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11 March 2020, Gateway House

The Sanders-Biden contest

As part of our weekly series of podcasts in the run-up to the U.S. elections, in this episode on the first month of the Democratic Party’s primaries, Ambassador Neelam Deo, Director and Co-founder of Gateway House, on Biden’s candidature, how the U.S. appears still unready for a woman president and why the Indian American community, which has traditionally voted Democrat, may be ambivalent this time

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Alexander Webb (AW): Welcome to the Gateway House podcast. This is Alexander Webb, intern at Gateway House. I’m joined today by Ambassador Neelam Deo, Director and Co-founder of Gateway House. Today’s episode is on the Democratic Party’s primaries. This is part of a weekly series of podcasts that we will host in a lead-up to the elections in November. Today’s questions will be devoted to the first month of the Democratic primaries and what to expect in the weeks to come. So Neelam, what has surprised you most in the first month of voting? What are the main trends so far?

Neelam Deo (ND): I was surprised at how little things have changed since the 2016 elections in the United States.

Just like Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren has been punished for being a woman, but also for her intelligence, her obvious competence, and actually for having had a number of policy proposals well worked out, including how they will be funded – just as Hillary Clinton had done four years ago. So clearly, America is not ready for a woman president, which is a great pity because its choice does have a global resonance.

The second surprising feature is that although we live in a time of rising inequality, Bernie Sanders is being punished for declaring himself a socialist. Inequality is being frequently discussed, not only in think tanks, but also in ordinary people’s conversations. One thought the definition of ‘socialism’ had moved toward a fairer and more compassionate political system in the richest country in the world. But no, he is still being indicted for being a socialist.

And one of the most pernicious elements in this election – as in the 2016 one – is to call in Russia to take the blame for everything, including wanting to have Sanders as the next president. Is this true? I think there’s no longer any neutral or fair way to find out what is.

Interesting also is the fact that despite the felt urgency of all Democrats to defeat Trump, the sitting president, they seem to have settled for an old person who does not in any way reflect a more diverse and youthful demographic, even in the United States. Biden is a moderate at a time of extraordinary political polarisation, which may be a good thing, but not necessarily so, and who calls his campaign “a movement”. That is not enough because I think he’s going to need a lot of the young, passionate voters who supported Bernie Sanders and a big chunk of the Latino vote, which is how Bernie Sanders won California in a Super Tuesday when, in fact, he didn’t win many other of the 14 states up for grabs.

Another interesting, if not necessarily a surprising, aspect of this election was that everyone has known, and spoken for a while, about how Trump will actually trash Biden’s candidature by recalling the whole scandal around the Ukraine, the fact that Biden’s son was on the board of Burisma, an energy company in the Ukraine, an investigation into which has already begun.

There were also stories going around that the younger Biden had been on the board of a Chinese company, all of them paying very large amounts for accepting those board positions. So, these are

issues that could really damage Biden’s campaign but nevertheless, the Democratic establishment seems to have chosen to go with what seems the safe, moderate choice.

A trend we should also be looking at is how quickly challengers, such as Mayor Buttigieg, Senator Klobuchar, the billionaire Tom Steyer, and Bloomberg, not only stepped out of the race, but how quickly they endorsed Biden so that he would get the lead over Bernie Sanders. There will, of course, be a lot of money flowing in now because both Bloomberg and Steyer have announced that they will be setting up funds to help finance the Democratic candidates.

I suppose there is now a kind of race already for the vice president’s position. There is a great deal of talk about how Biden must have a woman candidate. There are African American women who are eminently qualified – whether Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams – who have been in the news. Besides, it isn’t only the vice president’s position that will become available. I think with every turnover of a president, there are about 3,000 positions filled, which need the Senate’s confirmation as well.

AW: So, following Super Tuesday, Democrats in Michigan are voting this week. This was a state Bernie Sanders won in 2016. Which other major States that are going to the polls in the forthcoming weeks, such as Florida, Illinois or Ohio, are key to the campaign? What are your predictions for the rest?

ND: Michigan is important for Bernie Sanders, not only because he won it last time, but also because it was one of the three states that more or less sealed the presidential election for President Trump. If Sanders loses Michigan, it will be a hard knock for him.

The other three states coming up next week – Florida, Illinois, Ohio – are all states that Hillary Clinton had won. It’s highly unlikely that Clinton voters will support Bernie Sanders since they believe that he lost her the election last time. I therefore think we will see a further closing of Democratic ranks around Biden. I think it’s also important to remember that even with Michigan settled one way or the other, both Biden and Sanders need many delegates to reach a convention where matters are already settled: so brokered or contested conventions are ruled out. And as of now, Biden has 627 delegates, Sanders 551, but one of them must cross 1,991 to get an uncontested nomination. This is what we will all be watching for.

AW: Finally, what is the Indian diaspora’s level of engagement in these primaries? How has it traditionally voted? Who will the Indian American community support this time?

ND: The vast majority of the Indian American community votes Democrat, but of course, there are many wealthy families which tend to go Republican. However, I think that those who voted for Hillary Clinton last time around are unlikely to abandon the Democratic Party. They will go with whoever becomes the candidate though Indian Americans are not overly enthusiastic for anything that gets labelled as left-wing, and Sanders carrying the socialist label may not enthuse too many of them.

But then, on the other hand, many young Indian Americans are actually quite enthused by the programme that will address issues of inequality, provide a wider medical coverage for the deprived and also forgive student loans. Even though Indian American students tend not to have large loans because Indian American parents are keen to fund their children’s education, they are very cognisant of the problem because they all go to university – 80% of them have undergraduate degrees and go on to acquire postgraduate degrees. So they’re very aware of the problems of young people. And since young people support Bernie Sanders in large numbers, I think this time, how the Indian American community votes may be more interesting, less easy to foretell.

(This podcast was recorded on March 9 prior to the Democratic Party’s primary election in Michigan.)

Produced by Alexander Webb, Aliasger Bootwalla
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