Amid the cascade of political stories coming out of Washington, one thing Jerusalem needs to keep in mind when evaluating incoming information is that there are still 126 days before the November 3 US presidential election.
One hundred and twenty-six days. More than four months. In political terms, that is an eternity.
Just look at all that has happened in the last four months in the US: a pandemic that has so far killed nearly 130,000 Americans, fundamentally altered daily life and sunk the economy; and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which triggered massive demonstrations, uncovered wounds going back centuries and sparked a culture war the likes of which has not been seen in the US since the 1960s.
And it is important for Israeli policy makers to keep the time left before the election in mind when evaluating reports such as a recent New York Times poll that showed presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden with a 14% lead over US President Donald Trump, as well as when they read reports – like the one that appeared Monday on the Fox News website – saying that Republican operatives are talking about the possibility that the president will drop out of the race if he continues to sink in the polls, making way for another Republican candidate to take his place.
Israeli policy makers are currently facing the dramatic decision as to whether or not Israeli law should be extended to up to 30% of the West Bank envisioned remaining under Israeli control under the Trump peace plan. One factor in deciding whether to go forward with annexation is the likelihood that Trump will serve another term.
If the president wins in November, it is fair to say that he would not object to Israel annexing territory under the terms stipulated in his plan. But if his opponent wins – who has clearly come out against such a move – then annexing now would set up the likelihood of an unpleasant showdown with a President Biden in the near future.
That makes the outcome of this election very important to Israel.
Trump, even his most ardent supporters admit, has had an awful last four months. If in February it looked like he could cruise to an easy victory on the wings of a supercharged economy and because he was running against a candidate who did not engender much enthusiasm among the Democratic base, today the situation looks fundamentally different.
The president’s ham-handed handling of both corona and the demonstrations and riots in America’s streets have hurt him. Even a strong Trump supporter such as Fox’s Tucker Carlson last week said there was a real possibility that he could lose.
A New York Times/Siena College poll last week found that Biden was leading Trump nationally by 14 points – 50% to 36% – with his lead among women voters at 22 points.
Just reading the polls, therefore, Israeli decision makers should conclude that Trump will not return to office and draw the necessary conclusions regarding annexation from that.
But, as the last elections in the US proved beyond a doubt, and which has also been true in Israeli elections as well over the years, polling is a very inexact science.
For example, in 2016, according to an ABC tracking poll taken not four months ahead of the elections but only some two weeks before the balloting, Trump’s rival at the time, Hillary Clinton, held a 12-point lead over him, 50% to 38%. That poll was taken after the final presidential debate, and it showed Clinton with a walloping 20% lead among women.
The results are known: Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million voters, but Trump took the Electoral College victory and marched into the White House.
The New York Times poll was taken a few days after Trump had a rally in Tulsa that the media said was a large disappointment because – contrary to pre-rally boasts by the Trump campaign team – Trump failed miserably in trying to fill the arena.
And while far fewer people than Trump would have liked to see in the seats showed up for the rally, Fox News, which broadcasted the long rally in its entirety, had its highest-ever rating for a Saturday-night show, with an estimated 7.7 million people tuning in.
Yes, he may have only had some 6,200 people watching in person, but millions of others – more than 12 million if figures for those watching on live stream provided by the Trump campaign are to be believed – watched from their living rooms. In that sense, the rally should not be seen as a complete disaster.
And just as poll numbers at this point need to be digested with a healthy dose of skepticism, so too should reports that Trump may pull a surprise akin to that done by then president Lyndon Baines Johnson when he withdrew from the presidential race in 1968 just seven months before the election.
On Monday, Fox Business Network correspondent Charles Gasparino tweeted that “GOP operatives” were raising the possibility that Trump would drop out of the race if his polling numbers don’t rebound significantly, something vehemently denied by the Trump campaign.
For some Israel supporters, those tweets – as far-fetched as they seem – sent them wondering about the possibility of a Nikki Haley candidacy. That same Haley who defended Israel passionately during her stint as ambassador to the United Nations; that same Haley whose name was bandied about in recent weeks as a possible replacement for Vice President Mike Pence, in part, to shore up his standing among women voters.
Both Trump’s bad poll numbers and the reports that he may step down entered into the Israeli news cycle, and they are being digested by those in Jerusalem who now need to make a decision on extending Israeli sovereignty, based partly on an assessment of who will be sitting in the White House come January 21. Hopefully, the intelligence and political assessments they are getting are made of much stronger stuff.