This is Part 2 of my Very British Guide to the US Election. If you missed Part 1, find it here.
So, now that we’ve covered our Civics 101, looking at Congress, the President, voting and the Electoral College, let’s start looking at what’s actually going to happen this year.
Donald Trump vs. ??
Presidents can only serve a maximum of two consecutive terms of 4 years, for a total of 8 years. So, if you’re the incumbent, you get to defend your Presidency once, but as soon as you do win that second term, the clock starts ticking down to the day when you will have to leave the White House. When President Obama won his second term in 2012, Democrats began planning who his potential successor would be, and who would run for the Democrats in 2016. This process resulted in an initial 6 candidates, which then quickly dropped to three before the race even got started as challengers withdrew realising they might not have the support required to actually see the thing through, and eventually to just 2 - Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Just as with winning the Presidency itself, candidates first must win the country over, State by State. They don't call it a Campaign Trail for nothing.
Now, there are already volumes and volumes out there about 2016, so we won’t go into detail here, but by the time Election season came into swing back then, the Democratic Party had a pretty clear cut choice, with two very different candidates and two different paths to go down. Now, this year, the decision is not, at all, so clear for Democrats. When the race started this time around there were twenty nine (29!) candidates, all vying for the nomination. As of today, we’re down to 8. Eight, very different, and sometimes very polarising candidates, each with their own spin on what they feel makes them unique, the best choice for the party, and - ultimately - the person to dethrone Donald Trump. Look out for articles, profiling each of the candidates very soon.
The process of the party working out which person to go forward with is - of course - predictably complex, and is part of the reason why Elections take so long. It isn’t a secret ballot amongst representatives and Senators, or a simple vote of party members. Challengers must campaign in each State, convincing people that they are the right path for their party, and for the country. Just as with winning the Presidency itself, candidates first must win the country over, State by State. They don’t call it a Campaign Trail for nothing. How does this happen? This is where we enter the realm of Caucuses and Primaries.
Caucuses and Primaries
There are two methods by which States choose their Presidential candidates. A Caucus, and a Primary. A State’s Democratic or Republican party organisers will use one method or the other. The vast majority of States use the Primary method for determining the candidate, for either party. Now, I’m kind of focusing on the Democratic race here, because it’s frankly more interesting and there were no viable challengers on the Republican side to challenge Trump this time, but the process is broadly the same for either party. When Donald Trump won the nomination in 2016, he went through the same process our eight intrepid Democrats are going through now.
All bar five States use the Primary method. Primaries are boring and straightforward. You go to a designated polling place, or you mail in your ballot, with your preferred candidate’s box ticked. Votes are counted, there’s a winner. Easy. In some States you must be a registered party member to cast your vote, while in others - where they run ‘Open Primaries’ - you just have to be a citizen. In these States, you could be a card-carrying Republican but you can still have an input into which Democrat might get the nomination, or vice-versa. It is not, at all, unheard of for people to vote strategically, voting for an opposing candidate who they perceive to be less of a threat to the incumbent President.
Now, the other States use the Caucus method. Let’s talk a little bit about that, because, well, it’s… something.
You vote with your feet, in public, via a convoluted merry dance of being enticed into groups by well-meaning ladies with cakes in a hyper-partisan process that can take hours
In a Caucus, registered party members meet at a designated time and place - usually a school auditorium, or a civic hall, and people will form into groups. These groups will each represent a candidate, and it’s everyone’s job to encourage other people to come and join your group, with the aim of forming the largest group. People bring cakes and treats, and it’s all very genteel and wholesome. Group members are then counted, and any group not receiving at least 15% of the available attendees is deemed to be ‘not viable’, there are repeated rounds of caucusing until either all of the non-viable groups are eliminated, or the percentage of non-viables who don’t want to join any other group exceeds everyone else.
So you vote with your feet, in public, via a convoluted merry dance of being enticed into groups by well-meaning ladies with cakes in a hyper-partisan process that can take hours. This also raises the very real question of accessibility to these Caucuses - they’re usually held in the afternoons, with a hard closing time of 7pm. You can’t just ‘pop in’ and cast a vote passively - it’s a proper investment in time, which is something many working families, shift-workers and others just cannot afford.
Once a winner is established, counts are notarised and then submitted up the chain. This happens in hundreds, if not thousands, of local district offices all over the state. It is an out-dated process that is time consuming and fraught with the possibility for error. It is little wonder most States have abandoned Caucuses in favour of Primaries.
The Order of Events
When I said before that it was Election Season, it wasn’t just hyperbole. Like real seasons, the start of Election Season can be tracked on a predictable and reliable cadence: Election Season starts, as it has done for nearly the last half-century, in January or February, in Iowa, and it ends in November with someone being elected as President of the United States of America.
