The Head, Nicola Huggett

A few thoughts on... The American Elections

We were lucky enough to welcome Neil Parish, our local MP here, last Friday to speak to the Politics students in the Lower 6. He was able to give us a fascinating outlook on many of the issues that are talked about in Parliament today. But in the short time since his visit, over half term, there has been a great deal of excitement generated on political topics both here and abroad. In the UK it is now decided that we will have a referendum on whether we give up our membership of the EU. Many of you in the U6 will be able to experience your first opportunity to vote in that decision and so will get a first-hand view of democracy in action. I hope that all those who are able to vote, will do so.

We often look to the United States as one of the most effective democracies in the world. They certainly have a huge range of different elections, where they vote for state and federal representatives, judges, police chiefs, and even school governors, amongst many other public positions.

However, there is a lot about the US system that is far less than the democratic ideal. The Presidential electoral system is essentially a three stage process that lasts well over a year in order to elect a new President. You may feel that we are already well on the way, with all the coverage the personalities in the race have gained, but actually it is not nearly completed yet. The first stage involves all the Republican and Democrat candidates battling it out just to become their parties’ choice of candidate. The second part is where the two main contenders fight it out between each other (with their vice presidential running mates) to become President.

The third stage comes after the public vote, between November and December, when the Electoral College delegates cast their final votes to represent their state's view of who should be President. You can win the popular vote and yet still lose the Presidency, as Al Gore found to his cost in 2000.

At the moment we are in the middle of the first stage - the primaries which mean that candidates from the two main parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, are travelling the country, trying to gain popularity and publicity as each state chooses their candidate. The person who wins the most primaries will be chosen by their party to run for President.

The primaries are a good testing ground in many ways to see who has the election popularity to be able to secure voters' interest. They are very open elections and so democracy is served. The first primary is always New Hampshire, and despite it being a very tiny US state, it is always thought to be a good predictor of what will happen in the main race. Or at least it has so far.

There were a number of different candidates who battled it out in these early election contests. For the Republicans, they included Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who is financing most of his campaign himself, Marcio Rubio (Senator from Florida), Ted Cruz (Senator from Texas), Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida and brother of George W Bush, and John Kasich, the Governor of Ohio. For the Democrats they included former secretary of state and first lady, Hillary Clinton, and Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

No matter how good you are at campaigning however, the most difficult hurdle that has to be overcome by all candidates is the sheer cost of running a campaign. In 2012, the total spent on all the federal campaigns, for elections to the House, Senate and the Presidency came to a staggering $7 billion.

Candidates spend approximately 51 dollars on trying to win over every registered voter and there is no doubt that wealthy special interests or lobby groups spend a huge amount of money on supporting candidates in the hope they will get favours later on. That certainly is one of the flaws in US democracy. This has become even more open to abuse since a court case called Citizens United back in 2010.

If you spend any time in the States between now and November, you will be barraged on TV and radio by all sorts of political advertising that we are very unused to here. I think our system, which limits the campaign to just four weeks or so and does not allow paid TV advertising, is far better and cheaper in that respect. There is certainly something to be said for not wearing everyone down, as turnout in these primary elections is often as little as 25% of the electorate, and even in the final election, it can be as little as 50%.

This year has thrown up a lot of surprises. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have done impressively well so far. Both men have defined themselves by their opposition to the mainstream political ideas. They have, according to many journalists, ‘said things that would be regarded as political suicide in a normal year’. But amazingly perhaps, disaffected voters have rallied to their support. That is a very worrying aspect for the future of US democracy. It will be very interesting to see in the next few weeks and months whether there is any backlash against this huge media hype and over the top spending within the US elections. We will have to wait and see if Hilary Clinton can win over the female voters she seems to have lost, and will any of the other Republican candidates be able to challenge Donald Trump?

However, one real issue for US democracy has not had the coverage it should have – and it potentially could have far-reaching effects – that is the death last week of Supreme court judge, Antonin Scalia. He was one of the most conservative judges on the Supreme court, which is already finely balanced between the four liberals and 5 conservatives on the court. Scalia’s replacement (who will be chosen by the current liberal President Obama) could radically change the balance of the court.

This one new justice could bring a huge amount of change to the big issues coming through the American courts at the moment, whether they involve gun control, immigration, or civil liberties and that could be even more important and long lasting than the results of the primaries. That is a news story to keep a look out for, long after the high profile candidates have spent all their funds.