With six months to go, the US election campaign has boiled down to an unprecedented contest that could transform America’s role in the world. Democrat Hillary Clinton, a fixture on the political stage for a quarter-century, is set to face Donald Trump, a brash billionaire real estate mogul who has never held elected office.
The story so far has been one few could have predicted, in which a TV reality star reviled by the Republican Party establishment now has a clear shot at the presidency against the Democratic heir apparent. It promises to be a bitter and unpredictable contest between candidates with starkly different visions for America and its international relations. The future of US immigration laws, military posture and trade policy are at stake. Few gave Trump a chance of success when he declared his candidacy last June. Rivals for the Republican nomination underestimated his appeal and spared him attacks. Yet as Trump’s over-the-top persona and outrageous commentary attracted blanket media coverage, he quickly emerged as the front-runner. He was the most entertaining of the 17 candidates, and appealed to Republican voters disaffected by Washington politics. He tapped into popular anger, particularly among working-class white Americans roused by his blunt talk on stagnant wages, illegal immigration and terrorism. His appeal has not been dented by his disparaging remarks about women, or by international condemnation of his proposals for a wall along the Mexico border and a ban on foreign-born Muslims from entering the US. This is Clinton’s second presidential bid after losing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in 2008. If she secures the nomination, which seems near-certain, she would enjoy significant advantages over Trump. An Associated Press-GfK poll last month showed that while 55 percent of Americans said they had a negative opinion of Clinton, 69 percent said the same of Trump. The Republican’s populist message may appeal to some blue-collar workers, including some Democrats, but he has offended many and polls badly among female voters and Hispanics.
Clinton has her own problems. The anti-establishment sentiment that has fueled Trump’s rise goes beyond Republicans. Long seen as a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, she has struggled to shake off a challenge from veteran lawmaker Bernie Sanders, who has had surprising success for a socialist candidate in the US He has attacked Clinton’s ties to Wall Street and previous support for free trade deals, winning a passionate following, especially among young voters. A controversy over Clinton’s use of a private email server when she ran the State Department has added to perceptions that she is untrustworthy.
The electoral math favors Clinton. US presidential elections are decided not by the popular vote, but by a state-by-state count of electoral votes. Most of the 50 states are predictably Democratic or Republican, so the race can turn on the results in a dozen or so “swing states,” that are less predictable. Democrats had the advantage in those states in the past two elections. Trump maintains his candidacy can shake up the political map, although he lacks solid backing of his own party for fundraising and getting out the vote. Still, few thought he could win the nomination, so it shouldn’t be assumed he can’t win the presidency. Clinton served as Obama’s first secretary of state. She was an architect of administration’s strategic push in Asia, and instrumental in bringing Iran to the negotiating table to rein in its nuclear program. The world powers that most challenge US global pre-eminence, China and Russia, have become more assertive during Obama’s second term, and chaos in the Mideast has intensified. Clinton is seen as more hawkish than Obama, but is unlikely to deviate significantly from current US foreign policy. One area where she publicly differs with Obama is on trade . Candidate Clinton has opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact that she promoted when she was top diplomat.
As with domestic policy, Trump is a wild card. Presidential candidates routinely talk tougher on the campaign trail than in office – and Trump is notoriously flip in his remarks – but his proposals could cause ructions. He has threatened punitive taxes on Chinese imports which could set off a trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. He says TPP is a “disaster.”
More controversially, he has questioned long-standing US alliances in Asia and Europe. He says Japan and South Korea don’t pay enough for US military protection and has suggested they could get nuclear weapons so they rely less on America for defense. He’s also said that the NATO alliance is obsolete and he’d have no problem if it broke up.