2020 Election Issues

While presidential elections in the United States depend to a great degree on the personalities of the Republican and Democratic candidates, each election has a distinct set of issues on which said candidates have specific positions. Some issues remain pivotal from one election to the next, while others depend on the electorate’s interests and objective conditions in election years. But domestic policy issues supersede those in foreign policy generally, especially in peace times; i.e., when the United States is not involved in a foreign war such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq that occupied different administrations since 2001. There also are differences in how important some constituencies see some issues versus others and where they expect their candidate to stand on them.

The 2020 presidential election has its own set of issues about which candidates have either already formulated their opinions or are in the process of doing so. The field of candidates itself is by no means fully decided. While the incumbent, President Donald Trump, enjoys widespread support among Republicans and is expected to receive his party’s nomination for a second term, three other Republicans have announced their intention to challenge him. They are former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, former Representative from Illinois Joe Walsh, and former Governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford. (The latter withdrew his nomination on November 121.) The Republican parties in the states of Kansas, South Carolina, and Nevada have cancelled their primaries and announced that their delegates will be committed to supporting President Trump. While permissible, such cancellation may be seen as a direct assault on democratic practices because they assure the president of a certain number of delegates without giving other candidates the chance to compete for them.2

On the Democratic side, there are about twenty challengers to Trump vying for their party’s nomination, but the field is expected to shrink soon. On September 12, ten Democratic candidates were qualified according to agreed rules to participate in a debate in Houston,3 the third such debate among Democrats in this round. Two other debates were held in October in Ohio and November in Georgia, respectively.4 More will be held next November and beyond. There obviously will be a lot of withdrawals from the field between now and the primaries that begin in February. Those withdrawals would pave the way for a less crowded primary season when both Republican and Democratic candidates sharpen their views about the issues in the election and begin to harness delegates in their respective nominating conventions. Democrats are holding their convention in Milwaukee, WI, on July 13-16 while the Republicans hold theirs in Charlotte, SC, on August 24-27.

The issues in the 2020 presidential contest are divided into domestic- and foreign-related, with the former dominating discussions because of the electorate’s concern about internal affairs affecting their wellbeing. Domestic issues are variegated and include political, economic, social, and environmental issues while foreign ones relate to national security, alliances, and military engagements, among others. This paper will look at these issues and point out the general and main differences between the Republicans and the Democrats. Limited space disallows a detailed exposition of individual candidates’ positions both because the campaign has not officially begun and the identities of the candidates cannot be ascertained at this stage in the process.

An Overarching Issue

Whatever the array of issues candidates tackle in the upcoming election, one overarching one that has never appeared previously is the person of the incumbent, Donald Trump. His abrasive political style, his lack of knowledge of the issues facing a sitting president of the United States, and his overwhelmingly unorthodox way of governing make him a target of his Republican challengers who think he has taken over their party and betrayed its principles.5 During the 2016 campaign, Trump’s behavior, ideological utterings, ignorance of policy matters, and opinions about social and economic issues dear to the conservative Republican Party, sent shivers down the spines of the party’s hierarchy and leaders. Many (known as the Never Trumpers) refused to be part of his campaign or to join his administration after he won. Many continue to have a very negative opinion of him after more than two and a half years of his presidency when his narcissism and ignorance became well-known.

Trump is also a target of all the Democratic candidates who, despite having many policy differences, have coalesced around the slogan of defeating Donald Trump at all costs. Indeed, issues of domestic policy and foreign affairs pale in comparison to the task of removing him from office, not only because of policy differences but also because of what they see as the shame of having him lead the United States. It is not inaccurate to say that his Republican challengers have the same general reasoning for their attempt to deprive him of a second term. But Democrats are much more concerned about unseating him because of the policy preferences he has espoused, proposed, and put into effect. The latest such issue was his decision——taken without much consultation with his advisors––to allow Turkey to take over areas of northeastern Syria that were controlled by what Democrats and Republicans consider American allies, the Kurdish-led Democratic Syrian Forces.6

Domestic Policy Issues

These run the gamut––political, economic, social, and environmental––on which all seekers of public office must have a position lest they miss out on the pulse of the electorate, or portions thereof. And in the current atmosphere of increased knowledge and exposure, politicians find themselves in search of the latest data and scientific information on whatever issue in which the electorate shows interest. Granted, the current round of presidential elections in the United States suffers from a large deficit on the Republican side, with the presumed nominee, Donald Trump, lacking basic knowledge of the issues and finding a respectable following among the electorate who do not see that to be a deficit and are still very likely to vote for him.

