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Who? How? Why! The U.S. Election Explained

Photos: Rex
You’ll have heard word recently from America of some sort of voting in Iowa and New Hampshire. Shots of banners in red, white and blue are being sent around the globe, and smear campaigns are underway. It can only mean that the snarling beast that is the U.S. presidential election season is fully up and running. And like that scene in The Revenant in which Leonardo DiCaprio gets savaged by a bear, this thing is pretty grizzly, a little scary, not always clear who you’re rooting for, vaguely comical, and really, really long.

To paraphrase David Byrne, well, how did we get here?

Party down

The Democratic and Republican parties both use a series of state by state primary and caucus votes, largely of registered members, to select candidates to contest the presidential election in November. The primaries are run by state governments along the lines of any state ballot, while caucuses are run by the parties and require people to show up at an allotted venue for a few hours to debate and select a candidate. Though, of course, there are exceptions, anomalies and addendums to all of this.

The votes kicked off
on February 1st with the Iowa caucuses followed by the New Hampshire primaries. Next up for the Republicans is the South Carolina primary this weekend (February 20th), with the Democratic caucus in Nevada on the same day.

These state votes continue up until June with the presidential candidates being officially nominated at the respective parties’ national conventions in late July. Each state is allocated a number of delegates in proportion to its size; the biggest state gets the most delegates and so on. Those delegates are then doled out at the conventions according to the votes in the primaries and the caucuses: on the Democratic side, this is done via a proportional allocation; for the Republicans, some states do the same, while others opt for a winner-takes-all approach of giving all the delegates to the winner of their vote. There are also a number of ‘superdelegates’, who are affiliated to the parties and get a say in the nominating process outside of the state votes.

Now might be a time to down a shot of whiskey.
Though party conventions are in July, it’s often clear much sooner as to who the nominees will be. Super Tuesday, which takes place this year on March 1st, is so known as it is the day in which the most primaries and caucuses are held. Often by the end of March, particular candidates will start to amass significant leads, while others cut their losses and drop out.

Though it can also be much closer, as was the case in 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton duked it out for the Democratic nomination for months, with Obama finally getting over the line in June.

This year, on either side, with opinions sharply divided, candidates having lots of money to spend, and voters tending to upend conventional wisdom by going against party approved picks, it could again drag on for months. Or not. Nobody knows.

More whiskey.

The Democrats
Hillary* Clinton

Hillary Clinton has been the favourite to be the Democratic nomination for president since precisely November 3rd 2004, the day after John Kerry lost the election to George W Bush, leaving her the senior figure in her party. This, in many ways, has been her problem. She’s basically always just been around – lots of people, for better and for worse, have already made up their minds about her.

In 2008 she was supposed to have a procession to the nomination but it got undone by Barack Obama’s inspiring campaign. She eventually took that bitter defeat on the chin and served in Obama’s cabinet as Secretary of State, bolstering her reputation and credentials.

Policy-wise she is very much in line with mainstream Democratic values: she wants to curb gun ownership, she’s pro-choice, she makes claims about supporting the middle class and wants to raise taxes on the wealthy. On foreign policy she is far more hawkish than Obama.

Her four year role as Secretary of State, coupled with her time as a senator, not to mention being First Lady for the eight years of husband Bill’s presidency, was meant to signal her unassailable challenge for the Democratic nomination this time. She’s been endorsed from high by senior figures in her party and has an array of celebrity backers from JJ Abrams and Lena Dunham, to Sheryl Sandberg and Steven Spielberg (also Corey Feldman). She’s got a vast amount of experience, has been fighting the good fight for general Democratic causes for years, and bloody hell, it’s time a woman was elected president.

And yet, and yet, Hillary finds herself fighting for her life again.

There is the lingering whiff of scandal and intrigue that always follows her around, from recent issues surrounding speaking engagements with Goldman Sachs and ties to Wall St generally, to her private email server controversy, and stretching all the way back through her’s and Bill’s public life.

