biden has outpaced Trump in most national polls but, as the 2016 election results reminded the country, the popular vote does not determine the outcome. Only the candidate that receives a majority of votes (270) from the 538 members of the Electoral College becomes president.

Every state is allocated a number of Electoral College votes equal to its number of senators and Congress members. In most cases, these delegates then vote for whichever candidate wins the popular vote in their state.

But, as some states have much larger populations than others, a candidate can win the overall popular vote and lose the election, which was the case for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The Electoral College typically favours Republicans, with the two previous Republican presidents – Donald Trump and George W. Bush – both winning their initial bid for the White House by securing a majority of delegates while losing the popular vote.

Nonetheless, according to an election forecast from FiveThirtyEight, Biden has about a 70 per cent chance of winning the election. The poll aggregator’s model factors in both national and state-level polling, along with variables such as state demographics and economic conditions to produce a more comprehensive assessment compared to any single poll.

So-called swing states can also change the outcome in Trump or Biden’s favour. According to FiveThirtyEight, the states most likely to decide this year’s election are Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Other than Minnesota, Trump won each of these states in 2016, and only Florida was decided by a margin of less than 50,000.

In a July interview with Fox News host Chris Wallace, Trump was asked whether he would accept the results of the election given his claims about systematic fraud in the vote-by-mail system.

“I have to see, I’m not going to just say yes,” he responded.

the run-up to the 2016 election, repeatedly said the election was rigged against him, and denied he would accept the results in a debate with opponent Hillary Clinton.

Months after his victory, Trump said he would have won the popular vote if the ballots of millions of undocumented immigrants were removed, providing no evidence to back up his claim.

Some in Washington view a contested election as a real possibility. In June, a bipartisan group called the Transition Integrity Project held a “war game” simulation of what could occur in the 11 weeks between election day and the victor’s swearing-in on January 20.

A report summarising the results assessed “with a high degree of likelihood” that November’s elections would be marked by “a chaotic legal and political landscape,” with Trump “likely to contest the result by both legal and extralegal means, in an attempt to hold on to power”.

“We anticipate lawsuits, divergent media narratives, attempts to stop the counting of ballots, and protests drawing people from both sides,” the report said.

The extent of concern about a contested outcome in the election prompted two Democrat members of the House Armed Services Committee to request a response to such a scenario from the US military. At the end of August, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told Congress the military would not play a part in resolving any contested election.

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