As an American, it often surprises me how little is known about our process for electing a new president. But it shouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know too much about how your president or prime minister is elected either. The U.S. has a uniquely insane method of electing the president. The first voting is just two days away, and I thought I’d provide a brief primer on the process, as well as my thoughts on the state of the race and how I think it will end. Finally, I’ll mention how this election will affect U.S. foreign policy (spoiler alert: it’s going to be bad).
There are two stages to the election. The primaries are when both parties hold elections in each state (and territory) to determine who will face off in the general election -- think of it as the semi-finals. The primary elections start this Monday in Iowa, move to New Hampshire on 9 February, and proceed state-by-state until June. After the parties hold their conventions, the general election will begin with nation-wide voting held on a single day, 8 November.
The rules for the primaries are set by both the parties and the states and the method of voting can vary widely between the states. Iowa and 11 other states use a caucus system. In the Iowa caucuses, candidates must receive at least 15% of the vote within each voting precinct. Other caucus states have different thresholds. If they do not reach the threshold, the other candidates’ supporters can attempt to persuade those voters to change their vote to the candidates with over 15% support. This process can take hours and favors candidates whose supporters are both extremely enthusiastic in their support, and have the time to participate.
Most states have traditional voting via the “ballot box”; yet there is still variety between the states. In some states, only registered members of the party can vote in the party primary (and there are differences between the states regarding how long one must have been a party member, or if you can register at the polling place). For example, a registered Democrat can only vote for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton (or Martin O’Malley; poor Martin O’Malley). In other states, voters may vote for a Republican or for a Democrat, but not both.
The winner of the primaries is the candidate who amasses a majority of delegates at the party nominating convention. The delegates are assigned based on the state-by-state primary results. The Democrats assigned delegates based on the proportion of the vote in each state, with varying thresholds between states. The Republican primaries vary between winner-take-all and proportional systems. In addition to the delegates assigned by the results of the voting, there are other delegates, typically elected officials and party activists, who can vote for whomever they want.
In most election years, the victors are determined well before the primaries end. It is unusual for the process to drag out for months, though this is what happened in 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton battled for months for the Democratic party’s nomination. It is quite likely that 2016 will see both parties’ primaries last through the spring. It is even possible, though I suspect unlikely, that no candidate will get a majority of delegates and the delegates will then be released to vote their conscience.
The General Election
After the nominating conventions, the general election campaign will begin in earnest. The U.S. does not have a one-person, one-vote system; if it did, then Al Gore would have been president. Each state is assigned a number of “electoral votes” and, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, these votes go winner-take-all to the state victor. The presidency is won by amassing 270 electoral votes. If no candidate receives 270 electoral votes than the president is chosen by the House of Representatives, which has a significant Republican majority.
The winner-take-all system of the electoral college assures that most states are uncontested. I live in New York, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2:1. It is virtually impossible to identify a 2016 scenario in which the Democratic candidate will not win New York, and thus there will be no reason for either candidate to campaign here, though every candidate comes to New York City to raise money. I do not ever see political ads on television, and neither do my friends in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Houston, or Dallas. In fact, there are very few states that are contested at all. Ultimately, the presidency will be decided by voters in: Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, and perhaps North Carolina. These are the only states likely to be contested in 2016.
There are 12 Republicans and 3 Democrats competing in the Iowa caucus. It is likely that after the New Hampshire primary on 8 February there will be significantly fewer Republicans and perhaps one fewer Democrat (that would be Martin O’Malley). Yet the ultimate outcome is quite uncertain. The fact that Iowa and New Hampshire always vote first makes them particularly important to candidates; and while Iowa’s track record of predicting the eventual winner is not good, New Hampshire’s is much better, these early states do serve to force candidates with little support out of the race. At this point there are three possible Republican victors and two possible Democratic victors.
Donald Trump is by far the front-runner in the Republican race, as he is quick to remind everyone. However, his ability to win primaries is somewhat unknown -- while he is very popular, his political organization is not as sophisticated as his rivals’ and his ability to get his supporters to the polls is uncertain. There has been so much written about Trump already that I hesitate to write more about him. However, it should be noted that he is far ahead in the polls of likely Republican voters in a few specific states. His xenophobia has a sizable constituency, but to win the presidency requires winning every solidly Republican state along with a collection of “moderate” states and, nationally, Trump is loathed more than supported.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz is another possible Republican nominee. But there are two important things to note about Ted Cruz: 1) he is generally considered a right-wing extremist ideologue; and 2) everyone who knows him personally, hates him. He has not received a single endorsement from a colleague. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole said that Cruz is “a conservative extremist” who “doesn’t have any friends in Congress.” In an unusual twist, the governor of Iowa called for Ted Cruz to be defeated. Senator Lindsay Graham has said that the difference between Cruz and Trump is like the difference between “being shot and being poisoned.”
The only other candidate with a realistic chance of victory is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who speaks eloquently, demonstrates a command of the issues, is liked by colleagues, and appears not to be an outright lunatic. If, and it is a big if, enough other candidates drop out of the race, the party will rally around Senator Rubio in the hopes that he can beat Trump or Cruz. He also has the advantage of being from Florida, the contested state with the most electoral votes. If he wins, he would likely run with Ohio Governor John Kasich, who has no national traction in his quixotic presidential candidacy (he is effectively already “running” for vice president), but is popular in Ohio, the state with the second most electoral votes. This combination would be a formidable challenge for any Democratic nominee. If Trump or Cruz receive the nomination, the Democrat, be it Clinton or Sanders, will win the presidency; if Rubio wins, it will be a close race.
Until recently the Democratic race seemed to be a non-race -- Hillary Clinton seemed inevitable. It seemed that way in 2008, too; and it is this very sense of inevitability that has made her vulnerable. One running joke of this election season is that while the Republican debates have been scheduled in prime time and viewed by tens of millions of people, the Democratic debates were scheduled on Saturday nights and the Sundays of long weekends, presumably because 1) nobody cared and 2) nobody wanted to threaten Hillary’s candidacy.
It has always been likely that her rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, would win in the neighboring state of New Hampshire, where people have been familiar with him for decades; but now the race is extremely close in Iowa, too. Sanders is already raising just as much money as Clinton, and victories in those states would make a Clinton nomination far from inevitable. Sanders has been gaining traction in the polls by relentlessly focusing on domestic economic issues. He is also a far more dynamic and compelling speaker, and while he can come across as angry, his tone seems to appeal to today’s electorate. Secretary Clinton has never been accused of being overly charismatic and is attempting to use pragmatism and carefulness as a selling point, but that is not necessarily what people are craving.
None of the candidates should give you hope for the future of U.S. foreign policy. It is unarguable that Hillary Clinton is the most experienced candidate in this regard; however her tenure as secretary of State was deeply flawed. The Russian “reset,” the intervention in Libya and the handling of the “Arab Spring” in general, and her turn against the TPP, are just a few troubling signs. She also tends to surround herself with loyalists and long-time Democratic party foreign policy experts.
Trump may actually be better on foreign policy than Cruz. He is willing to make deals, albeit “better” ones; whereas Cruz is an unlikeable ideologue, which may not be conducive to good foreign relationships. Marco Rubio’s statements on Cuba are troubling, but he is one of the few candidates who seems to both have the mental capacity to formulate a coherent strategy and the charisma to develop good working relationships with our allies. Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy is completely unknown. His attempts to articulate a Sanders foreign policy have been confusing and incoherent.
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What is your opinion on the US presidential primaries, the campaign and the contenders to take the best starting positions before the November presidential election? Who is going to be the presidential candidate in the Democrat and Republican sides? Join the discussion in the comments section below.