Indeed, Trump’s ignorance of the issues and his political base’s loyalty to his person almost force whatever nominee the Democrats choose to run against him in November 2020 to emphasize slogans, charisma, and bravado instead of policy expertise. To be sure, Rick Wilson, an anti-Trump Republican, advised the Democrats in an op-ed not to challenge the president with knowledge of the issues, because that message will be lost on Trump’s supporters. Instead, according to Wilson, they better emphasize an easy slogan that can grab the attention of voters and forget about detailed policy papers.7 Nevertheless, and however Trump runs his campaign, issues remain important in a presidential election to choose the chief executive officer of the premier economic and political power in the world.

Of the pivotal political issues in the upcoming election are those related to the obvious and serious schism between Trump and his supporters, on the one hand, and his detractors, on the other, who include not only Democrats but also independents and others. This schism has helped the development of a political and social division between Americans that threatens the principles of openness in American political culture. The schism also puts in sharp relief the future battle about control of state institutions in the American republic, not only on the federal level but also on the state and local levels. Trump’s behavior since his entering the White House has betrayed a latent autocratic tendency in the president that puts American democracy in jeopardy and threatens to subvert its most basic principles. In other words, the concern in the next election is that Trump may win another four-year term during which he may completely subvert the institutional makeup of American democracy; a prospect in whose shadow Democrats and others live.

The president also demands utmost loyalty to his person from his supporters and from all Republican officials and legislators whom he considers to be one of his lines of defense against critics. Such has been the case with many instances of presidential malfeasance the latest of which is the so-called Ukrainegate. In a telephone conversation with Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden, a strong Democratic presidential challenger, and his son for alleged corruption, in exchange for releasing military assistance approved by the US Congress and Department of Defense. This last episode has led to an ongoing investigation by the House of Representatives that is most likely going to lead to his impeachment and possible removal from office if a two-thirds majority approves that in the Senate.8 After a series of hearings behind closed doors in the House, the chamber began to hold public hearings on the Ukraine affair.

One other issue that has deep political and social import is that related to immigration. Immigrants coming into the United States and their US-born children form more that 25 percent of the US population. They can be undocumented and legal immigrants, but their contribution to the US economy is indisputable.9 Immigration can be seen through different perspectives and understood in political and social terms. First, there is a general trend among Republican politicians and supporters against allowing more immigrants into the United States, while Democrats, also generally, look at immigration positively and encourage it. There also is a political angle to the issue: immigrants are mostly minority populations from developing countries looking to better their lives. The majority among them who can vote normally elect Democrats, thus the Republican general position regarding them.

Second, the issue of immigration provides a populist platform for President Trump to declare to his base––overwhelmingly white––that he is trying to protect the United States as a “white” nation.10 For that, he is using the power of state institutions to ban immigrants from some Muslim countries, limit the number of immigrants from Latin America, and build a physical barrier (wall) on the US-Mexico border. He also has justified the policies of separating children from their families, incarcerating immigrants and children in cages, and deporting those back to the countries they left. Democrats, on the other hand, have objected to these policies but have not been able to propose an effective plan to regulate immigration, although both they and the Republicans have had many agreements before on doing just that.

Third, from a utilitarian angle, Trump uses immigration as a tool to rile up his supporters at political rallies and to remind them that he is protecting them against the threat of becoming victims in a multicultural society. Statistics show that immigration has fallen precipitously in 2018 from 2017 levels,11 and yet the president keeps bringing the issue up in his rallies as if there is an actual invasion taking place. By doing so, he has stoked the spirit of divisiveness in American society that reflects on other important issues and, specifically, helps him monopolize the support of a sizeable segment of the population for his re-election.

