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The Trump Effect: Defining The Narrative In American Presidential Elections – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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The Trump Effect: Defining the Narrative in American Presidential Elections

Swaran Singh

The projected return of Trump to the White House has serious implications for US domestic politics as also for the US leadership (or lack of it) in world affairs.

Initial trends in this year’s presidential election in the United States have not just already catapulted former president Donald Trump as the most likely nominee for the Republicans but also begun to project him as a stronger candidate in a much anticipated direct contest between him and the serving president Joe Biden of the Democrats. This projected return of Trump to the White House has serious implications for US domestic politics as also for the US leadership (or lack of it) in world affairs.

For the Republicans, the inaugural Iowa caucus early last week saw Trump open his innings by winning over 51% votes leaving his runner-up, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with a mere 21% and Nikki Haley at 19%. By the time of New Hampshire primary took place this Monday Ron DeSantis had withdrawn from the Republican race in favour of Donald Trump.

The other Republican candidate, Vivek Ramasamy, who received 7.7% votes at their Iowa caucus had earlier withdrawn from the race endorsing Trump as his candidate as well. And now at this week’s Hampshire primary as well, Trump once again crossed the 50% mark of votes in his favour leading commentators to call him unstoppable. So much so that several opinion polls are now placing his popularity ahead of even President Joe Biden.

Trump’s Troubles

Trump’s troubles, however, are not all over yet. The most troubling will be the lingering impact and last-minute uncertainties from dozens of legal suits that may disqualify his candidature till the very eve of the presidential election on November 5 this year or even later. To the least, these will continue to drag and distract him from his much-needed focus on his election campaign.

Moreover, Nikki Haley remains committed to contesting Trump’s Party nomination. The fact that at the New Hampshire primary, Nikki Haley managed to improve by 20 percent points from the Iowa caucus — this time receiving 39 percent of votes — makes her quite a serious contender for the Republican nomination. Next week’s primary being scheduled for South Carolina — where Nikki Haley had been the Governor — creates hopes of her camp for further reducing the gap with Donald Trump. Her supporters indeed are claiming her taking the lead over Trump in South Carolina next week.

Apart from minor differences in her view on a whole range of issues, the major niche advantage for Candidate Nikki Haley remains her promise to become the first women president of the United States. Only twice before — Victoria Woodhull in 1872 and Hillary Clinton in 2016 — have women become Candidates for US presidential elections though both times they failed to make it to the White House. Other than being a women candidate, Nikki Haley also has the added advantage of being just 52 years old compared to Donald Trump at 77 and Joe Biden at 81. She has repeatedly underlined the fossilized candidature of these two contenders and this has shown her appeal among younger voters.

Biden’s bugbears

President Joe Biden is not without his share of bugbears. As early as April last year, President Biden had announced his decision to contest for a second term. In view of tradition, as a sitting president, it should be natural for him to be the nominee for his Democratic Party. However, Biden’s candidature has repeatedly become a matter of speculation.

For example, New Hampshire State has held the first national primaries since the early 1920s though it has often been open to contentions. In 1970 Iowa was allowed to precede New Hampshire and hold its Caucasus before New Hampshire held first primaries for the Republicans and Democrats. In the year 1948, New Hampshire State even passed a law to proceed with its special status for holding first primaries.

But primaries and caucuses have their variations. In brief, States can choose to have primaries or caucuses with the former having a secret ballot while the latter has a prolonged process of open deliberations and open voice votes. Pressure tactics work effectively in caucuses while a primary’s secret ballot allows voters greater freedom.

But primaries can also be open or closed meaning allowing registered voters of only the Party which is holding primary or also allowing non-Party registered voters to cast their votes. Then there are quasi-open and quasi-closed primaries and these processes have continued to create their own set of complications for deciphering true trends and prospects.

Democratic Defiance

This year, for instance, the Democratic Party central leadership decided to change the schedule of their Party primaries explaining this in terms of the demographics of various States. It was agreed to start Democratic primaries from South Carolina saying its mixed population better represented the United States demographic reality. New New Hampshire Democrats however decided to defy central leadership and held a Democratic primary of sorts.

But, New Hampshire decided to defy central Party command and went ahead with its Party primary which has nominated Joe Biden whose name did not even appear among the candidates on the ballot. Complicating it further, President Joe Biden refused to campaign in New Hampshire though later he did express gratitude for his victory and thanked his supporters who actually scribed his name on the ballot paper.

But this democratic defiance at New Hampshire also saw two other names — Minnesota congressman Dean Philipps and author of self-help books Marianne Williamson — being listed as candidates igniting speculations about Biden’s Party nomination. Plus, this has once again brought to light the history of President Joe Biden’s own love-and-hate relationship with New Hampshire.

It is pertinent to recall that in Joe Biden’s earlier attempts for Democratic Party nomination in 1984, 1988, and 2008. Joe Biden had never been the choice primaries of New Hampshire. Even during the Party nominations for the 2020 presidential elections — when he was finally elected to the White House — then Vice President Joe Biden had ended as fifth in the New Hampshire Party primary though his candidature was strengthened following primaries in South Carolina onwards and he successfully entered White How on 20th January 2021.

Kennedy and Obama

To add spice to this grapevine chatter Michell Obama’s name has also emerged in media commentaries suggesting her to be the right candidate if Democrats have to defeat Donald Trump. Of course, the Third Candidate in the race, Robert Kenney Jr, — from the royal Democratic Party family for being nephew of former president John F Kennedy and son of Robert Kennedy — is an Independent candidate with a noticeable following of his own. If nothing else he may also divide democratic votes and make a dent in Joe Biden’s support base.

Candidates have to kowtow to various power centers like labor unions, chiefs of multinational corporations, the military-industrial complex, and so on. This power elite together ensures that candidates can only made different and not in substance. But going by his track record, Donald Trump’s return to the White House portends to push the envelope a bit further. As for the candidates, taking an early lead in these initial caucuses and primaries remains most critical for enhancing their endorsements and fundraising prospects that often determine their election outcomes. This explains why victories at initial Party primaries become critical and deeply etched in the memory of contenders for the world’s most powerful position.

Dr. Swaran Singh is a Professor of Diplomacy and Disarmament at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi).

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.

The article was first posted in The International Affairs Review as the “Trump juggernaut setting the tone in US presidential elections” on 26th January 2024.

Read more at IMPRI:

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Vamsi Gokaraju, a research intern at IMPRI.

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