The East Asia Institute (EAI) hosted a virtual seminar on “2020 U.S. Presidential Election Prospects” as the first online event of the New World Order after COVID-19 series. The session hosted University of California at Berkeley’s Professor Paul Pierson, the John Gross Endowed Chair and Professor of Political Science, and Professor Taeku Lee, the George Johnson Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science, as speakers, and was moderated by Professor Yul Sohn, President of EAI and Professor at Yonsei University. The participants discussed a range of topics including the trend of democratic backsliding in the United States, COVID-19’s prospective impacts on election outcomes, and the structural elements pertaining to the presidential election.


Date & Time: May 15, 2020 (Friday), 10:00 - 11:30 KST


Speakers:     Paul Pierson (John Gross Endowed Chair and Professor of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley)
                     Taeku Lee (George Johnson Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley)

Moderator:    Yul Sohn (President, EAI; Professor, Yonsei University)

Discussants:   Chaesung Chun (Chair, National Security Research Center, EAI; Professor, Seoul National University)
                    Byoung Kwon Sohn (Professor, Chung-Ang University)



※ A brief analysis of the virtual seminar is provided below. For the full transcript, please download the PDF file at the bottom of this page.


I. Executive Summary


Challenges Outweighing Trump’s Structural Advantages?

  • The political dysfunction that has been on display in the United States is unfortunately not just a one-off experience. It is reflective of deep challenges and problems facing American society and the American political system in particular that really hang over this presidential election. Political scientists have to be humble about predicting presidential elections because the United States never experienced an election against backdrop this time of economic and social crisis ranging from unemployment rate to public health crisis.
  • There is an enormous uncertainty in this upcoming election because President Trump has both advantages and disadvantages. The important structural advantages in the upcoming elections might include his ability to control and direct the conversation and attention of media, and electoral college, whereas his disadvantages lie in his low approval rating. On balance, Paul Pierson considers President Trump to be an underdog attributing to the idea that those challenges at least somewhat outweigh the structural advantages Trump has.
  • Both Professor Lee and Professor Pierson do not think that neither will Trump cast China as his enemy nor will there be a big rise in anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. in the coming years as there is not incentive strong enough for Trump to do that. This can be illustrated by a polling that only a small percentage of Americans have picked up this language calling “COVID-19” the China virus or the Wuhan virus.


How Far Has Democratic Backsliding Gone?

  • The 2020 election is unlikely to be a typical election in which we can rely on the political science forecasting models or polling aggregator predictions for two essential reasons which is (1) the forecasting models will not be useful given that Trump is an uncommonly effective disruptor of political norms and institutions and (2) the U.S. is increasingly vulnerable to “October Surprises”.
  • The United States is polarized in a way that two political parties that are organized on a national level are coherent national political entities, where the same kind of cleavages work all the way from the top to all the way down to the locations all around the United Sates. Rhetoric and behaviors suggest that people see the other side as not just their opponents but their threat, which is especially true on the political right, where Republican political elites and the interest within the party have resorted to increasingly intense, extreme appeals, and particularly white working class voters.
  • Concerning the influence of American white working class nationalism in the upcoming election, Professor Pierson sees the Republican party shift in the direction of bolstering its appeals to economically downscale voters, pulling back from trying to expand the racial diversity of the party coalitions and Professor Lee adds to the point that President Trump moved himself from white, working class nationalism “as a strategy” to “as an identity”. 


What if Democracy is Not the Only Game in Town?

  • The upcoming election should be understood by how the fundamental elements of American politics, its institutions, identities and information are currently operating and evolving. In terms of institutions, the U.S. is currently undergoing major changes in that the Republican Party moves from being the Grand Old Party to so-called Party of Trump and that the Democratic Party is on the threshold of a deep divide between a Clinton-Obama-Biden Old Guard and Sanders-Warren-Ocasio-Cortez. In terms of identities and ideologies, the cleavage lines in American politics are becoming redrawn along Pro-Trump or Anti-Trump axis. Lastly, in terms of information, mediating institutions that inform the public and adjudicate facticity have been under assault.
  • Professor Lee suggests four possible scenario that might happen in the 2020 election and points out that there is a possibility in which the Biden win and Trump refuses to accept that outcome or the vice versa. Given the scenarios, he argues that it can happen where the U.S. constitutional electoral democracy becomes under threat and where there will be a strong impetus to return to pre-Trump normalcy.