Hillary just seems to be not very good at campaigning. She struggles to bring the sense of uplift and excitement that Obama brought before, and her opponent this time, Bernie Sanders, is bringing now. She gets defensive (though often this seems understandable) and appears inauthentic – young people in particular don’t seem to like her.

Regardless, despite a virtual tie in Iowa with Bernie Sanders and taking a shellacking in New Hampshire, she has significant leads in subsequent states so she should be able to win, perhaps even comfortably in the end. On the other hand, it might just get a little hairy.

(* Full disclosure: despite Hillary being in the public eye for several decades, I still have to check every time to see if her name has one 'L' or two; it’s two, folks).
Bernie Sanders

It seems inconceivable that a 74-year-old committed socialist, who sounds like a guy having an argument in a New York diner (that is, Larry David), could be a genuine contender to be U.S. president but that is where we’re at.

When Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, got into the race it was assumed that his main role would be to get more left-wing causes aired by the Democratic establishment, but since last summer his momentum has grown with huge numbers attending his rallies. In contrast to Hillary, younger voters are hugely on his side.

Sanders’ main issues are income inequality, breaking up the big banks, and limiting corporate spending in campaigns. He also proposes to launch a universal, government provided healthcare for all citizens. Though he says a lot of what people want to hear, backing good issues and making great arguments, how he would actually get any of the things he proposes done as president remains much more unclear.

The Democratic establishment also worries that his left-leaning politics would be much less palatable when faced with the full electorate in November. Very few of the party are backing him for now: celebrity-wise he’s got the rapper Killer Mike and Emily Ratajkowski on his side.

Sanders has had good showings in the first two votes but the road gets harder from here. However, if he can start to pick up another early primary victory or two, more people might be attracted to his campaign.

Martin O’Malley

I think Martin O’Malley has dropped out of the race. I don’t know if he ever actually existed.

The Republicans
Donald Trump

Donald Trump is the frontrunner to be the Republican nominee. Sometimes you still have to repeat it to yourself: Donald Trump is the frontrunner to be the Republican nominee.

It’s become a cliché to liken much of American politics to something out of Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s 2006 broad satire imagining the U.S. 500 years in the future where the forces of anti-intellectualism and commercialism converge in a monumental confederacy of dunces. With Donald Trump in the picture, you can also compare the situation to Biff in Back the Future 2, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, a few chapters of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, King Ralph and looking at your own faeces in the toilet bowl.

It’s huge, compelling, horrifying, bizarre, funny, weird, nauseating.

The billionaire property mogul has insulted pretty much everyone that can be insulted in this campaign. He’s played into voters’ most base instincts and fears; he’s been racist and misogynist; jokingly threatened to shoot someone; all the while offering essentially no discernable, achievable policies.

He continues to lead in the polls no matter what he does.

Being a veteran of reality TV gameshows, he does very well in the TV debates – especially as they increasingly resemble particularly bad reality TV – but everyone assumed that when the serious business of voting arrived, people would act sensibly. And so it seemed after he lost the Iowa caucus to Ted Cruz, despite leading in the advance polls. Except Donald then pummeled the opposition in New Hampshire.

This thing, which would have seemed like a pretty half-assed plot in a film a decade ago, might actually happen.

Ted Cruz

The senator from Texas has become the candidate of choice for the hard-right base of the Republican party: Ted Cruz is anti-abortion, anti-immigration reform, anti-environmental reform, anti-gay marriage, anti-Obamacare. He’s found a hateful position on most issues.

The foremost insight to have arrived in this political season comes from American journalist David Plotz who said that Ted Cruz is the candidate he would most like to slap round the face.

Any article or analysis of Ted Cruz includes at least one person saying what an asshole he is. Here is a comprehensive list of people who think Cruz is a jerk.

The only person who would truly be happy if Cruz won is the actor Ken Marino who would be guaranteed to play him in the TV movie of the 2016 election.