There also are other social issues that will be prominent in the 2020 presidential election. Gun control has become a defining issue in political relations as well, with Democrats generally supporting putting limits on gun ownership and enforcing background checks on gun owners and Republicans resisting what they call infringing on their personal liberties. A Quinnipiac poll in May 2019 found that a solid majority of Americans in general, 61 percent, supports stricter gun laws; but when examined by looking at political persuasion, the chasm is wide. Ninety-one percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents support tougher laws but only 32 percent of Republicans do. Republicans keep talking about the Second Amendment to the US Constitution (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”) as justifying gun ownership. Still, despite their openness to gun laws, Democrats differ on how to do it.12

Other important social issues that impact the election––but to varying degrees depending on different constituencies in the different states––include education and its funding.13 The Trump Administration has emphasized funding for private schools at the expense of public schools and has been generally friendly with for-profit institutions. Health insurance coverage and Medicare (government-covered medical care) are also hot-topic issues with candidates formulating the most voter-appealing policies possible,14 civil and voting rights (access to and exercise of voting rights are serious issues in some Republican-leaning states)15 have become more of a priority since 2017. Discrimination and gender issues, a woman’s right to choose (abortion),16 criminal justice reform,17 recreational drug use,18 and religion and its observance have also become more important than before.19

Additionally, the environment is increasingly becoming a hot button issue in presidential campaigns as more Americans, especially the youth, become aware of the challenges facing it locally, nationally, and internationally. What is increasing the saliency of the topic is the Trump Administration’s current policies regarding regulations of chemicals, water and air quality, treatment of national parks, general emissions standards, and other concerns. There is a clear retrenchment over the last three years of the administration from old laws and regulations and the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal institution in charge of the environment, appears to have become more political than neutral. In fact, many Republicans are worried that not enough attention to the environment and administration policies negatively impacting it will hurt them in the upcoming elections.20 This is especially concerning because surveys have shown young Republicans to be worried about the environment.21

Alongside these social issues, there are serious economic concerns on which Republicans and Democrats differ, not only in the current cycle but over past decades. While the overall economy is doing well, income inequality is still a persistent concern, especially for the middle class which is the pivotal voting bloc for both parties and all candidates.22 Issues such as trade and Trump’s using it as a tool in foreign policy have become very important for voters since his threats to impose tariffs on imported goods mean that other countries will do the same in retaliation, thus affecting American exports. Such is the case today with agricultural exports to China, for instance.23 Budget deficits also figure prominently in the elections, as it is close to $1 trillion in fiscal 2019.24 As do taxes, assured employment, home ownership and housing affordability, factory closings, infrastructure projects, minimum wage considerations, and investment levels and amounts.

Foreign Policy Issues

The apparent polarization on domestic issues between Democrats and Republicans––a reality that will have a major impact on the 2020 elections––has increasingly become a fact on foreign policy issues. The main reason has been the Republicans’ near-unanimity on supporting President Trump in whatever he endeavors. The Republicans reason that any critique of the president on foreign policy will translate into weakening him domestically, although the American electorate has traditionally given scant attention to external affairs in presidential elections.

One essential foreign policy issue that both has an intricate relation with domestic practices and impacts national security is that derived from the fear that Russia will once again interfere in the 2020 elections as it did in 2016. The Trump Administration, supported by Republican Party leaders in Congress, has not done enough to protect voting systems and strengthen cyber capabilities to interrupt outside interference. Cyber experts and politicians (specifically Democrats) worry that voting systems in the United States are insecure.25 They contend that the president and his supporters in the political system are practically inviting said interference because he does not have enough popular support to fairly win the election.

One issue that combines domestic and foreign policy concerns is that related to how the United States is responding to the problems facing the global environment. The administration has made its stance known on such issues as climate change since its early days (indeed since Trump announced his candidacy in 2015). But the latest such position came with the president declaring his administration’s beginning the steps to completely withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords.26 As Trump insists on abandoning the international consensus on the issue, Democrats find themselves with a very potent weapon to fight him, especially that even Republican-leaning young voters are increasingly worried about the environment.27

Another issue in foreign policy that has beset the Trump Administration and will be important in the 2020 election is that related to the United States’ relations with its allies, in NATO and other international organizations, as well as with individual nations. The trouble with relations with allies has worried the national security and foreign policy establishments since Trump’s cavalier treatment of close friends has reflected badly on their support for American positions and leadership.28 His penchant for authoritarian leaders (Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung-Un, Sisi, among others) has sent chilling signals to democratic forces around the world that they can no longer rely on American support (which, at any rate, was conditional on whether that support helps US interests.)29

