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The Main Issues in the Presidential Election

In Jonathan Haidt’s best-selling book, The Happiness Hypothesis, he presents an interesting metaphor, explaining human behavior in terms of an imaginary elephant and its human rider. The big animal represents the emotional and instinctual drives in every human being while the much smaller rider symbolizes a person’s rational side which incorporates planning and intellectual activity.

The contrary elephant often resists the urgings of the person on his back and indeed his animal preferences frequently prevail. The suggestion in this comparison is that our actions are driven much more by raw emotions and family culture than by calm reason. Rationality plays its part, but mostly a lesser role than we like to admit in our decision-making.

Applying this thinking to our current political situation, we can safely say that 40% of voters will support President Trump in November with approximately the same number guaranteed to show up for Joe Biden. All recent polls support this political analysis.

The president has led the country through perilous times this year, taking most of the blame, deservedly or not, for his policy decisions to combat the pandemic and to deal with the consequent high unemployment rate in the country. The polls show him in deep trouble for the November election, but despite all the problems, nearly every voting gauge registers his support above 40% and so clearly within striking distance of a comeback victory in the fall showdown.

In the early days of the 2016 campaign Mr. Trump claimed that his support was so solid that he could shoot someone in Manhattan and his followers would still cheer him on. This speaks poorly of his respect for these voters, but they don’t seem to care. The elephant shows no signs of worrying about sensitive feelings!

Similar ruminations also apply to Democrats. They may have reservations about Joe Biden but their support is guaranteed against the current incumbent. You will count on the fingers of one hand the number of true-blue Dems who will pull the lever for Trump in November. Biden’s 40% is also assured.

There is a small but significant group of traditional Republicans who despise their present party leader and who definitely won’t support his re-election. Most will follow the lead of Mitt Romney and write in a name rather than mark a ballot for the Democrat. Objecting in principle to a particular party nominee is deemed a venial political blemish, but voting for the other side in a close election qualifies as a mortal sin that will not be easily forgiven.

So, the remaining 20% of swing voters will decide the election. Based on the number of people who voted in the 2016 presidential election, we are talking about approximately twenty-seven million citizens. These independents can be thought of as aligning somewhat more with the rider than the elephant.

What are the main issues that are likely to influence this bloc of crucial swing voters?

The corona virus is certainly the main talking point in the country. More than 120,000 people have died, and that number will be much higher in the fall. How has the president dealt with this life and death crisis? He is being widely accused of disregarding serious advice given early in the year and thus allowing the crisis to grow out of control with disastrous consequences for the American people.

On January 18th Alex Azar, the head of Health and Human Services (HHS) informed the president of the possible serious consequences of this new pathogen. Eleven days later the White House Trade Advisor, Peter Navarro, warned Mr. Trump that immediate action was needed to prevent “a full-blown pandemic.” But, by the end of February, the president was confidently predicting that “It is going to disappear - like a miracle - it will disappear.”

The low point of the president’s performance came at a daily press briefing when he suggested that consideration should be given to injecting Lysol into the human bloodstream, based on the logic that if it could sanitize externally why would it not clean out the stomach as well. Lysol manufacturers responded with urgent advertisements stressing that this use of their product would be very dangerous.

Wishing the crisis away, pretending that it is only a passing problem, continues as part of the White House narrative. Will voters hold the president responsible for this wishful thinking and for ignoring the early signs of an impending crisis? The election outcome may well be determined by the answer to that question.

In the mid-term elections when the Democrats added a record forty seats to their numbers in the House of Representatives, the main issue driving a big turnout was healthcare. The Republicans want to get rid of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Obamacare, but, amazingly, they have no counter proposal. Eliminating President Obama’s signature domestic achievement means removing about 20 million from any health coverage and ending the ACA mandate that prohibits insurance companies from refusing to cover pre-existing conditions. Healthcare will again be a crucial consideration at the polls in November.

Blatant inequality in the areas of salaries, benefits and taxation have become increasingly evident in America especially since this president’s election. Billionaires increased their wealth by 15% from mid-March to mid-May this year.

 Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury Secretary, promised that the benefits of the huge tax breaks given to the wealthy in the last budget would trickle down and raise the standard of living of ordinary workers and their families. Of course, this never happened and they have already indicated that they plan to repeat the trickle-down chicanery in the next budget.

Young people are particularly unhappy with this approach to  wealth distribution. In a recent poll, voters under thirty, by a small majority, expressed a preference for living in a socialist economy rather than a capitalist one. They are not looking for some kind of Marxist utopia, but they want a system where they have good healthcare and housing and where they are not burdened by huge debt from college loans and child care. All the indications suggest that there will be a big increase in the number of voters in the 18-30 age-group this year.

Recent demonstrations condemning police brutality and against racism in all its manifestations suggest that the growing activist community – white, black and brown - want real change in this vital area of national life, and their leaders assert that they are going to have an impact in this election.

Finally, policies that protect the environment by reducing global warming will influence the political choice of millions, especially of young people. President Trump, backed by nearly all Republicans, consider this issue unimportant, so this burgeoning environmental constituency will help Joe Biden and the Democrats.

Overall, it doesn’t look good for Republicans this November, and all national polls so far confirm that the fall vote augurs well for Democrats. However, the election is months away and Donald Trump is a formidable campaigner. It is certainly possible that the exuberant and determined elephant will again overrule its thoughtful and rational rider?

Gerry OShea blogs at


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