American and global audiences have now had a formal introduction to all the primary contenders in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections. With the conclusion of two presidential and one vice-presidential debate, all four contenders in the November 3 elections have presented themselves on public platforms, where their ideas, policies, and positions on key issues of concern in the upcoming elections have been duly scrutinized. PREMIUM TIMES presents comprehensive bios of all election hopefuls.
• Full name: Donald John Trump
• Age: 74
o Fordham University
o University of Pennsylvania, Economics (1968)
Before his election as president of the United States on the platform of the Republican Party, Donald Trump was a democrat. He was a member of the Democratic Party from 2001 to 2009. In fact, he has had six different political affiliations since he first registered as a republican in 1987, flip-flopping between both major parties as well as declaring himself an Independent – unaffiliated with any party – and running for president on the platform of a fringe political party, the Reform Party, in 2000. Since disrupting the primaries process and emerging nominee of the party in 2016, Mr Trump’s republican credentials have remained in question. Although he has walked the talk of the party, aligning with right-leaning, conservative ideals on thorny issues like gun-control and abortion, his decision-making and political rhetoric place him more squarely in the right-leaning, populist spectrum.
Mr Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 elections, beating projected winner Hillary Clinton through the electoral college, threw a spanner into the well-oiled, almost-predictable politics of Washington, D.C. Campaigning as an outsider aiming to disrupt political establishment, a fluid phrase that encompasses long-standing political office holders, Mr Trump barrelled his way, first through the Republican primaries, and to his shocking victory in November 2016. Since then, his non-traditional governance style has simultaneously endeared him to his base while galvanizing an opposition from both traditional conservative republicans and members of the opposition party. Having selected a loyal, evangelical conservative as his running mate, it is not clear how much of his 2016 victory is attributable to Mike Pence, who served to buffer conservative concerns over the thrice-married, bombastic businessman and TV-show host. Data shows an increase in voting patterns of key conservative demographics in 2016, White, evangelical Christians and Catholics. However, the electoral outcome of 2016, particularly in the light of Mr Trump’s Electoral College win, was arguably mostly determined by economics and the repudiation of the Democratic Party by White, working class Americans, who have felt neglected by the party for decades, among other subtle socio-cultural factors that likely led to Mrs Clinton’s loss.
President Trump has had a turbulent tenure. With a cloud of Russian-interference hovering over his election victory, he has struggled to assert his legitimacy in the face of fierce opposition by the members of the Democratic Party. This culminated in his December 2019 impeachment by the House of Representatives, who accused him of seeking foreign interference to aid his 2020 bid against Joe Biden, a decision that was overturned by the Senate two months later. Accused of abuse of office and obstruction of congress, he is the third American president to be impeached by the House of Representatives. In office, Mr Trump’s foreign policy choices have proved unpredictable. His dismantling of long-standing relationships and withdrawal from multilateral arrangements and institutions, while simultaneously fostering friendship with rogue regimes like North Korea and Russia, have left U.S. allies confused. Mr Trump’s domestic focus borrows from his party’s viewpoint of the basis of U.S. Foreign Policy, an ideology of ‘American Exceptionalism.’
Although past Republican presidents did not operationalize this belief system by divesting from international arrangements, George W. Bush used such relationships most effectively to compel allies to join the so-called ‘War on Terror’ after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Mr. Trump’s interpretation of an ‘American First’ agenda has been mostly isolationist and unilateral.
Perhaps the most distinguishing factor of Mr Trump’s presidency has been his unprecedented method of communication. His savvy use of Twitter has de-formalized presidential communication, making the president’s unfiltered thoughts and ideas instantly accessible. Although this has gained him popularity and followership on the social media platform, his unrestrained rhetoric and positions, instantly communicated via these channels, have sometimes inspired vociferous censure from Americans and globally, further fuelling his tumultuous administration. Mr Trump is also noted for his unrestrained, sometimes offensive, rhetoric, particularly reserved for his political opponents, perceived or real.