There is no expectation that American foreign policy in the Middle East this election cycle will see radical change in how candidates address the region and its many issues. Generally speaking, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will still be evaluated roughly through the usual prism of Israeli security, especially by President Trump. The Republican Party’s embrace of Israel has both a political angle, rightwing politics, and a religious flavor in that the evangelical community in the United States––the core constituency of the party––sees Israel as a fulfillment of a prophecy.30 There is likely to be some variation on the Democratic side as to Palestinian rights and Israeli transgressions from such candidates as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and others, but they are unlikely to make that a central argument in their campaigns––most specifically because foreign policy is not a high election issue. Having said that, it is important to point out that there has been a noticeable and positive shift in Democratic Party voters’ stance on Palestinian rights, a situation that promises changes for the future.31

American relations with the Arab world and the Arabian Gulf states also are unlikely to see much debate except for the occasional criticism of the Trump Administration’s approach to the issues of rights and freedoms––it does not criticize Arab regimes on that count. Democrats also have a negative view of the way Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have conducted the war in Yemen and have dealt with internal dissent. Democrats also continue to decry Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for the assassination of Saudi Journalist, and Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.32 In fact, Republicans have had the same kind of criticism for Saudi Arabia, and have voted with Democrats regarding Khashoggi;33 but they tend to support the president on some issues related to US-Saudi relations.

Conclusion

Much of the American presidential campaigns revolve around the personalities of the different candidates, Republicans and Democrats, and the way they conduct themselves. In other words, image is important. What has been termed ‘electability’ in the American lexicon has also become important. There are certain qualities that make a candidate ‘electable’ while others make him/her less so. Still, issues, where candidates stand on them, and how they convey their convictions are important, especially for that portion of the electorate that thinks in ideological terms, such the rightist members of the Christian evangelical community in the country or the young. Additionally, certain issues are more important than others, but domestic issues are usually more salient that foreign policy. What is certain, however, is that the 2020 presidential election may shape up to be the one cycle where the person of the incumbent, Donald J. Trump, is the most important issue of all.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