Somewhere has to go first, and Iowa is it. This means that candidates spend an inordinate amount of their resources and time focusing their campaigning efforts on this one, rural, midwestern State. Finishing on top in Iowa is a major boost to any candidate’s cause, and can start a domino effect whereby other states start to also fall in line behind the leading candidate. It’s a validation of the candidate’s rhetoric and a pulse-check on what the nation is thinking. I mean, it could be. Or it could be what a population that are 90% white, not college educated and strongly religious think. It’s an opinion that’s probably not really very representative of the general population.
This is all compounded by the fact that Iowa runs a Caucus, which, as discussed - can be difficult to partake in if one has a job, or children, or any kind of disability, or even an adversity to making your political feelings known in public. Adding even more fuel to the fire is that immediately following Iowa, the next State to make their pick is New Hampshire, which is only even more white (93%), very affluent (New Hampshire has the 7th highest median household income) and well educated. As it stands, a relatively small group of very white folk get to give the election its kick-start. In a country as diverse as America, this is pretty ridiculous.
So Where are We Today?
At this point in the 2020 game, both of the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are done and dusted, and candidates are looking forward to this weekend’s Nevada Caucuses and there have been some extremely interesting results.
Pete has slid into this race by pitching himself as a moderate, able to reach across the divides, and it seems to be a message that hit home, hard, in Iowa
Prior to the Iowa Caucus, former Vice President, Joe Biden was considered to be the front-runner, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren nipping closely at his heels, with the rest of the candidates considered to be outside bets, fringe players at most. Biden was so strongly thought of as the most likely candidate that, as we all found out, Donald Trump attempted to extort Ukraine into digging dirt on him and his family, so that he could attempt to besmirch his campaign. At this stage, it looks like he needn’t have bothered.
The Iowa caucus was not won by Joe Biden. Or Bernie Sanders, or even Elizabeth Warren. It was won, by a hair’s breadth, by Pete Buttigieg. “Who the heck is Pete Buttygig?" Well, quite, and I want to talk about the candidates in detail in future articles, but Pete has slid into this race by pitching himself as a moderate, able to reach across the divides, and it seems to be a message that hit home, hard, in Iowa. Bernie Sanders finished second, Warren third, and favourite Joe a distant 4th with only 15.8% of the vote.
The story in New Hampshire was even more interesting. Bernie Sanders has been a Representative in the House and a Senator for neighbouring state Vermont, since 1991. Before then, he was Mayor of Burlington, the largest city in Vermont. If you were to look at New Hampshire and Vermont on a map, you’d see the two states together are basically a rectangle, bisected diagonally by the Connecticut River. If these two states were in the Eurovision Song Contest they’d be like Belgium and the Netherlands, giving each other douze points every time. Bernie was a shoo-in to win New Hampshire. He won over Hillary Clinton in 2016 by over 22%, or about 60,000 votes.
Bernie did win New Hampshire, but he won by a margin of just 1.3%, with Pete Buttigieg closely behind him. What was even more astounding was that in third place, with a more than respectable 19.8% of the vote was Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, whose campaign before Iowa was looking about as viable as building a car out of jelly and ice cream. Klobuchar, like Buttigieg, is picking up the pace with moderate Democrats who’re skeptical of Bernie’s progressive policy agenda and Biden’s now-percieved weakness. These are not the results pollsters were predicting, and it’s making for an exciting race.
The Elephant in the Room
There is an important candidate that I’ve not mentioned yet. Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg has chosen to lay low during the first couple of contests - not even registering for the opening handful of them, not appearing on the ballots - and is instead concentrating on a wide ranging, media-focused blanket attack on the entire country, ready for ‘Super Tuesday’.
I do not think I’m exaggerating when I say that it feels like every third TV advert right now is an ‘Elect Michael Bloomberg’ ad. Bloomberg has an enormous fortune, and is pouring huge sums of money into his campaign, buying up advertising slots and space all over the country. This is leading, rather predictably, to accusations of him trying to ‘buy the nomination’, but his rising polling numbers do seem to be suggesting that his tactic might be working. Polls though, as we all know, are often unreliable.
We really have no idea what his introduction to the race will do at this point. There are very real and troubling questions about his policies as Mayor of New York City, and of his conduct around women, but, as history has told us, this kind of thing hasn’t been too much of a problem for the incumbent President, so….
Well, that about brings us up to speed. I think. The next big event will be Saturday’s Nevada caucus, I hope to have some words out before then, if anyone’s interested. Are you? Let me know on Twitter.