Yet Mr Trump has managed to retain the unwavering support of his party base, who argue that he has kept his elections promises. His controversial immigration policies have been much in line with his 2016 campaign rhetoric, including promises to build a wall along the southern US/Mexico border as a measure of restricting illegal immigration. He has also helped the Republican Party secure a conservative leaning Supreme Court, first achieving a 5:4 balance with his 2017 nomination of Neil Gorsuch, and then securing a conservative majority with his controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh in 2018. In the 2020 elections cycle, the Republican Party has used this achievement as a rallying point for continued support for Mr Trump, even as the Congress is on the verge of appointing another conservative judge, Amy Coney, into the highest court of the land, scoring a third Supreme Court nomination feat for Mr. Trump. Projected to make the highest court the most conservative it has been in over half a century, this is arguably one of Mr. Trump’s biggest legacies as president.
As his first term draws to a close, President Trump is grappling with unfavourable polls, placing him slightly behind his opponent Mr. Biden, especially in battleground states. Having often based the evidence of his administration’s success on the economy throughout his first three years, the effects of COVID-19 on the economy have dampened his much touted unemployment numbers, now at 7.9 percent, higher by over two percentage points than when Mr. Trump first took over office. In other words, Mr Trump has left the economy in a worst state than his predecessor left it, using unemployment rate as indices. To complicate the economic situation and its link to the coronavirus outbreak has been public perception of the Trump administration’s management of the pandemic. Recent polls show that 57.4 percent of Americans disapprove of President Trump’s response to COVID-19, of which he was recently a victim. Although President Trump’s poor economic numbers are a direct result of the global health pandemic, it is not clear how much the electorate will be willing to forgive him at the polls.
• Full name: Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.
• Age: 77
o University of Delaware, History and Political Science (1965)
o Syracuse University, College of law (1968)
• Public Offices Held:
o Member, New Castle County Council (1970 -1972)
o Senate, Delaware (1973 – 2009)
o Vice President (2009 – 2017)
When Joe Biden declared his intention to run for the president of the United States in April 2019, it was only his fourth time of trying. His first try in 1984 appears to have been half-hearted, with hardly any records of his bid. In 1987 Mr. Biden ran a short-lived campaign that lasted for three months, dropping out following a speech plagiarism accusation. His campaign did not survive the media onslaught and he quietly returned to his duties at the Senate. He again threw in his hat in 2007 but his campaign lost steam against the much stronger bids of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. He would eventually be nominated as running mate to his former competitor, going on to win the elections in 2008 and a re-election in 2012. His current race is different. This time around, Mr Biden’s campaign has successfully placed him not just squarely in the race but with polls indicating that incumbent Donald Trump is trending behind the Obama-era Vice President.
Mr Biden entered the U.S. Congress at age 30, one of the youngest senators in U.S. history, and served for 36 years before moving on to his new post as VP to Mr Obama in 2009. His solid credentials in politics and legislation make him the most experienced person in the current presidential race. At Congress, he chaired the International Narcotics Control Caucus, as well as the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. He was also member of many other key committees including: Finance; Health, Education, Labour and Prisons; and Homeland Security and Government Affairs. His legislative interests also focused on these key sectors and many more, having sponsored an average of 100 legislation per year between 1973 and 2008. Of note are his legislative actions on campaign financing, climate change, violence against women, and arms control. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1986, his impassioned quizzing of the Reagan-era Secretary of State, George Shultz, during a congressional hearing on apartheid South Africa made clear his support for South African blacks and challenged what appeared to be a tacit tolerance of the country’s segregationist policies by the U.S. His legislative actions related to Africa since then have revolved around the conflicts in Libya and Sudan,
Although a long-standing democrat, Mr. Biden has a checkered history with regard to race-related issues. In the days leading up to the Democratic Party primary elections, then presidential hopeful Kamala Harris skewered the former VP during the debates, resurrecting his early years clash with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the country’s foremost pro-black civil rights organisation. In the mid-1970s, through multiple, related legislation, M Biden, siding with republican senators, voted against policies to encourage race-integration in public schools, thereby invoking severe rebuttal from NAACP lawyers. Mr Biden’s flipflopping on same-sex marriage, another core value of the Democratic Party, has also earned him criticism from his core base. In 1993 and 1996, then Senator Biden voted to uphold laws limiting freedoms for persons in same-sex relationships. By 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the legislation that prohibited same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional, Mr. Biden had switched positions and was fully in support of the court’s ruling in the landmark case. Yet, his evolvement is hardly peculiar; his position on same-sex marriage has evolved much as national attitudes towards the issue have changed and marriage equality has become a core value of the Democratic Party.
