06 January 2008

How American Elections Work

I got an interesting question e-mailed by my mom's cousin, John Courtis, who lives in England (Suffolk).
I must confess to a longterm lack of understanding about these. What are your readings about the Iowa outcome? We only get our 'news' filtered through 'journalists' and 'experts' of mixed authority.

I just had to answer, and I liked my reply so much, I'll post it for you to enjoy, too (I hope).
Interesting question, John.

I have to admit that the thought of an 11-month election campaign is exhausting just to think about, and I haven't given it the scrutiny that it deserves. The presidential primary for Tennessee, the state where Patsy and I live, isn't until February 5, by which time there may be only one or two contenders left in each of the major parties--although this is the most wide-open primary season we have had since 1988.

The ingenious/frustrating thing that the framers of the US Constitution set up was a federated system that was really a United group of States rather than a single, centralized nation. For that reason, states choose delegates for the August nominating conventions through a system of primaries (secret ballot votes) or caucuses (public voting in a forum). The fact is that it is up to the states when they want to have their primaries. Basically the August nominating convention is the official stage where delegates from the states (elected in the winter) formally choose the nominee. I don't think a nomination has come down to the convention since the 1950s, and it is usually a foregone conclusion.

Traditionally, Iowa and New Hampshire have been the first two sites, but this year larger states like California and Florida moved their primaries up to February 5 in order to have a bigger impact on the nominating process. As a result, a half-dozen other states jumped in, and Iowa and New Hampshire moved their elections up to just a few days after New Year's.

I guess the comparison here would be for Brown and Cameron--in order to get their parties' nominations--would first have to win polls in places like Suffolk and Lincolnshire, competing against other members of their own party first.

As far as the results, I think that Barack Obama has a unique angle on the nomination (personally, I support Bill Richardson, governor of America's most beautiful state, New Mexico, and was Ambassador to the UN and Energy Secretary under President Clinton). He seems to be the only one from either party that seems intent on uniting the country. That's why he brought out such a strong independent vote in Iowa.

Personally, I find Hillary Clinton highly qualified (second to Richardson), and I would vote for her in a general election. But she has a lot of baggage, and doesn't inspire people in the way that Obama does. The Right hates her--and left-leaning Americans like me cringe at the thought of another anything-goes election scramble.

American elections since the Vietnam War have been similar to exercises in trench warfare. Both sides are dug in. No offensive against the other party is out of bounds--no means of attack too severe, and the electorate is split. An American president hasn't received a 50.1%+ majority of the nation's votes since 1988. The party most adept at this warfare is the Republican party. They have lost only three elections in 40 years: one two years after the infamous Watergate scandal (Jimmy Carter), and two when independent Ross Perot divided the vote (Clinton).

We saw how, in 2004, they attacked a decorated war veteran like John Kerry for cowardice, and elevated a glorified war evader in George W. Bush to re-election. Personally, I won't believe that they can lose this election until the last vote is counted--if it is counted at all.

I'm not sure if that answers all of your questions. I haven't written much about the Republican candidates, because I don't follow that side as closely. None of them are criticizing President Bush right now, because they are merely courting the votes of Republicans--the 27% of the populace that still seems to approve of the job he has done wrecking the country. That may seem surprising to those of you overseas, but it's very, very true.

Congratulations to Dorothy on her book deal! I'm quite jealous. Ironically, I'm listening to my iPod as I write this, and "Rule Britannia" just played (I had downloaded it for a lesson I taught on English patriotic songs at my high school last year). "Britons never shall be slaves!!" I love it.


April McNulty said...

Suprisingly, Hilary won the New Hampshire primary. I like John Edwards, but it looks like the others are the front runners. I like Barack Obama. I think the Democrats have a good chance of winning the election!

Anonymous said...

I love and appreicate your well written letter. I just recieved an e mail from my dear French friends, posing the same question! I found your letter while looking for information. I look forward to voting in California on the 5 TH of February....but I am still undecided!