With the possible exception of Kanye West’s creative process, there is nothing quite as baffling, drawn-out or complicated as the way Americans elect their President. Consider this; if you wanted to be the occupier of the White House come January 20, 2017, your campaign would officially have to start around 18 months prior. Unofficially, you would have probably spent time sounding out potential supporters, staffers and donors almost immediately after the end of the previous election cycle. In order to be a viable candidate, you need the backing of either several deep-pocketed donors, or millions of people prepared to donate to your cause (or both). Once this is all sorted, you then spend months doorknocking, shaking hands and holding rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire…and it could be all for naught thanks to political missteps, poor debate performances or just bad luck.
As of time of writing, the 2016 election campaign is very much underway. Currently, both major parties in the United States, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, are in the process of choosing their respective presidential nominees. Each state and territory holds primary elections to choose these candidates. Whoever wins the most support from the members of their own party then go on to face their opponent in November. Sounds simple, right? Unfortunately, the American primary system is a labyrinth full of strange rules and quirky processes that make it far from simple. Each state has a certain number of delegates allocated to them by the parties’ executive. Delegates are divided between candidates based on the number of votes they receive. These delegates then are bound to vote for a particular candidate at the party national convention, where the presidential nominee is proclaimed.
However, there is no national standard for how a presidential primary is conducted. Most delegates are divided proportionally based on the popular vote, but there are some exceptions. Some states, such as Ohio or Florida, award all delegates to whoever comes in first place. Some states hold “open” primaries where anyone, not just registered Democrats or Republicans, can participate, while others are “closed” off only to registered party supporters. Some states, the most famous being Iowa, hold caucuses rather than a primary. Caucuses function more like town meetings, where citizens gather not only to vote but to advocate for their chosen candidate. Early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire typically serve as a way of filtering out fringe candidates and those without the backing for a longer campaign. However, the 2016 campaign cycle has been possibly the most unconventional in decades, and the typical rules of American election campaigns are not applying.
On the Republican side, Donald Trump has dominated polls, airtime and debates, despite little support from the Republican Party’s establishment. After initially being dismissed as a joke candidate after his eyebrow-raising announcement speech branding Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, Trump rapidly rose to the top of GOP polling. He cemented his front-runner status with a comfortable victory in the New Hampshire primary, after placing a respectable second in Iowa behind conservative Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas). He followed these up with big wins in Nevada and South Carolina. Trump leads in both national polling and most of the states voting on March 1. On the Democratic side, the so-called “coronation” of Hillary Rodham Clinton has been disrupted by the rise of hitherto unknown Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. Sanders has ran a campaign reminiscent of Barack Obama’s in 2008, focusing on young people and students, describing himself as a “democratic socialist” who pledges to break up the big banks, make college education free and establish a single-payer healthcare system. While Clinton has overwhelming support from elected Democrats and party officials, courtesy of her status as a former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State, she has faltered somewhat as more progressive Democrats have switched their support to Sanders. In the Democrats’ Iowa caucus, Clinton narrowly defeated Sanders by a miniscule margin, while in New Hampshire she was defeated easily by Sanders. However, the campaign now moves to a series of predominantly Southern states. Clinton’s support among Democrats, according to polling, is strongest amongst African-Americans, Hispanics and more moderate Democrats- all of whom make up the majority of Democratic voters in these states. The twin rises of Trump and Sanders, previously figures on the political fringe, to mainstream attention, indicates that the 2016 election is truly unlike any other.
On Tuesday 1 March, known as “Super Tuesday”, 12 states go to the polls. Hillary Clinton’s crushing victory on February 27 in South Carolina’s primary election has invigorated her campaign and put her in the box seat for Tuesday’s elections (Wednesday afternoon Australian time). Clinton is aided by the fact that the states voting on Tuesday are predominantly Southern, with large numbers of African-American voters, who supported her by huge margins in South Carolina. If, as expected, Clinton replicates her SC performance, expect comfortable victories for her in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas and Virginia. Sanders is favoured to win his home state of Vermont, and be competitive in other states, including Massachusetts, Oklahoma and Minnesota. However, due to the fact that delegates are awarded proportionally, Sanders is likely to be well behind Clinton in terms of delegate numbers post-Tuesday, and may have to concede that his campaign is unlikely to succeed.
The GOP’s Super Tuesday is likely to be one where The Donald reigns supreme. FiveThirtyEight, a polling aggregator run by elections expert Nate Silver, favours Trump to win most states on the ballot. However, this is complicated by the fact that Ted Cruz is extremely likely to win his home state of Texas, and collect a large number of delegates owing to Texas’ status as the USA’s second-most populous state. Outside of Texas, Cruz’s polling numbers have faltered in the South, a region his campaign was expected to poll very strongly in. Cruz’s fall has emboldened the campaign of Marco Rubio, but even so, Rubio lags well behind Trump in most state polling. Rubio may end up collecting a handy number of delegates through second-places, but winning only one or two states (or none, as the case may be) would be damaging for his campaign. Rubio’s pitch is based around the concept that his youth, charisma and Hispanic background makes him the most electable Republican in a general election against Hillary Clinton. Failing to put in a good showing this Tuesday may dampen this somewhat.
By Wednesday afternoon (Australian time), we will have a far clearer picture of just who the two major candidates will be. In this most unpredictable and remarkable of American election years, anything could happen. Stay tuned.