Mr Biden’s nomination as flag bearer of the Democratic Party after a surprisingly tough primaries process points to his national appeal in the face of the divisiveness and toxicity in U.S. politics today. Popular for his centrism, likely honed from decades of legislation experience, the former VP was able to appeal to a broader range of the electorate than his main opponent Bernie Sanders, whose progressive political ideas had invigorated political participation, particularly among young people. Lacking the charisma and eloquence of Mr Sanders, or indeed of many contenders for the primaries, Mr Biden stuck to his moderate positions on issues, often showing a willingness for compromise, thus appealing, not just to minority voters, but also a broader range of White voters, including college and non-college educated demographics. In this way, his sensible, moderate policy positions, helped straddle the divide between progressive democrats and moderate conservatives.
On a whole, Mr. Biden’s likeability and relatability remain his key selling points. He has marketed himself as an ‘average Joe,’ working-class, relatable, even poor – compared to his colleagues in the senate. He is well-loved in his home state Delaware, as evidenced in his seven-times election into the senate, making him the longest serving senator in the state. His personal losses – the deaths of his first wife and two children – and his public displays of compassion and affection have served to humanize him. Mr Biden’s maintenance of a middle class lifestyle throughout his years of public service have also endeared him to working class Americans. For example, as a sitting senator, he doubled as an adjunct professor of law at a university in his home state from 1991, continuing to teach even after he became Mr Obama’s VP nominee. For all these and more, the Democratic Party hopes that Mr Biden can carve a chunk out of President Trump’s support. Whereas in 2016, President Trump won over White, middle-class votes, Mr Biden’s supporters project that a Biden-Harris ticket will split those loyalties. In particular, the state of the U.S. economy, exacerbated by this administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, has placed the economy solidly as a core election issue. It remains to be seen whether the Democratic Party’s bets on Mr Biden will pay off.
• Full Name: Michael Richard Pence
• Age: 61
o Hanover College, History (1981)
o Indiana University-Purdue University, Robert H. McKinney School of Law (1986)
• Public Offices Held:
o House of Representatives, Indiana (2001–2013)
o Governor, Indiana (2013–2017)
o Vice President (2017- date)
Before he was selected as the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2016, Mike Pence had no intentions of voting for Donald Trump. In the days leading up to the primary elections, Mr Pence had decided to vote for Ted Cruz, the junior senator for Texas, who eventually dropped out of the race. “I like and respect all three of the republican candidates. I particularly want to commend Donald Trump… but I will be voting for Ted Cruz,” Mr Pence, then governor of Indiana, said in an April 2016 interview.
In July 2016, Mr Trump was compelled by his party to add Mr Pence to the ticket. His strengths? His history of conservatism rooted in evangelical Christianity. His popularity among evangelicals grew in 2015 when he introduced a controversial religious freedom bill, which critics argued could be used to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community. Following a huge backlash, the then-governor amended the law, thereby, angering his hard-core conservative base who supported the initial law wholesale. As governor also, Mr. Pence also introduced ultra-restrictive abortion laws, including the restriction of abortions even in the cases of foetal disability. A federal appeal court ruled the law was unconstitutional in 2018 but Mr Pence’s position had already endeared him to pro-life activists and further gained him support with Evangelicals and conservative groups.
In 2016 the Republican Party saw an upswing in votes from Christian demographics, including evangelicals and White Catholics. Exit polls indicate that the Republican Party, which has consistently won the White evangelical demographic, did so in 2016 with a higher percentage than recent elections since 2000. Voting data show that 81 percent of White, born-again/evangelical Christians voted for the Trump team, showing a three percent increase from the votes for Mitt Romney in 2012 and a seven percent increase compared to votes for John McCain in 2008. Similarly, there was a four percentage overall increase in Catholic support for Mr Trump than Mr Romney. While there is no real way to gauge how much of this owed to Mr Pence’s addition to the ticket, there is no doubt that the VP made up for what could have appeared as a moral deficit on the part of the presidential candidate, particularly given the release of recordings with Mr Trump casually making lewd remarks about women in the so-called Access Hollywood tapes shortly before the 2016 elections.
