A dear Canadian friend recently asked me to shed some light “on the morass of the American Electoral System” for them. I am happy to oblige.
The first thing to be aware of is that there are 2 types of campaigns during a Presidential nomination year. The first type is the race for the Presidential nomination for the two main parties in American politics; the Democratic Party and the Republican Party [sometimes referred to as the GOP – the Grand Old Party].
The second campaign will not start until after the first one is concluded with the selection of each party’s Presidential candidate at the National Party Conventions later this summer. It will conclude with the general election in November.
We have all been overwhelmed by the mass media coverage of the respective races for these nominations since April 2015! The very length of this process strikes us Canadians as “crazy”. It places unimaginable demands and scrutiny on the candidates as they try to establish themselves as the frontrunner in the contest. It requires vast sums of money to run a campaign but money alone does not guarantee success. Candidates need to constantly garner media attention – the more your name and face are in the limelight the more chances you have of securing financial backing. Positive media coverage is preferred but ultimately sustained coverage is most important. Money and media attention go hand in hand and each candidate hopes to generate the magic of success which is captured by momentum.
From January to June in an election year constitutes the season of the caucuses and primaries that each state holds to choose those delegates who will go to the National Party Convention. [check here for the 2106 schedule:[http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/us/elections/primary-calendar-and-results.html?_r=0 ] Since 1972 Iowa has gone first in this process holding its caucuses followed by the first primary in New Hampshire.
The caucus system requires voters to actually show up at a fixed time to an open meeting and express their presidential preference. It demands a greater time commitment on the part of the voter and typically has less participation than the primary system. Beware of February snowfalls in Iowa! In states that use a primary method of delegate selection, voters simply go to the polls casting a ballot. It is State laws that determine how delegates are allocated from these different selection models. For the Democratic Party, they use a form of proportional representation[PR]. The Republicans actually use 3 different methods, only one of which is PR.
It is worth noting that in the Democratic Party there is a category of delegate called Superdelegate. These are a left over from the old party elite system that was abandoned after the divisive 1968 Chicago convention. These party leaders, including incumbent politicians, are free to support any candidate they choose. Presently, out of the approximate 712 superdelegates Hillary Clinton has 451 to Bernie Sanders 19. This is a hefty lead as it only takes 2,383 delegate votes to win in this party.
There are potential problems with the front-loading of States in this process:
- there is less time to critically think about the candidates
- it makes States scheduled later in the process possibly irrelevant to the outcome.
It may also give to much power to the mass media to act in the capacity of the new kingmakers as they portray the candidates and determine what is worthy of coverage or not. Perception is crucial in these contests and in the end there can only be one winner!
By the time the party Convention occurs, the successful candidate is already known to everyone, and so they have been more recently like love-ins than places for great speeches and drama. Consequently, they have received much less media coverage which is a shame because it is actually here that the party will discuss and finalize its party platform before the second campaign begins.
Once each party has selected its champions, the second campaign for election to office starts and the intensity of the scrutiny of the mass media and the electorate begins anew.