By Fairuzah Atchulo Munaaya Mahama
How do you win a modern day US election? First, hate and fear the other side. Second, show up with your ‘opposition hating’ crew. We often call love a binding factor, yet it has become apparent that where love is missing, hate will do just fine. For nothing breeds camaraderie like a group of people coming together to actively dislike someone, something or even an ideology. It is for this reason that the odds were in favour of Biden and Harris in the 59th quadrennial US elections. This observation is not remiss of the 2016 presidential elections, and the insurmountable odds that Donald Trump beat to synch his presidency. Yet taking a closer application of negative partisanship this year, it was clear that something was different: the tables had turned in favour of Biden.
Negative partisanship is a political science term, to describe the fear and hate that people feel towards the opposition party. The concept and phenomenon has been discussed often within the context of US elections to explain the increasing loyalty along cultural, social and ideological divides, and its resultant polarity between Democrats and Republicans. Yet, negative partisanship is not limited to these two parties. American independents also get their share of the pie in this phenomenon, with independent voters developing increasingly negative feelings about the two opposing parties and their candidates. Thus elections have become less about the candidate with the best policies, and more about galvanizing hate and fear of the opposition, often through deceit. That is not to say that this feeling is not sometimes warranted, given the life-changing policies that may follow the election of a particular party in power.
The 2016 presidential elections provided a great template for addressing the impact of negative partisanship in securing Trump’s victory. Even within the Democratic Party itself, negative partisanship was already in play, working to undercut the efficacy and appeal of candidate electHillary Clinton. The fervor of Bernie Sanders and his leftist ideas proved a great opposition to her and the opportunity to nurse feelings of fear and anger against her. This fear and anger was only exacerbated in what his supporters deemed a botched Democratic nomination with Sanders being robbed of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidacy.
Thus, from then, Hillary had to work not only towards assuaging the American people, but also a section of voters from her own party. Not even Sander’s late endorsement could mend the bridges. All Trump had to do was present himself as the outlier, while capitalizing on the clout of hatred and fear surrounding Hillary and he was tapping his way into victory. Independent voters, with their hatred towards both parties, took their chance on the lesser of two evils. For sure, all of that was just campaign rhetoric right? Trump would really get his act together once he actually assumed office, right? If only they knew! Well now, they know. The theory of a Trump presidency has become an empirical fact. It is 2020, and once again time to begin galvanizing hate and fear for the opposition using facts or deceit.
It has not been a smooth presidential term for Trump, with his impeachment by the House of Representatives, countless scandals, and arrests and prosecutions of members of his own administration. Despite all of these, he stood a good chance at securing himself a second term in office with the help from the Republican Party. That was until 2020 rolled in with the Covid-19 pandemic and strife racial tensions. Yet for all Trump’s botched or even lack of attempts at handling these crises, his base still remained staunchly behind him. And while national polls showed Biden in the lead, in swing states – which were decisive in Trump’s 2016 presidential win – the numbers were not that clear cut. A rather troubling indicator, especially when viewed in the light of the dire situation in the United States. Many have openly doubted the polls, given that these same predictions were made of Hillary during the 2016 elections. That was true. So what was different this time?
For one, the appeal of a Trump presidency had been satiated. In 2016, a Trump presidency held limitless possibilities for the future, possibilities that many could take a chance on. For all they knew, Trump could have been a good president. A presidential term renders this variable less contentious. Second, the issue of 2016 negative partisanship in the Democratic Party has been diminished. The vast amount of contenders for the party’s presidential nomination blurred the lines and offered an array of policies and candidates to lean behind, from far- to center-left candidates. The big policies agenda that made Sanders appealing or seemingly radical against Clinton in 2016 had become common acceptance within the 2020 aspiring presidential nominees. Consequently, negative partisanship was greatly minimized, and Biden had an easier time appealing to the different Democrat supporters. He only further cemented his appeal to his party by choosing Kamala Harris as his Vice President, as she appealed to Black and even Asian votes. She also provides a more leftist balance to Biden’s more centrist policies. Thirdly, many just find Biden more ‘likeable’ than Hillary.
With negative partisanship reduced within the Democratic Party, the final hurdle was ensuring that the ‘opposition Trump’ crew would show up on the D-day. And things were looking good even prior to the election. Before November 2nd, an unprecedented 57 million (40% more than in 2016) votes had already been cast in early voting and mail-in. The increase in early voting can be explained by the attempt for many to ensure that their ballots would be counted, a reaction to Trump’s – and his party’s – attempt at voter suppression.
The ‘opposition Trump’ crew has never been more fervent. It comes from a cocktail of various threats: the Covid-19 crisis, unemployment benefits, loss of healthcare, the appointment of a controversial Justice at the Supreme Court, white supremacy, police brutality, the turn of abortion rights in Roe v. Wade, and a Republican Party ready to set the country ablaze to get whatever it wants. If these threats are not galvanizing enough to hate and fear another Republican Trump presidency, then what else is?
Just like Trump had it easy in 2016, all Biden had to do was arm these threats to his advantage and show himself to be the better candidate equipped to mitigating them. And he did. And he tapped his way to victory. So, yeah! Cheers to the Biden presidency.