1 Kerry Picket, “Mark Sanford drops out of presidential race,” The Washington Post, 12/11/2019 (accessed 18/11/2019 at https://washex.am/37lutQZ).
2 Eleanor Watson, “Republicans in three states cancel presidential nominating contests for 2020,” CBS News, 9/9/2019 (accessed 13/9/2019 at https://cbsn.ws/2k5JfaR).
3 Toluse Olorunnipa, Annie Linskey, and Matt Viser, “Democrats clash over health care and more in debate that started with calls for unity,” The Washington Post, 13/9/2019 (accessed 13/9/2019 at https://bit.ly/2mfkeuy).a
4 Shane Goldmacher and Reid Epstein, “6 Takeaways from the October Democratic Debate,” The New York Times, 16/10/2019 (accessed 22/10/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2qjhsq8); Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin, “With Impeachment as Backdrop, Democrats Direct Fire at Trump in Debate,” The New York Times, 20/11/2019 (accessed 21/11/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2OCm9ng).
5 Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin, “Trump’s Takeover of the Republican Party Is Almost Complete,” The New York Times, 3/4/2019 (accessed 13/9/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2I8mmgt).
6 Felicia Sonmez, “Trump faces bipartisan criticism for Syria withdrawal,” The Washington Post, 13/10/2019 (accessed 21/10/2019 at https://wapo.st/2MblyZY).
7 Rick Wilson, “Policy papers are a delusion, Democrats. This is a Trump referendum and you’re blowing it,” USA Today, 5/9/2019 (accessed 21/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/2m0pkL4).
8 For a quick rundown of this affair, see Marty Lederman and Benjamin Wittes, “Even Getting Caught Red-Handed Isn’t Enough,” The Atlantic, 30/9/2019 (accessed 23/10/2019 at https://bit.ly/2MDX9MQ).
9 Claire Felter and Danielle Renwick, “The U.S. Immigration Debate,” Council on Foreign Relations, 25/7/2019 (accessed 23/10/2019 at https://on.cfr.org/36auo1W).
10 Jeff Stein and Andrew van Dam, “Trump immigration plan could keep whites in U.S. majority for up to five more years,” The Washington Post, 6/2/2018 (accessed 23/10/2019 at https://wapo.st/2JuLCNR).
11 Sabrina Tavernise, “Immigrant Population Growth in the U.S. Slows to a Trickle,” The New York Times, 26/9/2019 (accessed 23/10/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2qTJF7h).
12 See, for example, Reid Epstein, Maggie Astor, and Thomas Kaplan, “2020 Democrats Demand Gun Control, but Differ on Tactics,” The New York Times, 2/9/2019 (accessed 23/10/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2NkR9HR).
13 See 8 reasons why education may be pivotal in the 2020 election (and beyond) (Brookings)
14 See Why 2020 Democrats are backing off Medicare-for-all, in four charts (WP)
15 See “Anxiety rises among Democrats worried about party’s prospects in 2020” in WP, October 22, 2019.
16 See 3 New Policies From the 2020 Democrats: Policing, LGBT Rights and Voting Rights (NYT)
17 See “Historic Criminal Justice Reforms Begin to Take Effect” in Brennan Center for Justice, 7/25.19
18 See How Cannabis is Shaping the 2020 Presidential Election (Green Entrepreneur)
19 See Poll Offers Tentative Look at How Faith Groups Feel About Democratic Candidates (Huff post)
20 Lisa Friedman, “Climate Could Be an Electoral Time Bomb, Republican Strategists Fear,” The New York Times, 2/8/2019 (accessed 17/11/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2XrLhRQ).
21 Anthony Deutsch, “Surge in young Republicans worried about the environment: survey,” Reuters, 29/8/2019 (accessed 17/11/2019 at https://reut.rs/2r0sOjh).
22 A good and comprehensive look on the US economy is in Kimberly Amaded, “How Is the US Economy Doing?” The Balance, 1/11/2019 (accessed 11/11/2019 at https://bit.ly/2NWR6n2).
23 See, for example, Anita Sharpe, “It’s not just farmers – U.S. exports to China may never recover from trade war,” Los Angeles Times, 17/11/2019 (accessed 18/11/2019 at https://lat.ms/2pyBSvk).
24 Alan Rappeport, “Federal Budget Deficit Swelled to Nearly $1 trillion in 2019,” The New York Times, 26/10/2019 (accessed 18/11/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2KwhLoG).
25 See Cyber Experts Warn of Vulnerabilities Facing 2020 Election Machines (NPR) See also US Sees Russia, China, Iran Trying to Influence 2020 Elections (Bloomberg)
26 Brady Dennis, “Trump makes it official: U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord,” The Washington Post, 4/11/2019 (accessed 12/11/2019 at https://wapo.st/36UqHxH).
27 Anthony Deutsch, “Surge in young Republicans worried about the environment: survey,” Reuters, 29/8/2019 (accessed 12/11/2019 at https://reut.rs/2X8hopr).
28 Julian Barnes and Helene Cooper, “Trump Discussed Pulling U.S. from NATO, Aides Say Amid New Concerns Over Russia,” The New York Times, 14/1/2019 (accessed 12/11/2019 at https://nyti.ms/2O3D0zm).
29 See Nicholas Burns and Douglas Lute, “NATO’s biggest problem is President Trump,” The Washington Post, 2/4/2019 (accessed 12/11/2019 at https://wapo.st/2NFMp0L).
30 Tom Gjelten, “As U.S. Jews Cool to Israel, Evangelicals Flock there as Tourists,” NPR, 25/8/2019 (accessed 18.11.2019 at https://n.pr/2pCXs1O).
31 See, for example, “J Street 2019 Democratic Party and Caucus Voters,” J Street, n.d., (accessed 18.11.2019 at https://bit.ly/2CWSGyW).
32 Mark Hosenbell, “Congressional Democrats call for cuts in U.S. support for Saudi Arabia,” Reuters, 20/11/2019 (accessed 18.11.2019 at https://reut.rs/2XvfFe7).
33 Karoun Demirjian, “Senate votes to condemn Saudi crown prince for Khashoggi killing, end support for Yemen war,” The Washington Post, 13/12/2019 (accessed 18/11/2019 at https://wapo.st/2QuIqGp).