Mr Pence also brought his 15 years of political experience to bear in the Trump-Pence ticket. Adding political savviness to his experience as a former radio and TV show host, he brought a calming balance to the mostly turbulent Trump campaign, and has continued to do so throughout their years in office. He has been an ideal VP to President Trump; largely invisible, loyal and seemingly unambitious, all indicators appear to point to a relationship that has left the president’s voice loud and clear on his main interests, generally articulated to be a domestic focus on the U.S. and a steady divestment of political engagement abroad. His latent role in the administration is evidenced in his appointment as the head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Ultimately, the administration’s poor response to the global pandemic, which has killed over 220,000 Americans, has reflected, not merely incompetent leadership on the part of the VP, but an acquiescence to the president’s whims and convictions. In the early days of the spread, President Trump’s daily briefings, with a largely silent VP in the photo-up, muddied up expert positions on how to respond to the health crisis, setting the tone for U.S. death rates, which are higher than most other rich countries in the West, including France, Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.
• Full Name: Kamala Devi Harris
• Age: 55
o Howard University, Political Science and Economics (1986)
o University of California, Hastings College of the Law (1989)
• Public Offices Held:
o District Attorney, San Francisco (2004 – 2011)
o Attorney General, California (2011- 2017)
o Senate, California (2017- date)
Kamala Harris has had many firsts in her life. In 2016 she became the first African American to be elected senator in the state of California. Prior to this, she was the first black woman to be elected District Attorney (DA) in San Francisco, California and Attorney General of the state of California in 2003 and 2011, respectively. Her selection as Joe Biden’s running mate in the 2020 presidential elections did not make her the first African American woman to run for the vice-presidency; her predecessor Charlotta Bass had that honor 70 years ago. Ms Harris, however, is the first to run as VP on a major party ticket.
While her black identity appears to feature more prominently in public discourse, and may indeed have played a significant role in her nomination, Ms Harris appears to embrace her African American and South Asian American identities equally. Born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, it is clear that the Democratic Party hopes to milk Ms Harris’ dual identities in the upcoming elections, given higher percentage growth in minority populations – Hispanic, Blacks, and Asians – among newly eligible voters as well as the general inclination of that young demographic towards the Democratic Party.
New to Washington, D.C., Ms Harris has often been regarded as a political novice, albeit less so than President Trump whose first public office was his surprise win of the 2016 elections. At the recent VP debates, watchers worried about how her relative lack of political experience, especially in Foreign Policy issues, would play out against Vice President Pence, who has been in national politics since 2001. However, given her multiple decades of prosecutorial duties and her experience as a state attorney general, it is no surprise that she was able to hold her own during the debates.
Ms Harris came to Washington, D.C. on mixed reviews. Her fluid positions regarding law enforcement-related issues have placed her both at odds with the police and the public in equal measures. For instance, her controversial decision to refrain from pursuing the death penalty on behalf of a murdered police officer in 2004 caused a rift with the police union. Yet, her position on the death penalty, declining to support legislation to end the death penalty in California, has earned her criticisms from advocates who argue that she has not walked her talk on the issue. Critiques have also accused her of not doing enough to address police brutality, which overwhelmingly affects black communities, when she was attorney general.
In the Congress, Ms Harris’ committee assignments include Homeland Security and Government Affairs, Budget, Judiciary, and Intelligence. On legislation, she has largely focused her attention on Health, Crime and Law Enforcement, Government Operations and Politics, and Immigration. Her International Affairs legislation places her interests broadly in Asia and Eastern Europe.
Despite her African American roots, she has not shown particular interests in the African continent or US foreign policy interests in African countries, perhaps reflecting the larger US foreign policy divestment and domestic focus. She was not part of the delegation of the Congressional Black Caucus’s 2019 visit to Ghana to observe the 400th Anniversary of the First Enslaved Africans Landing in America. Since 2017 her legislative interests have touched just two African countries, Sudan and Nigeria. In 2019, she cosponsored a bill by Ted Cruz to address the transfer of power in Sudan, where long-standing civil unrests continue to cause tensions and opportunities for authoritarian rule. Additionally, in 2018, Ms. Harris co-sponsored “a resolution condemning Boko Haram and calling on the Governments of the United States of America and Nigeria to swiftly implement measures to defeat the terrorist organization.”