Implications to South Korea

  • As Biden thinks of himself as relatively advantageous in foreign policy and if he is elected, the U.S foreign policy is likely to be rearranged in a way that is similar to that of Obama and Clinton.
  • If going back to pre-Trump normalcy scenario is the case, especially for countries like South Korea, the U.S. will be a reliable ally, a regular trade partner, and a global leader. Additionally, there is expectation that new American administration will put more emphasis on the importance of alliance and revitalizing the importance of multilateralism. ■



Paul Pierson is the John Gross Professor of Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He is an active commentator on public affairs, whose writings have appeared in such outlets as The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and The New Republic. He has served on the editorial boards of The American Political Science Review, Perspectives on Politics, and The Annual Review of Political Science. He has also served as Chair of the Berkeley political science department. His research focuses on the fields of American politics and public policy, comparative political economy, and social theory. He is the co-author (with Jacob S. Hacker) of the forthcoming Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality. Earlier books include Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Abandoned the Middle Class (2010), co-authored by Jacob Hacker, and Politics in Time: History, Institutions and Social Analysis (2004). He also authored Dismantling the Welfare State? Reagan, Thatcher, and the Politics of Retrenchment (1994), which won the American Political Science Association's 1995 prize for the best book on American national politics, and “Path Dependence, Increasing Returns and the Study of Politics,” which won the APSA’s prize for the best article in the American Political Science Review in 2000, as well as the Aaron Wildavsky Prize in 2011.


Taeku Lee is George Johnson Professor of Law and Professor Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He is co-Principal Investigator of the National Asian American Survey, co-Principal Investigator of the Bay Area Poverty Tracker, and Managing Director of Asian American Decisions. He also serves on the National Advisory Committee for the U.S. Census Bureau and has previously served as member of the Board of Overseers of the American National Election Studies, member of the Board of Overseers of the General Social Survey, Treasurer and the Executive Council member for the American Political Science Association, Department Chair at Berkeley, and Associate Director of the Haas Institute at Berkeley. His research focuses on racial and ethnic politics, public opinion and survey research, identity and inequality, and deliberative and participatory democracy. His recent publications include the Oxford Handbook of Racial and Ethnic Politics in the United States (2015) and Asian American Political Participation (2011).


Yul Sohn is the president of EAI and a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. He received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. He previously served as the dean of Yonsei University GSIS, president of the Korean Association of International Studies, and president of the Korean Studies of Contemporary Japan. His research focuses on the Japanese and international political economy, East Asian regionalism, and public diplomacy. His recent publications include Japan and Asia's Contested Order (2018, with T.J. Pempel), and Understanding Public Diplomacy in East Asia (2016, with Jan Melissen).


Byoung Kwon Sohn is a professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Chung-Ang University in Seoul, Korea. He teaches American Politics, American Foreign Policy, and Party and Legislative Politics as a subdivision of Comparative Politics. He got both BA and MA degrees from the Department of International Relations, Seoul National University, and Ph.D. from Department of Political Science, the University of Michigan, majoring in American Politics. He published several books and articles, including Climate Change and the Dilemma for the U.S. Hegemony (2012, written in Korean), Is U.S. Congressional Politics Still a Model to Follow? The U.S. Congress Captured by Partisan Politics (2018, written in Korean), “The Superdelegate Reform in 2018 in the Context of Democratic Party's Delegate Reform History” (2019, written in Korean).


Chaesung Chun is the chair of the National Security Research Center at the East Asia Institute, and a professor of the department of political science and International relations at Seoul National University. He received his Ph.D. in international relations from Northwestern University. He serves on the policy advisory committee to the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Unification. His main research interests include international political theory, the ROK-U.S. alliance, and Korean Peninsular affairs. He is the co-author of The Korean War: Threat and Peace, and the author of a number of publications including Are Politics Moral and International Politics in East Asia: History and Theory.



■ For inquiries: Sea Young Kim, Research Associate/Project Manager

                     02 2277 1683 (ext. 208) I


The East Asia Institute takes no institutional position on policy issues and has no affiliation with the Korean government. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion contained in its publications are the sole responsibility of the author or authors.

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