Biden vs Trump: How the US media overlooked the appeal of rightwing politics

The thin margins show almost half of the voters want Trump to remain in office. The media must learn to read and understand those they don't like.

ByDavid Devadas
Biden vs Trump: How the US media overlooked the appeal of rightwing politics
Shambhavi Thakur
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It is taking longer than usual to get a clear picture of the results of Tuesday’s US election because of how thin the margins are, nationwide as well as in state after state.

It wasn’t supposed to be this close. Most opinion polls over the past several months predicted an eight to 12 percent nationwide lead for Democrat challenger Joe Biden. One even predicted 17 percent.

Those polls were wrong. Biden is actually likely to emerge no more than three percent ahead of Donald Trump nationally. That’s about the same edge Hillary Clinton had over Trump four years ago, but he won majorities in enough states then to convincingly trounce her in the electoral college that finally elects the US president.

Then too, most polls gave Clinton a substantial lead until a few days before polling. Yet, it appears that neither pollsters nor media pundits learnt a lesson from what happened four years ago.

Polling techniques

US pollsters like to identify those they poll by gender, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic bracket, and name. Identification could make some respondents mask their intentions, if they feel uncomfortable about being seen as illiberal. They may choose not to reveal their intention to vote for a candidate such as Trump who is seen as divisive.

Covering elections in various Indian states a quarter-century ago, I discovered that extrapolating voting patterns from indirect questions was far more reliable than directly asking which party or candidate a person was backing. I would ask which parties were mainly in the running in that village or town, which of them might be ahead, even slightly, and only ask at the end if the citizen was willing to give me his or her name or reveal who he or she was backing.

Of course, India’s elections are far more complicated than those in the US. There are more than two major competitors in many states, and every constituency has a different slate of candidates. In some constituencies, an independent or rebel candidate may have enough support to be strongly in the running.

Since US elections are so much more evenly a two-party fight, trends there should in fact be much easier to read.

Unconscious bias

It seems the US media by and large failed to see that more voters were willing to back Republicans than most of the media was. They didn’t see that almost half of all those who voted wanted Trump to remain in office.

Most of the national media in the US has trenchantly criticised Trump over the past four years. That in itself is welcome in a free society. But it can be problematic if it leads to a bias, even if an unconscious one.

It’s easy for highly educated liberals, including many media persons, to presume that everyone is as disgusted as they are by what they often see as indecent, dishonest, or vile behaviour. They fail to see how many ordinary citizens are willing to accept, even proudly endorse, what they see as nasty, racist and/or xenophobic.

Global trend

The sad fact of our times is that decency, kindness, empathy, and fraternity are not only less common than they were a half-century ago, they are increasingly despised as signs of personal, communal, and national weakness. Media persons have to find ways to understand such trends and how to keep track of them more effectively.

Such attitudes are becoming common in different parts of the world. Perhaps one causative factor is economic distress, perceived in terms of a community’s marginalisation as much as a family’s or individual’s. Some have theorised about the effects of population pressure on how people view self and others.

Social media has spread fears about terrorism, promoted echo chambers, and accentuated polarisation. It is ironic that Twitter flagged Trump’s unfounded claims about the election results, for Trump has regularly used Twitter to push illiberal ideas. Also ironic is Trump’s recent disparagement of Fox News, which has been among his biggest backers in the past.

Impact on India

Many in India’s right-wing follow Trump enthusiastically. Some lionise him, even worship his image.

The Modi government had bet early on Trump’s re-election. “Abki baar, Trump sarkar,” the prime minister said at a rally of Indian Americans in Houston last year. And a massive rally welcomed Trump to Ahmedabad just a couple of weeks before the pandemic was declared this year.

The government will surely root for Trump to retain power, not least because of the Chinese threat. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has stridently criticised Chinese aggression, including in Ladakh.

A putative Biden administration is expected to be a little more accommodative of China, and might shift its geopolitical focus away from the Indo-Pacific to some extent.

Some Democrats have criticised the government’s moves on Jammu and Kashmir, and its Hindutva-based politics. These issues have the potential to cause friction between India and a Biden administration.

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