by John Zogby


Ultimately winning elections is about wedge issues – sometimes social, or foreign policy, or economic. Political campaigns are also about the quality and capacity of the candidates. “Who would you rather have a beer with – George W. Bush or John Kerry?”, we posed for Knight Ridder Newspapers in 2004. But in every race for the White House, there are dominant themes that provide an umbrella, a broader context, to explain the differences, the stakes, the future, and finally the winner. Here is a look at what I believe the five overall defining themes are for 2020.

  1. Science vs. Skepticism – the two parties have been split on science for decades but it is now more acute than ever with a generational fight over climate change and the intervention of the worst pandemic in a century. Democrats are focusing their attention on the very future of humanity and the need to listen to the scientists and rely on the facts. Republicans under President Donald Trump are questioning the validity of the facts, especially as filtered by what they believe are liberal scientists with a political agenda and using their skepticism as a means of solidifying an already intense base that is wary of elites. This also spills into broader questions about the future of the economy. A major impact of the pandemic is the actual accelerating pace of job loss, especially jobs that will be eliminated by artificial intelligence and robots. Mr. Trump’s hope is to address the fears of progress by millions of laid-off workers with promises of their return to work and to do so immediately.
  2. Empathy vs. Rage – Democrats who have won in the past 50 years have been those who have projected an Everyman image of understanding pain and suffering – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. Those who have lost projected images of elitism and/or technocratic management over bonding – Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton. Biden, who has seen an adult life filled with tragedy and personal triumph over suffering, will emphasize his “Uncle Joe” persona: familiarity, working-class and ethnic roots, laughter, and empathy. Trump rode to victory by tapping into an anger over change and status anxiety that has been present in the body politic since the late 1980s – the anger that fueled Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot before him. The sense of rage over the loss of a familiar and dominant America is the essential ingredient of his movement and victory.
  3. Stability vs. Disruption—Trump has broken and continues to break all of the rules. He defies diplomatic niceties, bypasses and rejects traditional forms of communicating directly with the public, insults his opponents, whistleblowers, fellow Republicans, beloved icons, and predecessors, and more. He not only repudiates and blames his immediate predecessor for America’s ills, he is attempting to pulverize that agenda. This is indeed disruption, what he promised and what he is delivering. Biden is running to restore and build upon the Obama legacy, in the meantime promising a return to some sort of stability and normality.
  4. Health Care as a Right vs. Privilege – access to quality and affordable health care is still very much a major issue, especially for Democrats. Trump has been on a mission to destroy the Affordable Care Act and thus far, with considerable help from Congress and the Courts he is succeeding. There are millions of fewer who have health insurance today than when he took office in 2017. The issue is even more acute today as hospitals face an increasing demand from Covid-19 and a reduction in revenue for those Americans who are not covered. Obamacare has become more popular since the Obama presidency and Democrats see this issue as a winner.
  5. New Deal vs. New Deal Plus – No one is running this year as a fiscal hawk. The administration and Congress are already spending uncountable trillions in stimulus for consumers and businesses and there is near-universal agreement that much more will be needed. The two parties have different priorities where that spending should go and it is clear that some businesses have been treated very well while as many as 45% of businesses owned by nonwhites face extinction in the short run. Federal largesse will be poured but the battle will be over how much and to whom.

These differences will cover topics like climate change, income inequality, health care and education, the personalities of the candidates, the future of the two parties and the two-party system, and so many more. But these are the overall themes to be watching as we head into November.

John Zogby senior partner at John Zogby Strategies LLC is founder of the world-famous Zogby Poll and a veteran of US Presidential polling. He has conducted polls for Reuters, the New York Post,  the Miami Herald, Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Houston Chronicle, and many major news media in the US and worldwide.

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