Marco Rubio

Young, good looking and the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio is the candidate Democrats have feared. He has become the choice of establishment, mainstream Republicans, and is seen as a more moderate candidate with the possibility of crossover appeal. That said, he’s a product of the Tea Party insurrection in the Republican party, and though he sugarcoats it a little, he’s vehemently to the right on most issues.

A senator from Florida, Rubio had been trucking along in the campaign nicely: slowly building some support and momentum, he came third in the Iowa caucus. Then came a disastrous TV debate performance two weeks ago, in which he was taunted for using the same memorised 25 second speech, which he then proceeded to regurgitate three times, earning him the nickname Marcobot. This led to a terrible fifth place finish in New Hampshire.

Ah, Jeb Bush. He has done something truly remarkable in making some people actually feel sorry for a member of the Bush family. As evinced by this “please clap” video.

When Bush entered the race last year, he looked a firm favourite: he seemed to have the backing of many mainstream Republicans, he had raised the most money for his campaign, and he had widespread name recognition. Then he started campaigning and it all blew up in his face. Jeb has run a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad campaign which has mainly seen him get bullied by Donald Trump for the last six months. There has been some mild improvements in form of late but he has a long way to go.

The highpoint of his election campaign thus far has been the jaunty exclamation mark on his Jeb! campaign logo.

John Kasich

Showing an inclination towards compromise and actual governing while admitting climate change is real, the Governor of Ohio sounds vaguely like someone who wouldn’t make you wake up in a cold sweat at night if he was elected president. He has become the moderate hope in the Republican race. However, he’s strongly anti-abortion.

A decent second place showing in New Hampshire has given Kasich hope, but he’s a long way behind Trump.

Ben Carson

Ben Carson appears to still be in the race, though he often sounds like your uncle who has just woken up from a nap in the sunshine. In the Republican TV debate on the weekend, he cited Joseph Stalin but it turned out to be a fake quote from a Facebook meme.

For a brief period last summer, Carson, who was a celebrated neurosurgeon, had a surge in the polls propelled by the same anti-politician fervour that has propelled Donald Trump to the top of the polls. He’s struggled ever since.
The Third Candidate

Every so often a third candidate gets into the presidential race in a big way, running as an independent or for a smaller party, such as billionaire businessman Ross Perot in 1992 and Green Party candidate and activist Ralph Nader in 2000.

Former New York mayor – and billionaire (it’s a recurring theme) – Michael Bloomberg flirted with running in 2012 and once again is making noises about throwing his hat in the ring this time around. He would have more than enough money to finance his own campaign running on a fiscally conservative, socially liberal ticket.

Despite his vast resources, the chances of Bloomberg running still seem very slim. If he did get in the race, he would find it very difficult to mount a significant challenge for the White House – though the commentator Jonathan Chait offers a vision of how it might happen here.

Bloomberg is clearly a very smart guy so you would think he’s wise enough to know – or has enough advisors to tell him – that a presidential run will probably amount to little more than an ego trip.

Then again, billionaire moguls are often minded to think they know best. And as James Murphy sang of Bloomberg in New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, “Your mild billionaire mayor’s now convinced he’s a king.” Maybe now he’s convinced he’s a president?
How’s it going to end? ‘NKA’

Anyone who gives you a definitive opinion on how this election is going to go is bullshitting you. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.

Perceived wisdom has been upended continually in this election cycle, just as it was when Barack defeated Hillary in 2008.

It’s a well-worn trope to invoke the Hollywood maxim of William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything”. This doesn’t mean people are morons, just that according to the book, in the film industry nobody really knows how well a film will do until it’s actually released. Similarly in this election, until the endless votes are cast, no one really knows how it’s going to play out. You can point to Nate Silver and the predictions of polls, but even their accuracy is waning. Trump was supposed to be gone by now. Trump is not gone. Hillary is down. Hillary is up. Bernie’s a sideshow. Bernie can actually win. Pundits and political analysts will be continually jerking awkwardly around the dancefloor.

Nobody knows anything.